What Really Matters – Really?

Several weeks ago I perched on a stool in our driveway, watching people come and go from our garage sale. Some glided through in a steady loop, their eyes running quickly over our wares as they looked for that one particular item. Some tried to haggle, at times offering ridiculously low amounts in the hope of getting a bargain. Others lingered, asking us our story, telling us theirs. A few asked for cuttings from some of our shrubs and passed on gardening tips in exchange.

Many visitors left with arms laden with ‘treasures’– items that were useful to them and rich in history for us. There were plants I’d lovingly nurtured, hefty bookshelves that had called us to delve into yet another of the stories they displayed, worn camping gear, garden tools, children’s clothing and baby toys.

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So many possessions walked down our driveway that day – yet I felt no sorrow. Those things had been useful to us but parting with them wasn’t painful. They were only ‘things’, after all. It was the experiences, the people we connected with them that gave them value.

Five years ago, as I lay in a hospital bed, seriously ill, I had a revelation that has changed the way I view life. I have a feeling those chatty people at our garage sale have discovered the same truth.

Material possessions serve a purpose in our lives. But, as far as life on this earth goes, people are all that matters.

I’ll say that once more.

People are all that matters.

Despite our need and often our yearning for ‘stuff’, it will all ultimately wear out. It serves a purpose and perhaps brings us pleasure for a time, but its value is limited to what it helps us accomplish. People, only people, are the ones with whom we connect at the deepest level, often in a way that impacts eternity.

In the final weeks we spent in Tasmania, it was time with people I was savouring. People who’d walked with us through our marriage, the birth of each of our children, times of anxiety, fear and doubt, times of sickness, times of celebration. People who’d prayed with us, spoken words of hope in seasons of despair and stepped in with offers of practical help. I took every opportunity to talk, eat, laugh and yes, cry, with these who were dear to my heart.

Tasmania is an amazing place to call home – an island full of history, natural beauty, delicious food and countless opportunities for adventure. We’d lived an idyllic life nestled amidst rolling hills. Yet it wasn’t the loss of all those things that had tears welling  as our plane departed two weeks ago. It was the people I was leaving behind.

Now we’re creating a home in our new location, we’re gathering new stuff. Over the past ten days we’ve bought or been given more material things than we would have collected in the previous few years. Couches, electrical goods, plants, pots, a pool, barbecue and outdoor setting have all made their way through our front door – with more still to come. We’ve been so thankful for every piece and its part in making our home run well.

But it’s more than function that’s in my heart as I help shift each item into place. I’m dreaming about relationships. What conversations will our family have around the table? Who will we welcome onto our back deck for barbecues? What stories, what journeys will be shared in this home in the days to come?

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There’s a phrase that has often run through my head since that revelation five years ago. Quietly it guides my treatment of others, chiding me when I start to fear or judge, challenging me to step outside my comfort zone. These two simple words have been inscribed on my heart by my Father’s loving hand and now echo through my days.

You matter.

It’s a phrase for me, yes – an assurance that God sees me and will take care of my needs. But more so it’s a phrase about the people around me, all people, no matter who they are or how different their values are to mine. Each one has been created by God and He loves them with an intensity that led Him to give His very best – Jesus – for them. Because they matter to Him, they should matter to me.  Don’t all of us need that assurance – that we matter – in a culture that is so often focused on the needs and desires of the individual?

It’s January 1st today. Maybe, as we reflect and prepare for a new year, it’s time to broaden our focus from our own dreams and ambitions. Maybe we need to ask ourselves this question: If people really are all that matter, how will that be reflected in the goals and priorities I set for this year? And what am I hoping to see when I look back in twelve months’ time?

It’s worth some thought.

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“The wisdom of the wise is to give thought to their ways…” Proverbs 14:8.

Purpose in the Pain

My struggle that morning caught me by surprise. It was the same staff prayer meeting I went to each Tuesday. Normally I relished listening to one of my colleagues speak then joining a small group to pray. But on that particular day, captive in the front row – the only seating left when I arrived – I felt terribly conspicuous. At any moment, I was certain, I would burst into tears.

My eyes welled and I blinked the tears away. My nose began to run and I blew it as quietly as I could. I shuffled in my seat and fiddled with my handkerchief, trying to contain the emotions welling inside me. A friend as close as family was speaking that morning so I avoided his perceptive gaze. But I couldn’t drag my eyes from the image he’d projected on the screen before me.

