God is not a one hit wonder

Back in November, I wrote about an amazing experience I had, Surprised by God.

And at the time, if I’m honest, a little part of me thought, ‘well, that’s amazing…now it’s time to get on with it’.

So, I dug deep, found my ‘Dunkirk spirit’, donned my British stiff upper lip and decided to march on and press forward, because that’s what I do. I do stuff. I fix stuff.

And once again, I suspect that my lovely, Heavenly Father laughed.

How do I know? Well, these past few weeks, we’ve been visited by Fergus again, the chap who speaks into people’s lives and says what he thinks God wants him to say.

I’ve had a fair bit of prayer recently and as a couple of things were pinpointed (that no one else could have known), once again, I felt that warm, familiar, comfortable embrace.

And guess what? God’s not particularly interested in me being stoic. My life as a believer isn’t meant to a painful, gritted teeth endurance test. And best bit of all, God is talking all the time.

He spoke really clearly to me in November.

He spoke to me recently, and he’s been speaking all the months in-between.

He’s not a God who turns up in mighty power at a special meeting and then walks away. He’s a God who is totally interested in the mundane details, in the huge joys, the dramas, in the daily struggles.

He’s not a one hit wonder.

And he’ll keep working with us and speaking to us, until he’s done with us.

And he’ll never be done with us.

I wish I could explain adequately what is going on at the moment, but I can’t.

All I know is, that once again, when I unclench my fists and turn my heart over to his control, to allow him to fix things (instead of me trying to!) really surprising things happen.

The projects I’ve been fretting over, which seemed to be stalling, suddenly burst into glorious technicolour.

The inclination to talk and strategise about various problems starts to become instead, an urgent nudge to pray about them.

I see a cashier at a till and I’m suddenly aware of how much God loves her and how much he wants her to know that. I’m too chicken (this time!) to tell her…but next time, I will!

I pray with a friend about a situation and I don’t even understand where the words are coming from, but they’re the right words God needs her to hear.

I pray and see this seemingly strange picture in my mind. I write it down (thinking I’m mad) but just hours later, I go to a service where the speaker repeats word for word, what I’d just ‘seen’.

The situation which I was ready to walk away from just a few weeks ago, suddenly starts to shift, to change in ways I could not have anticipated.

The doors which were firmly closed in my heart, are being quietly unlocked.

Just when I (naively) thought I’d got my relationship with God all figured out, he messes it up.

When I let go, when we let go, he breathes life into death and pushes up blooms through dark and cracked earth. He reminds us once again, that he is a God of surprises. He’s the fixer, the mender, the provider of solutions.

The journey isn’t safe, it isn’t predictable and it’s almost definitely going to mess with your head.

But we’re meant to do it with him, every single day.

His mercies are not one hit wonders, they’re new every day.

When your pastor has an affair…

Years ago, I was part of a thriving, lively church, with a lovely pastor, who had an affair. I arrived at church one Sunday morning, all expectant for a great service, but there was an unexpected somber tone to the meeting. At the end, it was announced that one of the pastors had admitted to a ‘moral failure’ and as a result, was stepping down. There was a palpable sense of shock in the room, as hearts sank and voices murmured. It wasn’t judgement, just surprise, hurt and most of all, disappointment.

Fast forward a few years later, I was part of a thriving, lively church, with a lovely pastor…who had an affair. With an eerie sense of Déjà vu, I arrived at church one Sunday morning, all expectant for a great service, but there was an unexpected somber tone to the meeting. As the church leaders filed out from the vestry, a strange hush fell. Something was wrong. The lead pastor was missing. Where was he? Turns out, he’d admitted to an extra marital relationship. He’d stepped down and only time would tell what the future held.

Once again, I’ll never forget the sense of grief and sadness in the room, not just sadness for us as a church, but grief for a struggling marriage, for a wife who had been betrayed, for all the relationships which had been damaged by a series of lies and poor decisions.

The shock, the questions and the fallout from all of these incidents was immense.

