On Turning 30, or, the Milestones of my 20s

Yesterday was my 30th birthday. I had a wonderful day and was made to feel very special! As I leave my 20s behind I’ve been thinking about the last ten years.

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I don’t remember my 20th birthday. I think I was pretty excited to leave my teens. I don’t know that I ever sat down and thought about my expectations for my 20s, but I can tell you the major milestones I assumed I would see: graduation, marriage, a baby or two. Although these assumptions were pretty accurate for many of my friends (and as a side note, I so appreciate my friends who enthusiastically include me in their family life), I only managed the first one. Even though there were times in my early 20s when I really struggled with not having met ‘the one’ (a concept I’m not so sure I believe in anymore), I can honestly say that I’m extremely thankful that my life didn’t go the way I assumed it would, because I don’t think I would have ended up the person I am now (who I quite like, most of the time). It appears that God knows what’s best for me better than I do!

To write down all the experiences – and more importantly, the people – who have shaped my 20s would take hours, maybe even days, so instead I want to mark down a few important milestones.

The summer I was 20 I was asked to be a team leader at a local summer scheme (after being on the team since I was 16). Actually I agreed (reluctantly) to cover as team leader for the first two days, but somehow ended up doing it for the whole two weeks! At 23 I started co-coordinating the summer scheme. I developed practical wisdom about leadership and working with kids, but I also learnt that people believed I could lead – something I hadn’t expected and didn’t understand. This milestone was incredibly influential in my development and belief in myself as a leader and I was blessed with awesome mentors.

Also at age 20, I studied in France and then in Spain as part of my degree. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this laid a foundation for me to become a missionary, as I learnt that home is anywhere I am because God is always with me; as I watched other missionaries live incredible lives in very different ways than I had imagined; as I attended language school; as I learnt how to live well in a different culture; as I discovered Skype!

Again at 20 I was diagnosed with Coeliac Disease. The day before I left for France in fact. When I was almost 22, God healed me. Amazing! This is a longer story than I have space for in this post, but you can listen to me talk about it here.

I graduated at 22 and started my teacher training. The summer I graduated I attended at least four weddings (and couldn’t make it to one or two more). It feels like all I did was attend weddings in my early 20s!

I qualified as a teacher and moved back to Northern Ireland at 23. Starting over in the place you’ve called ‘home’ all along is a strange and not-so-fun experience, but it was worth all the effort. The relationships I have there are beyond what I could have imagined or hoped for.

Not long after turning 26, I was ‘approaching’ (by which I mean hurtling towards) burnout. At the time, I’d have said I enjoyed being busy. Now, I’d say I got my self-worth from the things I was doing. God spoke to me and told me to stop volunteering for a year – to take time out with Him. A year of rest and restoration. The idea was both a relief (I knew I was close to crashing hard) and frightening (who was I without all this activity?!)

That year, I invested in relationships more than activities, especially my relationship with God. I learnt that my identity is not in what I do. I realised that I had spent most of my life feeling inadequate and unlikable, trying to please everyone but never believing I had succeeded. I learnt that I didn’t have to live like that. I learnt that there are people who genuinely think I am amazing, and even started to believe them. I learnt that I didn’t have to live with the sadness and hopelessness that had characterized my life for the past few years. I learnt the meaning of God as life-giver and joy-bringer. It was like emerging from a desert, spiritually. I’m still learning how to walk out what I learnt that year, the year I was 26 turning 27.

One of the unexpected outcomes of that year was this blog. As I shared what God had done in me more and more publicly, I was overwhelmed and humbled by the response. It became clear that my ‘little’ story could impact other people’s stories – I never dreamt God could use me in this way! That’s partly why I blog – in the hope that my journey might make a difference to someone else. You can read more about one of the highlights of this significant year of my life here, or listen to me share here, or even watch me (very briefly) on video here.

Just before my 27th birthday, my sister got married. It was an incredible day and an important milestone. Even better – and I could never have imagined how mind-blowingly amazing this would be – at 29 I became an auntie. I have never loved someone so instantly and so completely – my niece stole my heart the moment I first laid eyes on her. My world is infinitely better with her in it.

To finish my year of restoration I had a 6-week holiday visiting friends in the USA and Canada. It was incredible in many ways, but the lasting impact was that I realized (or rather, remembered) that I was called to mission during this trip. It was also the time when some of my misconceptions about me doing mission were corrected. For example, I finally figured out that I didn’t have to wait to get married before I could consider becoming a missionary! So the trip became a catalyst that led to what I’m doing now.

There’s plenty on this blog already about my Thailand journey – the year I spent seeking God and exploring what He wanted me to commit to long-term by volunteering at a community development project in Chiang Mai and then completing a YWAM DTS (Discipleship Training School) in Bangkok. Watch me talk about it here.  I fell in love with Thailand and it’s people and moved back here 6 months ago to become Education Director at ARK International. It’s amazing how God has drawn together many of my experiences and skills to make me ready for this role and this life.