It was an ECG printout – a series of sharp upward and downward spikes that reveals the rhythm of a human heartbeat. My friend was comparing it to our time on earth. “This is life,” he declared, pointing to the sharp peaks and deep troughs sitting juxtaposed across the screen. “Real life has its highs and lows for all of us. But this . . .” He pointed to the flat line which trailed at the end of the reading – the indicator that the heart had stopped beating. “This is not life – this place where we try to make our world so stable and comfortable that nothing really happens.”

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I swallowed, nodding my agreement. Despite the heartache which at that moment felt overwhelming, I wanted to embrace life, not meaningless predictability. The thought of saying goodbye to all our dear friends and everything familiar in a matter of weeks loomed as one of the lowest points my heart had ever faced. Yet deep inside me burned a quiet certainty – there was purpose in this valley.

I managed to restrain my emotions that morning till after the talk was over then let a few tears leak out in the safety of some friends. They smiled and sympathised and rubbed my back, all the while pouring out sincere prayers for our family. And so I was given the strength to smile and march bravely through another day.

Ever since that morning I’ve been pondering this topsy-turvy world I entered when I first surrendered to God. His principles often don’t seem to make sense yet they offer unexpected blessings. He speaks of laying down our life and being given a new one. Losing then gaining. Humbling ourselves and being lifted up. Giving generously and seeing our own needs met. Being insulted and receiving the affirmation of heaven. Every loss is met with a gain that not only brings renewal but goes far beyond what was sacrificed – so typical of God’s generous heart.

So what is the purpose of the giving up, the letting go? If He’s only going to provide what we lost why does He ask us to lay it down in the first place?

Because it’s in the laying down, the dying that we are transformed.

It’s when we loosen our grip on all we consider ours that we realise afresh how blessed we are, that everything we have is a precious gift from our Father, to be embraced with thanks. We’re reminded that apart from Him we can do nothing and of how utterly we need to rely on Him to live this zigzagging, up-and-down life.

From the very beginning of this moving process, God has been speaking to me about the new things He’s going to do in our lives, the new people and experiences and opportunities ahead. But right now, it’s hard to see beyond the losses confronting us.

I’m reminded of Jesus, who laid down His everything for us, enduring suffering beyond compare as He died, rejected even by His beloved Father. He didn’t want to go to the cross. He asked for release from that ordeal, sweating drops of blood in the intensity of His agony. Yet He yielded. Because He knew there was something beyond the suffering. Hebrews 12:2 tells us it was for the joy set before Him that He endured the cross. Jesus made it through because He had His eyes on the prize that lay beyond the grave. Beyond. That’s a good place to fix my eyes.

For me right now, the prize is still a little unclear. It’s hard, really hard, to hope when you can’t see much of the detail in the beyond. Daily I ask God for reassurance.  Where will we live? Who will be our friends? How on earth can anything be as rich as the life and relationships we’ve enjoyed here?

His response, every time? Trust Me.

Trust isn’t grown at the high points of life. It’s formed in the valleys – the times when the darkness is intense and we’re not sure we can endure much more. Being reminded of this helps me accept that this time in the trough is necessary. But I also choose to believe God’s promise – it won’t last forever. There is more beyond this. More life. More people. More everything we’re being asked to lay down. Different . . . but still good – because it comes from His hand.

And when He lifts me up from this valley, I’m trusting I’ll be different to who I was when this descent began. More thankful, more dependent and eager for all that He has in store.

 

Careful What you Listen to

Have you ever noticed how subtly negative thoughts weave their way into your thinking? So silently, those sneaky, snaky strings of words take up residence in our minds, challenging our hopes and trying to reverse every positive attitude we hold. Sometimes there’s an element of truth in what they say; sometimes they’re outright lies. Either way, we often allow them to settle into our thought patterns, unwittingly giving permission for them to influence our lives.

Sometimes we’ve lived with those poisonous little phrases for so long we don’t even realise they’re there, dictating so many of our choices – until someone points them out.