And since then, there have been many, many more. You’ll have read about the more public scandals, or you might have experienced the heartache of ‘moral failure’ in your own church and felt how it gnaws at the fabric of your community.

But the truth is, I suspect no one ever deliberately sets out to fall, to destroy their relationships and their church’s trust. It begins with a series of tiny steps, all in the wrong direction.

It begins when we start to believe the great things other people say about us.

It begins when we think rules and boundaries don’t apply to us, that we can skip around the edges of the pool without falling in the deep end.

It begins when our posts on social media subtly become more about what we’re doing, than about what God is doing (an easy trap!).

It begins when we make ourselves the hero of the story.

And it’s been the same story for generations.

Adam and Eve turned their ear to a sneaky little whisper and began to question all they knew to be true.

King David strolled along a rooftop and made a split second decision to take a second look at a bathing woman.

Jonah, Abraham….the list goes on, great men and women of God who momentarily leaned into lies, impulses and took tiny steps into a future which had disaster spray painted all over it.

Last year, US author Phil Cooke blogged about the simple ways ‘moral failure’ can begin and how leaders can help themselves.

Falling from grace begins with the small stuff. But it can also be stopped in its tracks by the small stuff too.

Being ruthlessly committed to the small stuff, can change everything. It’s the seemingly unimportant boundaries, the refusal to toot our own horn on twitter, running fast from heroic or celebrity labels, or anything which might make our hearts believe that WE are the heroes of the story.

If Adam and Eve had walked away, if King David had strolled in the opposite direction, if Abraham hadn’t taken matters into his own hands, how different their stories would have been. God, because he’s God worked a miracle in all their lives, despite the lies and betrayal, but generations later, we still experience the fallout from their poor decisions.

Let’s not get seduced by the lies and the celebrity insanity of the world around us.

We are not the heroes of this story.

Keep going…

Over the years, various people in my family have battled their way through different (sometimes chronic) illnesses. To be honest, from a young age, I’ve seen people I love, be limited by health circumstances and as a family, it’s just something we understood and adjusted to.

It’s possibly for that reason, as a family, we have a fairly dark sense of humour. When my dad was in hospital after a heart attack, I told him off for interrupting my lunch and forcing me to skip dessert.  Or on other occasions, when facing an uncertain diagnosis, one of us has joked, ‘ah well, we’re all going to heaven anyway. Some just sooner than others’.

Dark humour maybe, coping mechanism possibly, but also, rooted in truth.

The reality is, when you are exposed to ill health, it can make you bitter, OR it can make you aware of the fragility of life and even more grateful for eternity.

This life is simply not all there is.

There is something more, way beyond anything we can see or feel.

These experiences force us to take a cold look at reality, at what life would be like without that person, but also to understand that when you’re a believer in Jesus, absence is temporary.  Eternity is forever.

And when you know that, it makes you a weeble, not a whiner.

Remember weebles? Little solid toys we played with as kids? No matter what you did to them, you couldn’t knock them down. They’d rock, they’d roll, but they couldn’t be pushed down for long. They’d soon pop back up.

When you know Jesus, it’s not unrealistic to live this way.

It might seem odd to onlookers, they might even dismiss it as ‘denial’, but the truth is, when we put our hope in Jesus, he centres us and plants eternity in our hearts. In the interim, we can pray for healing, we can expect God to do great things, but regardless, we can know that whatever happens to our human bodies, we will be ok.

No, no one wants to die prematurely. No one wants to see the people they love get sick.  But at the same time, we are not living just for the here and now.  We’re living with our eyes firmly fixed on eternity.

This is true if we’re sick or if we’re not. This life is really only the Hors d’oeuvre for the main course that is to come.

With that knowledge in our hearts, it gives us the strength (like a good old fashioned weeble) to get back up again.   It doesn’t stop us from going through pain, sickness, worry or even death.

But it gives us a hope to hang on to, even in the toughest of times.

Don’t wade in the shallow end

Some people go through their whole Christian life, without ever really experiencing what life is like, living with the Holy Spirit.

I know, because I’ve met loads of Christians just like it. And if it wasn’t for my upbringing, I’d probably be one too. After all, how do you know to chase after more if you don’t know more exists?