My 20s were not all easy, but they were good. Psalm 73: 23-26 says this:

Yet I am always with you;

you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

This has been the cry of my heart for the last ten years. God has never let me go and He never will.

To all the people who have impacted and influenced me over the past ten years, whether we’re still close or haven’t talked in a long time, thank you. I haven’t forgotten you and I wouldn’t be the person I am today if you hadn’t been in my life. I’m sorry for the times I’ve frustrated or offended you and I forgive you for the times you have frustrated and offended me. May you be blessed as you journey through life and may God reveal Himself to you in new ways.

Old Year, New Year: Reflections and Expectations

Disclaimer: This is not what I sat down to write. I wrote as the year changed. It’s late and I’m tired. So I’m not sure anyone else will make sense of my thoughts, but I needed to write them anyway.

2012. Where to start?! How to sum it up?

It’s been brilliant, stretching, hard, fun, exciting, God-filled. I feel that now, at last, I’m going out there and grabbing fistfuls of life, living life to the full, letting God’s life fill me and shape me. 2 years ago, I was so weary of the battle, the spiritual battle, that I couldn’t quite see how to go on fighting. Now, I say bring it on. I will not give up or give in or give ground to the enemy. I will stand firm. I will fight, as God gives me strength. More often, I’ll let him fight for me as he holds me by my right hand (Psalm 73:23). I have understood more deeply this year the truth of 2 Corinthians 12:9:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

It’s when I know I am weak that God’s strength can really be seen and experienced. I am experiencing new depths of God’s grace, faithfulness, power and love. I can’t put into words how incredible he is.

The start of my mission journey has been amazing. Of course, 2012 wasn’t really the start at all and I’m not sure I could pinpoint when it really began. But actually moving to Thailand, not knowing when (if) I’ll ever live in Northern Ireland again, was amazing. Whenever I’ve lived elsewhere before, it’s always been for a finite, given time period. This is different. More exciting, more unknown, sometimes scarier but also so incredibly right. I am living as who I was created to be. Am I getting it right all the time? No. But this is a God-adventure, a lifelong commitment to follow him where he leads. How could it get any better than this?

Of course there’s sacrifice. Of course sometimes it’s hard and I get bogged down in the details of life and I miss petty and unimportant things, like ant-free kitchens and custard creams. I miss my church. I miss people I’ve had to say goodbye to. Yet I don’t quite fit in Belfast anymore. I have loved being home for Christmas and seeing so many people I care about, but this isn’t quite where I belong now. Things have changed, moved on, without me. I’ve changed. I don’t miss my life before Thailand.

So I’m excited to go back in a few days. I’m excited about what God has in store in the coming weeks and months. I’m excited to see where I’ll be living, what I’ll be doing, who I’ll be at the end of 2013. I expect to see God do great things, in and through both me and those around me. I expect to be challenged and changed. Bring it on!

Identity

I was thinking through some things last night and got round to thinking about identity. It’s a theme that has come up in my life fairly often over the past few years. In fact, I just found a blog post on this very topic that I didn’t publish. There’s plenty I could write about identity in general, or my identity in particular, but really there’s just one thing I want to say today: I’m so thankful that my identity comes from Jesus. I’m thankful that no one else can tell me who I am (or who I should be!) – not other people, not Satan, not even me.

Only God can define my identity. He calls me daughter and friend, beautiful and beloved, redeemed and precious and free. That’s who I am. A daughter of the King. And no one can change that or say otherwise.

There’s a song that says:

All my changes come from Him, He who never changes
I’m held firm in the grasp of the Rock of all the Ages

I love that! How reassuring that the one who gives me my identity never changes, but he continues to transform me, even as I remain secure in him.

A Revelation

I had a revelation today. It’s not world-changing or anything, but I thought I’d share it. Actually, it’s pretty life-changing for me. In our team meeting this morning, we were worshipping and praying and I suddenly realised that I like myself. I like who God has made me to be. I’m not only comfortable with who I am, but I’m glad he made me this way. I like me.

Maybe that sounds a bit weird, but if you’ve known me for a while you’ll know that this is fairly revolutionary. A couple of years ago my view of myself was pretty low. I remember writing ‘I despise myself’. I doubted my own abilities and worth. I’ve been on a journey of healing and freedom in many areas of my life and one of them has been overcoming inadequacy. Before I came to Thailand I’d have said I’d completely overcome this and I was living in the security of who I am in Christ, much more confident in myself and my God-given worth and abilities. The first few weeks in Thailand, feelings of total inadequacy returned with surprising intensity and I fought that battle all over again. As a good friend reminded me, ‘if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’ (John 8:36) She thinks maybe this is my ‘free indeed’, as I learn to live secure in my identity in a very different culture and spiritual atmosphere. God has been so faithful in fighting for me and negative feelings about myself have been gone for weeks now.

But I don’t think I’ve EVER, in my whole life, had the thought that I like myself. So it feels like a seismic shift in my thinking. I can agree with this verse at a much deeper level now.