That’s what happened to me last Sunday. I was sitting in bed, propped up on soft pillows, musing over Jesus’ words in John 15, “Remain in Me and I will remain in you . . . apart from Me you can do nothing.”(1) How well I know it! The enormous changes our family is going through, with all its uncertainties, has each of us starkly aware of our need to stay connected to Jesus – like a tender branch gaining strength from the sturdy vine.

But that’s not the only transition happening in my world right now.

After more than eight years, I’m making final touches to my book manuscript, ready to submit it to publishers. Within a couple of years, the long-dreamed-of book could be in print, (God willing) bringing perspective and hope to people who struggle with anorexia – and their loved ones. Publishing a book raises your profile and brings new opportunities to speak with people. You’d think this would be a time of great excitement and anticipation. Instead, I’ve found myself becoming reflective, quiet and a little overwhelmed by the thought of all that attention.

Why, you ask. That’s where last weekend’s revelation comes in.

On that cosy Sunday morning, tucked up in bed, my attention was drawn to these words of Jesus: “If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing.” (2)

I’ve read those words lots of times. They make perfect sense. If a branch remains connected to the vine – and it’s a strong, lush, nourishing vine – of course that branch will bear good fruit, much fruit. I’ve always agreed with that principle. But until that morning I’d never stopped to imagine what ‘much fruit’ might look like in a person’s life, particularly my own. I was okay with the thought of bearing some fruit; but much fruit? Wasn’t that a bit, well . . . much?

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Photo by Luiz M. Santos on Pexels.com

In the same passage in John I read that when people bear much fruit, they bring glory to the Father. (3) Not to themselves, but to the Father. Suddenly God had my attention. A sense of wonder washed over me as I filled a page of my journal with quickly flowing revelations. Out of His great love, the Master surgeon was uncovering an oppressive pattern of thinking that had bound me up since childhood: “You can shine; just don’t shine too brightly.”

In my earliest years I had boundless confidence. The doted-on ‘baby’ of three girls, I followed my whims and said or did whatever popped into my head. It didn’t take too long to discover it wasn’t such a popular thing to be so sure of oneself. Names like ‘show off’ were fired my way, quickly teaching me it was better to shrink back and be quiet than stand out from the crowd.

More recently God has been calling me out of that self-conscious place into the peace and rest that comes when I put my confidence in Him. Jeremiah 17:7-8 is a favourite passage. Again and again, in my quiet times and through others, God has told me to ‘Arise and shine.’ Fear and intimidation have roared, Don’t be a show off! No one wants to hear what you have to say. Many times I’ve chosen to push through the fear barrier and follow God’s lead any way. But always there’s been a sense of restraint – a feeling I shouldn’t let things go too far, shouldn’t shine too brightly.

Last Sunday I realised just how much those fearful thoughts were holding me back.

I read on. Jesus told His followers He had chosen them and appointed them for a special task – bearing fruit(4). That task has also been given to us who love Him today. It’s Jesus’ desire and purpose for us to bear fruit – and plenty of it. If I want to walk in His plan for my life, I need to be willing to do that.

It really doesn’t matter what others think of me – or even what I think.

In truth, it’s all about Him.

I did a lot of praying that morning – forgiving the people who put me down in the past, rejecting those fearful thought patterns and tuning in to what God had to say. Lately I’ve been sensing He wants to lead me further out of my comfort zone than I’ve ever been before. On that particular day He asked me to throw off any limits I’d put on my life. And I did. I don’t know exactly what that will mean, but I know I can be confident that whatever comes, I won’t face it alone. He will be my strength and sufficiency each step of the way.

These words of Jesus are true for all of us who love Him. He desires us to live abundantly fruitful lives as we fulfil the specific purposes He made us for.

I wonder what that looks like for you?

And what kind of thoughts might be holding you back?

Imagine how bright the light will be if each of us shines the way we were created to.

“. . . let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Hebrews 12:1b

Sunrise on distant hills

(1) John 15:4a,5b

(2) John 15:5b

(3) John 15:8

(4) John 15:16

 

Learning to Listen

I’ll never forget that crisp winter’s day. It was half past one in the afternoon.  I’d eaten lunch and tidied the kitchen. My track pants and polar fleece had been traded for a jumper, skirt and boots. I was heading to the shops on my way to collect our children from school. As I stood in our family room, mentally running through the list of all the errands I needed to do, some brown fragments on the carpet caught my eye – wood chips from the firewood that had been carried in that morning.