When I talk about experiencing the Holy Spirit, I’m not talking (necessarily) about falling over, jumping up and down, loud, emotional worship music or any of the stuff you might expect, it’s about such a profound, dizzying change on the inside of your insides, that you know you’ll never be the same again.

It changes everything, it draws you in, it sends you out.

It nudges you to be different.

It changes you, it encourages you to be more.

It shines a light on the dark stuff that no one else sees.

And then you find yourself wanting the same for others.

And without any kind of judgement, the ones who haven’t experienced it, are way easier to spot, the ones who need it are much easier to find. And you become very, very aware that you need it more and more each day.

I blogged last year about an amazing experience I had at work and again last week, the same chap (unexpectedly) prayed for me and there it was again, that fire in my guts to be different.

It’s been burning there quietly behind the scenes all week. It’s been a busy, challenging week in many respects and me and my big mouth have got me into trouble. But there in the background, was that gentle sweet nudge in the ribs, come on Cummings, you can do better than this.

I haven’t always listened and instead have tried to come up with my own flawed human solutions (WHY do I keep doing this???) and then this morning, I was struck by something I’ve read lots of times before in Romans 8:

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans‬ ‭8:5-6‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬)

Suddenly realised that despite getting something so lovely and fresh from the Holy Spirit again, that my mind was still being governed by what we used to call ‘carnal thinking’ or what the NIV (brutally) refers to as ‘death’.

I guess it’s what they also call, ‘stinking thinking’. Or in my case, a pretty bad attitude, a big mouth and a tendency to try and fix things myself.

But there is a better way. I know there’s a better way because the dramatic encounters I’ve had with the Holy Spirit over the last few years, constantly remind me of that.

I really don’t want to be that ‘carnal Christian’, the one who fixes things on her own, who lives as though the world’s problems could be fixed with logic and words.

I want to be one of the life-filled ones, who sees problems, people and dramas through the eyes of God, the kind of Christian who’s walking into a situation, praying first, talking second. The kind of Christian who’s listening to the whisper of the spirit; what does he want to say? (Not what do I want to say!)

I’ve experienced life like this. It’s real.

It changes everything and I want more of it. And the only way to do it, is to do it.

Because when we choose to sidestep the ‘death thinking’ around us and instead choose to live in the life-giving thinking of the Holy Spirit, we see and experience life differently. It’s a whole new level.

And it’s a level that lots of Christians may never experience. Oh, not because God doesn’t offer it. He does. It’s there, threaded through the extraordinary lives of the disciples, the crazy lives of the Old Testament prophets, the mind-boggling New Testament miracles.

It all points to a God of fire, of life, of Damascus-road transformation. But from a distance, it can seem like maybe that’s not for me? Not for today? Perhaps ‘logic’ gets in the way? Perhaps it’s just safer to sit on the shore?

And it’s true, it is ‘safer’ to stay away, because an encounter with the Holy Spirit, a life lived in that presence is terrifying. It’s challenging. It’s incredible. It’ll turn your world upside down in all the wrong and in all the right places.

I’ve waded in the shallow end and I’ve done a running jump off the diving board. And I know which I prefer, which I need, which I want.

Once again, I find myself ready to get out of the kids’ pool, ready to dive back into the deep end.

A tale of two cars

A few months ago, I realised I needed a new car. The mileage on mine was creeping up and with various rattles making themselves heard (and a MOT due next month), I knew either way, I would soon be spending a chunk of cash.

Now, some are going to think this is silly but when it comes to making big decisions, I’m a big believer in getting the ‘right feeling’. The ‘right feeling’ is how you feel about something after prayer or being in a worship environment. The ‘right feeling’ is usually a big splurge of unexpected excitement or inexplainable peace. In short, I believe that if I’m on a straight path with God, he will lead me to the right decision.