For you created my inmost being;


you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,


I know that full well.

Psalm 139:13-14

I’m not saying there’s nothing I’d change about myself or that I like all of the things I think, say and do. I’m just saying I’m happy to be me. And I think that’s a really good place to be.

Happy to be me 🙂

 

Flying free!

 

Why ‘Rivers of Joy’?

I thought it might be good to explain where the blog name came from. It’ll give you an insight into a little bit of my journey so far. Apologies to those of you who have heard this story many times already (although this is the longer version so you probably haven’t heard it all).

For as long as I can remember, when I thought about the fruit of the Spirit I knew joy was something I struggled with. I could see growth in my life regarding the rest of the spiritual fruit, but joy always seemed to elude me and nothing I did made any difference. I thought about joy, prayed about joy, prayed for joy, asked God why I didn’t have joy, read books about joy, sang songs about joy, had joy spoken over me by others, set my phone’s welcome note to ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength’… but never seemed to be able to experience joy. It’s not that I was unhappy. I had good days and bad days like everyone else. I would say I was generally content with life. I loved God and knew he loved me. There seemed no reason why I wasn’t able to grow in joy.

About five years ago I started to become sad, all the time. Actually, I don’t really know when it started, it was such a gradual thing, but I know that by five years ago I had noticed. Again, it’s not that I was never happy or life was terrible, but I always had an underlying sadness that just wouldn’t shift. It wasn’t like what I know of depression. It was just a feeling of sadness. I got to the stage where I believed it was a part of me, of my personality, and that I just had to get used to it as it was never going to change. In journal entries I refer to giving ‘my sadness’ to God, to worshipping him even in it. Looking back, I can see that I accepted it, owned it as mine.

At the same time, I had started living day to day, just praying for the strength to get through. I had stopped dreaming and had no vision; I had stopped hoping for something better. I spent a lot of time feeling empty and aimless, wondering what God had planned for my life, searching for some kind of change. I thought about different jobs – even applied for a couple. I knew teaching wasn’t going to be my life-long career but I couldn’t think of anything else I really wanted to do. At times I got glimpses of something I could be passionate about, but only glimpses. I felt lost, sometimes lonely, often inadequate, and always sad underneath it all.

In May 2010, God spoke to me very clearly and told me to stop volunteering for one year (ironically, this happened at a conference about volunteering). At that point, I was involved in leading children’s and youth work in church, leading a cell/small group, had just led a mission trip in my Easter holidays and was preparing for the summer scheme I coordinated. I was also a full-time primary school teacher. I was burnt out, but the idea of stopping terrified me. I realised I got a lot of my self-worth from all the stuff I was doing.

I did stop. I took a year – September 2010 to August 2011 – and I didn’t volunteer. I was still busy, but my mindset was that this was a year set aside for God to do what he wanted with me. There were lots of things that needed to change and I won’t go into all of them now, but I never imagined that losing the sadness would be part of the year – I had stopped thinking that was possible.

In January I started attending a course called ‘Cleansing Stream’ at my church (slightly cheesy name but such a good course!) I was eagerly anticipating what God might do through it and went with an open heart to receive whatever he wanted to give me. Towards the end of the course there was a retreat with teaching and prayer ministry for a whole range of areas. There were a lot of important moments where issues I’ve carried for years just fell away, like my constant sense of inadequacy, and interestingly every prayer for me mentioned joy.

Then came the session on ‘Death’. I had no idea what this might be about, but the teaching explained that a spirit of death can cause death in your spirit (not knowing God), body (sickness or physical death) or your soul. Death in your soul looks like lack of vision and hope, feelings of depression and despair. It was as if someone was describing my life and I was stunned. As I was listening it slowly sank in – this could change! I could change! I didn’t have to be sad! Everyone gets prayer for every topic at Cleansing Stream and mostly it’s not very dramatic or even very long. But after I prayed and received prayer regarding this spirit of death, I was filled with joy, pretty much instantly. I’ve never experienced anything like it. All my sadness was gone just like that! I spent the next couple of weeks literally bouncing round my house, jumping up and down with joy, inexpressible joy.

That was over a year ago and I can say with absolute truth that I am always joyful now. Of course sometimes I have bad days and sometimes I get upset, but the underlying feeling is joy, all the time. It’s absolutely my reality. It took some time to change my thought patterns and I had a few months when I would have to consciously choose life over death, joy over sadness. Now, however, it is so much a part of me that I never doubt that I have joy. I feel like a different person and others have said they can see a big difference in me. I continue to be overwhelmed and so very grateful for what God has done for me, day after day, year after year. I’m walking in intimacy with him like I’ve never experienced before. And, with the rebirth of hope, I started to dream big dreams again, to have new vision. Which is where Thailand comes in…

So this blog is called ‘Rivers of Joy’ because joy is always flowing through me now, like a river, never ending. I am so blessed. And I can finally truly say ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength’.