I grimaced. That kind of mess really annoyed me. I glanced at the clock. I’ll just quickly vacuum those up, I thought – a very small, everyday decision in a housewife’s world.

But as soon as the thought had run through my mind, something inside me shifted. It’s hard to explain. The peace I’d felt a moment earlier seemed to fade. I huffed and reasoned with myself. It’ll be all right. I’ve got time.  Surely two minutes of vacuuming won’t make much difference to the afternoon.

I strode to the cupboard and yanked out the vacuum cleaner then froze as two words boomed through me: NOT NOW. The words were stern and came with a strong sense of warning.

What should I do?

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It wasn’t always like this – this hearing God’s voice.

As a little girl, I was taught to pray each night, reciting words by rote as I drifted off to sleep: “Heavenly Father, help me be a child who’s kind and good . . .” The teens brought times when God seemed so close my heart pulsed with longing to know Him more – until I went to university, where cold, intellectual water was thrown on my desire. “It’s impossible to know Him,” the wise ones said. “He no longer speaks; we rely on our sanctified common sense now.”

Still my spirit yearned.

In my twenties, I met people who knew God – really knew Him – ones whose words and insights seemed to flow straight from His heart. My hunger burned once again. That’s what I wanted – to know Him like that. But could I?

The more I spent time with these people, the clearer it became: all the time I’d been craving God’s presence, He’d been right there – ready, waiting, eager to share His heart with me, if only I’d take time to listen.

So, I learned to sit – heart quiet, journal open and pen poised. At first I only sought God’s direction for the big things – the major life decisions. Was it a yes, or was it a no? A clear sense of peace often came, pointing me one way or the other.

Retreat time

Then, inspired by my husband’s example, I started seeking to hear God daily – taking time to read the Word, yes, but also to wait on Him and write down whatever He spoke. Gradually I learned to distinguish between His thoughts and mine by using His Word and His character as the measure.

Then a visiting preacher came to our church. “Jesus was very clear,” he told us. “He said, ‘I am the good shepherd and My sheep hear My voice.’ If you’re one of his sheep, you can expect to hear Him. He doesn’t have favourites. In order to hear Him, you need to function like a radio. Just as a radio tower is transmitting all the time, Jesus is speaking all the time. All we have to do is put up our aerial and tune in.”

Those words propelled me into a new level of listening. If Jesus was speaking all the time, then I could hear Him all the time. I became aware of the subtle nudges which punctuated my thoughts – go there, take this with you, say that. Many times I impulsively chose to ignore those prompts. Every time, in hindsight, I regretted my decision.

————————————————————————————————————————————–So on that June afternoon I decided to listen. Okay God. I don’t understand why I have to leave now but I know You do. The tension inside me evaporated as I put the vacuum cleaner back in the cupboard. I grabbed my handbag and water bottle and headed towards the front door.

As I drew closer a strange sound rang in my ears – like a very sick rooster trying to crow. Our chickens were kept in a run which sat just across the driveway from our front porch. We didn’t have any roosters but owned about a dozen hens, including three we were minding for a friend.

The strangled sound continued. Alarm flooded through me. Something was wrong!

I threw open the front door and sprinted towards our chicken run. Instantly I spotted our neighbour’s dog inside the fence with one of our hens clutched firmly between his teeth – by the neck. I watched, aghast, as he dropped her lifeless body on the ground and trotted back towards our henhouse, a little terrier following merrily on his heels.

Two more hens lay dead nearby, blood oozing from their throats.

Fuming with rage, I yanked the gate of the chicken run open and leapt for the larger dog. In one swift action I grabbed him by the collar and tail and threw him backwards out of the coop. Inside, three hens were crammed one on top of the other in a trembling mound. I turned and chased the dogs around the run, leaping over tussocks of grass in my skirt and boots, waving my arms and hollering wildly until they both made their way under the fence and headed home.

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It was out of His great kindness that God spoke to me that day. If I’d chosen to ignore Him, I’m certain all our chickens would’ve been killed. And perhaps, if I’d been quicker to listen, the first three hens could have been spared.

Sometimes the little decisions we make are far more significant than we think.