So, a few weeks ago, I saw a car I really liked and arranged to take it for a test drive. As the car salesman pulled it to the front of the building, it seemed to call my name in a gentle, hushed whisper. We took it for a good, hearty spin and my friend said to me, ‘how do you feel about it?’ My reply was, ‘well, I feel nothing…it’s a beautiful car but I have no feeling, no emotion about it at all’.

We arrived back at the dealership and I made a decision. Despite my lack of feeling, I’d talk to them and see if they’d be willing to budge on price…in a way, it was a ‘fleece’.

We sat down at the sales desk (me, wearing my best poker face) to begin negotiation, but it soon became clear they just wanted me to buy a no-discounted car, plus an extended warranty AND borrow the money on HP, none of which I wanted to do.

Outside, the car was still twinkling and winking mysteriously in the afternoon sun, catching my eye, but suddenly there it was…just like a heavenly emergency stop in my heart, I felt the thunk of God in my spirit, saying simply, ‘No, walk away’.

So I did.

But that didn’t stop me thinking about it all weekend.

Maybe it was the right car? Maybe I was missing something? Why was I now driving past the forecourt, shifting a glance to look at it longingly?

So, I thought I’d give the door one last nudge. This time, I rang the sales office to ask for more details, fully intending by now, to pay the full asking price (despite my initial misgivings), but once again, the man I spoke to, just spun me a tale about how I needed a 3 year extended warranty and it’d be better to get it on 0% finance, yada, yada, yada. This time I just knew it was dead, dead wrong.

I ended the call and I admit, a bit reluctantly, put it into the hands of God and said that I’d trust him to find me the right car.

So now, I should interrupt myself here to say that this could all sound like vacuous nonsense. After all, there’s a level of excruitating pain and need in the world and here I am, waxing lyrical about God finding me a car? But in reality, I don’t believe this whole experience WAS about a car. It was about learning to lean on that still, small voice to lead me in a direction that wouldn’t end up causing me grief and heartache.

I know that I can’t trust myself and I know that life is far, far better when I lean on, lean into that lovely, reassuring, calming quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit. It’s not about cars or jobs or big decisions, it’s about trust.

And so last week, still feeling a little miffed at not yet finding a car, I resumed my online search and went back to a dealership I’ve bought cars from in the past. There, on the forecourt was the exact same model of car I’d test driven a week before (even the same colour), looking just as beautiful, just lower mileage and with a few more fun features.

It too, sat there, gleaming and winking at me in the sun, but this time, the test drive was different. There was a surge of excitement. Exact same model of car, different dealer, but bingo, I knew this was the one.

I had to wait a few days before it was ready to collect, but yesterday, as I drove to the dealership in my old car, I prayed a prayer of blessing over it (the old car). I prayed that whoever bought it after me, would feel God’s presence in the car, that it would be safe, reliable and if they didn’t already know Jesus, that somehow the car would lead them to him. And then I picked up my new car and prayed in it too.

Tonight as I drove home in the new car, with a powerful worship song flowing through the speakers, the lovely presence of Jesus was so real in the car, I didn’t want to get out. I parked up and dawdled for a bit, enjoying it, feeling flooded again with thankfulness. Thankful for a lovely new car yes, but in a world of desperate need, also thankful for a God who can be leaned on and trusted, whatever the decision.

It is finished…

“It is finished”.

Three words, gasped from the wheezy lungs of a dying man.

The three most powerful words ever spoken.

I’ve been thinking about those words this week, in the run up to Easter. Easter or ‘the resurrection holiday’ is my most favourite time of year. The solemn quiet of Good Friday with the incredible lightness and freedom of Easter Sunday morning, make for me, a pretty huge weekend. There’s just something about the cross, the love, the humiliation, the tears, the willingness, that makes me cry every time.

Many can look on and understand logically how horrific it must have been, but for me, it digs something up and I’m not quite sure what. I know that in the mix of all the emotions though, gratitude plays a big part.

You see, when Jesus said, ‘it is finished’, he wasn’t just talking about his life and the brutal, asphyxiating end, he was talking about an end to the weariness of sin, the complex ritual of religion, the burden of pain and the human condition.

In those dying hours, all of hell, all that was evil, destructive and painful was slowly and methodically hammered into his hands and feet. The horror that Jesus experienced went way beyond the physical agony, it was the emotional blackness and the feeling for the first time in his life, that God had abandoned him.

As he looked evil in the face, knowing full well he could have called on God to save him at any time, he instead chose to stay, to fulfil God’s plan for humanity.

He stayed because he wanted to. When he cried out, ‘it is finished’, he was shouting out to humanity.

It is done. The divide between you and God is over. You can be free from the tyranny of sin, you don’t have to live in torment, in fear, in judgement.

It’s simply too big a concept for us to grasp, which is probably why this time of year (to me) feels so emotional.

Today, I’m overwhelmingly grateful for that day, the darkest day the world has ever known. But it was also the day, that something new began.

How to send an email (the Biblical way)

Late one balmy evening, King David was strolling across his roof terrace when, in the distance, he spotted a neighbour’s wife, Bathsheba, bathing on her rooftop. Shoving to one side the inconvenient fact that she was already married (to a soldier called Uriah), David sent for her and they slept together. As a result, she became pregnant and suddenly David found himself in the hottest of waters.

Initially, David thought he could cover it up and hoped that Uriah would quickly return from the battlefield (where he’d been fighting), sleep with his wife and hey presto, sudden pregnancy explained.

But it wasn’t to be.

Uriah came home from battle and out of (misplaced) loyalty skipped a great marital reunion and inexplicably chose instead to sleep outside the palace, along with his fellow soldiers.

Now King David was really in trouble, so he wrote a letter to Joab, the commander of the army which said, ‘put Uriah at the front of the battle, so that he’ll be killed’.

And then 2 Samuel 11:14 records that David actually gave the death sentence letter to Uriah himself, to carry to Joab.

Uriah unknowingly carried his own death warrant to his commander in chief. If only Uriah had known the explosive contents of that letter.

I was reading this story recently, grimly smiling, having been the recipient of a few ‘hand grenade’ style letters myself.

You might be familiar with the type.

Person A is disgruntled or has misunderstood your actions/words and so instead of having a quiet word, fires off an emotional missive and copies everyone (and their mother) into the cc line.

When it arrives in your inbox, it lands with the force of an incendiary device. As you realise its contents are not going to be a pleasant read, you glance at the ‘copied to’ line to see just how many others have been included. And then you read and you re-read, hoping you’ve misunderstood the tone.

But if you receive a message like this, is there a Biblical way to respond?

Don’t use email for your dirty work

King David had all sorts of message options at his disposal. Instead of summoning a messenger or sending a trusted aide, he chose instead to write a letter condemning a man to death and then gave it to the man in question, to carry himself. To me, that seems like a unusually cruel way to send a message. Uriah, battlefield hero and patriot to the king travels all the way to the front, never knowing he’s carrying his own death warrant.

For me, the rule is simple, never do your ‘dirty work’, using a third party ‘messenger’ like email or text. I try (personally) to stick to a rule; never get into difficult conversations or any kind of backwards/forwards argument on email/text. Email was designed to convey simple messages to people outside our immediate reach. It was never intended to be a weapon of mass destruction.

Don’t include others

King David could have sent a message direct to Joab but instead, he chose to include Uriah in his twisted plan. Why? Scripture doesn’t say but to me, that seems like a pretty cheap shot.

Ever been tempted to do the same? Abuse the ‘cc’ (or worse…the ‘bcc’) line in an email?

I’ll admit, I’ve done it! I’ve felt annoyed and fired off work emails and copied in the person’s boss.

And I’ve had it done to me.

On one occasion, when a simple chat could have dealt with a misunderstanding, instead I was sent an email copying in not only my boss but 3 additional leaders, thus escalating a minor misunderstanding into a Category 3 hurricane.

Simple lesson for me, having been both the sender and the recipient, follow the gentle rule in Matthew 18:15, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over”.

A first step should always be to try and deal with the issue privately between the two of you. Don’t abuse the cc line.