Chickens

If you were to ask me if I listen to God all the time now, honestly, I’d have to say no. My mind, like yours, is often fully focused on the tasks at hand. And sometimes I’m just too caught up in my own thoughts and feelings to stop and get quiet. But I am seeking to grow. This year, under God’s direction, I’m taking a few extra hours each week to ‘retreat’ with Him. Although it’s sometimes hard to carve out that block of time – it may end up being spread over a few days – that retreat has become something I crave, an anchor-point in the midst of this crazy season of transition.

I still have so much to learn but there is one vital truth that draws me on: When God speaks to us, it’s because He wants to do us (and others) good. What He says won’t always be easy to hear – or to obey – but we can trust that it will ultimately be for the best.

On the same day Jesus described Himself as the good shepherd He explained that, unlike a thief, He came to give His people life – in all its fullness. Not a half-life but the best possible life they could live.

That’s got to make walking in step with Him the best possible ambition to have – whatever the cost.

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10

Journal cover

Rescued

Tuesday 23rd July, 2013

“Do you think we should go to the hospital?” My husband’s gentle words broke through the haze that clouded my mind.

I dragged my head up and sighed. For hours I’d been lying on the bedroom floor, mostly face down, trying to find a position where my body didn’t hurt so much. It had taken all my strength to pull myself up and vomit into a bowl. The noise had woken Mark and he’d climbed out of bed to come to my side.

I had hoped this sickness – whatever it was – would have settled through the night. Surely after almost two days I should have been improving? Instead the mild nausea of Sunday afternoon had developed into violent retching, diarrhoea, shaking fevers and overwhelming weakness. Tightness under my ribcage on one side made breathing difficult and my head spun.

Mark had already suggested I go to hospital – several times. Each time I’d refused. The thought of spending hours in that condition in a waiting room full of people was unthinkable. This time, though, he was determined. “I think we should pray about it.”

“What time is it?” I breathed.

“Four o’clock.”

“Okay. I’ll try.”

We spent a few moments waiting quietly. Meanwhile, unknown to us, my mum was suddenly awakened in Sydney with a strong urge to pray for me – she already knew I was very unwell.

“So, what did you think?”

With eyes closed, I mumbled, “I just keep getting the word ‘appendix’.” Low in my abdomen a sharp pain throbbed on the right. “Maybe we should just go and get it checked.”

“Okay.”He stood up, slipped his hands under my arms and helped me to my feet. Every movement was agony. Once I was dressed he informed our oldest son what was happening and we shuffled together out to the car. Our breath formed puffs of steam in the icy night air.

When we reached the emergency department, I slumped over the sick bowl, my head resting on my arms. The waiting room was strangely quiet, almost empty. A thought ambled through my mind, Am I just being a drama queen?

“Hello Susan.”

The calm, professional tone of a nurse’s voice broke me out of my musing. I lifted my head a little.

“Your husband explained what’s been happening. Can you sit up so I can take a few vitals?”

I pushed myself up off the bowl and tried to bring my rolling eyes to meet those of the nurse. My hair fell back from my face and she gasped.  “Oh, I think we might just take you straight in.” She scurried away and dashed back with a wheelchair.

As she returned I breathed, “Sorry. I can’t remember your name.” The woman was a regular at our MOPs group – a support programme our church ran for mums of pre-schoolers.

“Oh, don’t you worry about that,” she answered briskly. “Let’s just see if we can get you better.”

She wheeled me into a curtained cubicle then returned to her station at the counter. Two other nurses changed me into a thin hospital gown, hooked me up to a heart monitor and supplied medication to stop the vomiting. Soon after, my bed was wheeled to a large room at the far end of the emergency department. Another four nurses gathered around me, making a team of six, while a doctor drifted in and out. IV trolleys were set up and bags of fluid stacked nearby. The nurses took blood, gave me morphine, inserted a catheter and introduced a drip to each forearm. The doctor threaded a picc line – a long, narrow, five-stranded tube – through one of my major neck veins almost all the way to my heart. I was given an oxygen mask. Large, soft blankets – so many blankets – were brought from the warming cupboard and draped one atop another over my shivering body.

Sepsis clearer

The strange sensation of pain and pressure in my abdomen began to spread up into my lung area. I told the nurses. A couple of them exchanged concerned glances.