Have a chat

King David had really screwed everything up. He now had a pregnant mistress and a murdered soldier on his hands. 2 Samuel says that God was ‘displeased with him’ (to say the least!) and sent Nathan the prophet to have a word.

Nathan arrived in person to deliver a devastating word of correction to King David. Nathan too could have sent a messenger, but he went himself to confront David.

Some things are simply best said, when they’re said in person, because when we have a face to face conversation, we can assess a person’s reaction, we can correct any misunderstandings and we also have the opportunity (like it says in Matthew 18) to ‘win them over’.

I love this simple verse in Hebrews 12: ‘Try to live at peace with everyone! Live a clean life. If you don’t, you will never see the Lord. (CEV).’

Hitting ‘send’ when you’re hurt, angry or irritated often feels like the justifiable thing to do.

Sending a message instead of having a chat often feels like the easier option (especially if you dislike confrontation).

Copying others in unnecessarily also feels like a convenient way to ‘make a point’.

But they’re also great ways to escalate things unnecessarily and create hurt and division.

Instead, let the Lord fight your battles. Don’t be tempted to do it on email.

Practice what you preach

I spoke at church on Sunday, a message which had been nudging my ribs all week, called ‘When God takes you the long way round’.

It was a whistlestop tour of the book of Exodus and the story of the Israelites’ long journey through the wilderness. I wanted to show that sometimes the things which we think will kill us, can actually make us spiritually and emotionally stronger than we ever thought possible.

In life (just as the Israelites discovered), we often face dead ends, speed bumps and other things thrown into our path which cause pain, heartache and which can trip us up.

‘Speed bumps’ in particular are those pesky problems which suddenly crop up, which look devastating at the time, but if we navigate around or over them with care (and God’s help), it’s possible to see huge and surprising victories.

At the end of my message I said, ‘I couldn’t stand here and say these things if I didn’t believe them’.

And it was true.

And it was also true that I hadn’t experienced a ‘speed bump’ in a while.

Until today, that is.

Through a whole chain of events, something difficult from the past cropped up and metaphorically slapped me in the face. I wasn’t expecting it and so I was mentally winded, wounded and if I’m honest, angry.

I thought this no longer bothered me.

But it turned out, it did and for several hours, I fretted, stroked my anger, and shared the rage with a few friends (who were suitably angry on my behalf). And then, I was reminded of my own message on Sunday.

Don’t look at the speed bumps, at the problems, instead, look up and ask God what he can do. When we take our eyes off the bump in the road and put them on Jesus, that’s when we see miracles start to happen.

That’s really what I said!

48 hours later, I was disregarding my own preach and staring resolutely at the problem instead of fixing my gaze on the problem solver.

Thankfully, God used a family member to remind me of my own words.

And as I thought it through, although this felt like an unwelcome injustice, actually, God can do something through it, if I allow him to. But first I have to start looking up, not down.

So is the problem fixed? Nope.

In fact, in human terms, it’s probably going to annoy me for a while.

But learning (again) to look up and ask God for his way forward, is infinitely better than stewing, fretting and pillow-punching.

Above all, he is a good God. Nothing can change that. Not hardships, not injustice, not speed bumps. But in order to see that, we’ve got to look up.

Or in my case, practice what I preach.

Why I’m not taking part in the women’s march

On Saturday, my Twitter feed was ablaze with pink. People were tweeting and retweeting pictures from the women’s march in London and from other similar demonstrations across the western world.

I’ve been aware of the movement since it began, from the controversial hats (you know which ones I mean) to the rainbow flags demanding rights, as well as gender equality when it comes to workplace pay. A full list of what the women’s march stands for is on their website.

I think, as a woman, I can understand the feelings of injustice. At some point in our lives, most women will have been talked down to in meetings, passed over in promotion for a (less-qualified) male. Many others will have faced rape, assault and all manner of other horrors. On a human level, rage, resentment and anger are all perfectly justified.

And yet, why do I find myself unable to join this movement? Something about the sea of pink, the fiery celebrity speakers, shirts and banners emblazoned with slogans, jarred with me and at first, I couldn’t exactly understand why.

And when something inexplicably bothers me, I have to get back to my Bible and figure out where the unrest is coming from. As I did, I had a Kathryn Scott song, I belong to you, playing in the background and all of a sudden the pieces for me, began to slot into place.

Nothing can take me from your great love.

Not hardship, nor hunger, no pain, no depth of sorrow, not weakness, nor failure, no broken dream or promise.

Be set free to know who you are. Be set free from the wounds of the past.

The thing is, when you truly know who you belong to, no one can ever take away your ‘rights’ or your freedom. Not the ‘patriarchy’, not inequality, not injustice.

The truly free woman, a girl who is at peace with God and with others is safe on the inside and nothing, not even hardship or broken dreams can steal that.

Instead, she’s secure, she sees a future, she walks in freedom, regardless of the circumstances, and she sees rage as something which will hold her back.

Some years back, I went to Zambia with work and met an incredible woman named Margaret. I’m still friends (via text) with her today. If anyone had reason to be angry, Maggie did.

She was born into rural poverty and when her husband left her (with 3 children, one with cerebral palsy), she ended up in prostitution, to try and raise money to feed her children. She was gang-raped, contracted HIV and lost her home. Her disabled daughter was later also raped (in an unconnected attack) and became pregnant. The baby didn’t survive and later, Margaret’s daughter passed away too.

Hopelessness on a scale like you’ve never seen before.

And yet Margaret is probably the happiest person I know.

Through a micro finance scheme she was able to leave sex work and started her own business making tie dye clothes. She’s got enough money for ARVs (anti retrovirals) to keep the HIV at bay, she has a new home and you’d struggle to meet someone more full of joy.

I remember saying to her one time, ‘why are you so happy? So many people have so much more than you and yet they’re incredibly miserable?’

Her answer was one word: Jesus.

She was a woman who’d been abused by men all of her life. If anyone deserved to be at the front of the line protesting, she did. But in her heart, she is free. She’s not looking back, she’s not shouting at her abusers, she’s looking up, at a God who sees her true worth and who is always completely fair and just.

I’m not belittling anyone else’s experience. I’m not trying to invalidate how other women feel. I’m not telling others what they should or shouldn’t do. I’m not saying (necessarily) that systems can continue as they are.

But what I am saying is that when you operate from a place of God’s perfect freedom, nothing can dent that. Nothing can change that. Not world systems, not unequal pay, not insults, nothing at all can separate you from his great love.

It doesn’t matter who others say you are. It doesn’t even matter what others have done or haven’t done.

Ultimately, you are who God says you are.

And that’s enough for me.

How to start over…at a new church…

Finding and settling into a new church is jolly hard work. Over the years, I’ve done it a few times, both as a student and later, when moving (several times) to different cities.

For me at least, it all begins with a bit of googling, trying to work out if a church’s values are close (ish) to mine, if there will be people-a-bit-like-me, if they’ll be friendly, if they teach the Bible, if the worship team can string two notes together, if the pastor looks (reasonably) sane.

Next up is a quick social search. Are they on Facebook/Twitter? What do people say about them? Incidentally, if your church’s website is out of date, includes clip art of flashing crosses/doves and your Facebook hasn’t been touched in over a year, you might want to fix that. I’d hazard a guess that many people visit a church’s website or Facebook long before they make a decision to visit the church, so it’s a good idea to keep them current. First (web) impressions count.

I write all this from fairly recent experience, as not too long ago, I left a church community and had to start over in a new one. Here’s my reflections on the process so far.

Before you leave…

I knew I first needed somewhere new to go. I know myself pretty well on this score. If I left without a new church to go to, the pull of the snoozy duvet on a Sunday morning would be too strong. I was ‘churchless’ once before, many years ago. I got lots of Sunday lie ins but like an ember on the fireside of life, I soon grew pretty cold.

So, leaving without somewhere to go wasn’t an option.