A doctor came to my side. “Now Susan, you seem to have some kind of infection but your pathology results won’t come back for a while. We’re going to start you on five different antibiotics to make sure we hit whatever bacteria is at work. Then once we get the test results back we’ll narrow them down to the right one. We’ll also be giving you IV fluids to try to get your blood pressure up.”

“Okay.” I nodded.

“Do you have to use so many antibiotics?” my husband asked. I’d just finished taking a course of tablets for another condition and was run-down because of them.

A nurse’s voice snapped from the other side of the room, “Your wife is in a state of septic shock. If we don’t give her antibiotics she’ll die.”

I heard her words but could barely make sense of them. Die? Really? But I was in hospital – surely that meant I was safe? Lord, I’m in your hands, I prayed.

Hours ticked by while antibiotics and fluids flowed steadily into my bloodstream. The staff hovered, watching closely for any improvement in my vital signs. The bag attached to my catheter remained empty, revealing that my kidneys had failed. Many times I was asked, “What’s your full name? When were you born? Where do you live?”

Mark’s presence beside me was calm and constant. He sent out a prayer request in the morning which quickly reached hundreds of people across the nation and beyond. Several friends have since said that the moment they got the message, they understood the intensity of the battle I was in and got straight to warring in prayer.

Six hours passed with no significant change. Various doctors wandered in and out of the room, along with teams of interns, to discuss my case. One supervising doctor told my husband, “It’s good you came in when you did. If you’d left it even one hour longer, it may have been too late.”

Finally, the medical staff resorted to using a very high dose of noradrenalin to bring my blood pressure back to a safe level. A CT scan and laparoscopy followed. My appendix and lower bowel were inflamed but neither had to be removed. A drain was put into my abdomen to remove the large volume of fluid which had built up there and remained in place for the next few days.

Later we were told that I had sepsis, a severe response to an infection which causes inflammation throughout the whole body and attacks the tissues and organs. In about one third of cases, the cause of the infection is unknown. I was one of those cases. Septic shock is the most extreme stage of sepsis and leads to death in fifty percent of cases.

Sepsis walk with drip

I spent the following week in Intensive Care. Collapsed lungs and pneumonia slowed my recovery.  After two days of forced bed-rest and constant oxygen I was allowed to attempt walking with a frame.  It took a few more days before I could move around without support. My whole lower body swelled so much my skin hurt. I wore long pressure stockings and shuffled slowly around the ward, trying to improve circulation. All the toxins which had flooded my system caused ongoing muscle pain and weakness; even the simplest of tasks caused major fatigue.

 

home from hospital

Once I returned home, we were flooded with offers of support. My mum flew down from Sydney followed by one of my sisters to help keep our household running. Dozens of friends provided meals for our family. It felt strange to be so frail. Every little milestone was cause for celebration – sleeping on my side, walking to the mailbox, squatting to get something out of the cupboard and managing to pull myself up again. After three months, I could last a whole day without sleeping in the afternoon. It took nine months before I could manage without a lie down.

Several doctors had tried to tell me how severely ill I’d been but I found it hard to fathom. It was my surgeon who finally opened my eyes at a follow-up appointment a month after the illness. For a fleeting moment he stopped his medical reflections, dropped his professional tone and told me, “I went home that night and said to my wife, ‘We had a mother of four in today and she nearly died.’” My eyes brimmed with tears. I knew I could have died but didn’t realise I’d come so very close.

Today I celebrate five years of ‘bonus life’. There are so many ‘ifs’ in my experience which could have led to a very different result:

If we hadn’t opted to go to hospital. . .

If I hadn’t known the admissions nurse . . .

If emergency had been very busy and there were less people available to help. . .

If the staff had taken longer to form a diagnosis (many people have died from such a delay) . . .

If people hadn’t bothered to pray when they heard I was sick . . .

Yet the God Who reigns over the ‘ifs’ put everything in place to make sure my life was spared. He knew the days on earth He had planned for me and made sure they were not cut short.

The words in Psalm 31:14-15, “My times are in Your hands,” are a tangible reality to me now, a source of clarity and focus. Every day is a gift to be received with thanks and lived to the full. God had a specific purpose in mind when He created me. My greatest desire and joy is to fulfil it.

“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12