Leave well

Before I left, I sat down with 3 different people I respect, shared my struggles and thoughts and their advice was unanimous; leave on good terms (if you can). Too many people leave churches by simply fading away (perhaps lacking the courage to explain their reasons) or they depart, banging the door loudly and angrily behind them. The advice I was given was simple, leave well, don’t do something you’ll later regret. And so that’s what I at least tried to do.

It sucks a bit

Yes, it does. No matter how difficult the situation has become, walking away from a community of people you care about, comes with a side dish of mixed emotions. Not just for you, but also for the people you’ve left behind. It is a type of loss and it’s ok to grieve for a while. And then mentally and emotionally, you’ll know when it’s time to move on.

People stop talking to you

Yup, they will. I’ve analysed this one a fair bit and try as I might, I don’t understand it. Why should attending a different church, lead to the loss of friendships? I mean we’re all part of the body of Christ, right? We’re all still Christians? So why on earth would people think they have to stop speaking to you or socialising with you? I accept it will happen if a person has left on bad terms or there’s some kind of scandal, but if it’s a reasonably amicable departure, then why the need to cut off all contact? It’s one I don’t understand.

Don’t look back

It’s easy to look back, roll circumstances round in your head, but my goodness, there’s SO much in God’s Word about moving forward, walking head held high into a lovely new future and not looking back at a disappointing past. I often think of Lot’s wife, she who was turned into a human salt cellar.

Was it because she longed for what she’d left behind? Or was it because she was disobedient and did what she was expressly told not to?

Who knows!

What I do know is that once you’re absolutely clear God is moving you on, pack up your bags, walk hand-in-hand with Jesus into the future and don’t look back.

So, if you’re fortunate enough to never be in the position of a leaver, how should you treat ‘refugees’ who turn up at your church?

Be on the lookout

Walking into a new church for the first time is awful. Even if a church is the friendliest, loveliest church on the planet, that walk from car to door for a first-timer can be utterly terrifying. No seriously.

So if your church gets some newcomers, look out for them. It’s not just the job of the welcome team. If you can, say hi and (this is a biggie!), offer to introduce them to others. Church life is all about knowing others and being known. If you can help a newcomer meet others, you’ll drastically reduce the amount of one-hit-wonders who wander through your doors, never to return.

On my church hunts over the years, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve walked into a church and not soul spoke to me. That just adds to the general awkwardness and embarrassment. If you can, be the type of church where every visitor, always get a smile and a hello. Have people whose job it is to look out for newbies and encourage a culture where it’s impossible for people to arrive or leave unnoticed.

Don’t be weird

Don’t make newcomers do weird stuff, like stand up, wave their arms or publically introduce themselves in some way. Please don’t. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s comfy with that on a first visit.

Don’t chase them to fill in a card with all their details or sign up for something or other on that first Sunday. That kinda feels like being proposed to on a first date. And that rarely works out well. Just be nice, real…normal.

I remember years ago, having moved to a new city, a friend and I were church hunting and found what looked to be a friendly little place up the road. We went in, sat down, the music started and then, they locked the doors and started parading round the perimeter of the room with flags.

Apart from the locked doors being a bit of a fire risk, my friend and I looked at each other (and then the flags) with just a hint of panic. Were we expected to grab a flag too? Would they ever let us out? Turned out the minister hated people wandering in and out, so they regularly locked the doors once the service got started. As for the flag waving, no idea.

Safe to say, we didn’t go back.

Give them time

Depending on the seriousness of the situation, most leavers just need a bit of recovery time. It’s normal to need space to process, to figure stuff out, to sit and be. I’m thankful I’ve been given that time at my new church.

So, some of this might sound a bit negative but that’s definitely not the aim.

I love the church, as a believer I have to be planted in one (I shrivel up without that!) and I love the idea of being part of the wonderful, global family of God.

Churches are made up of humans. Sometimes there’s disagreements and it becomes necessary (if all else fails) to move forward into something else. Sometimes you have to leave because you’re moving to a new area or circumstances have changed in some way.

Whatever the reason, whether you’re a leaver, a leader who’s had people leave or just a person looking out for newcomers, pray, get guidance, get God’s wisdom, keep a good attitude and above all, be the kind of person who does church life well.

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