Advent 11 -Here I raise my Ebenezer

I’m not sure what this one has to do with Advent but it feels important to put it on this ever evolving blog of mine. Mainly so my most faithful reader (me) will remember. You are welcome to listen in. It’s a long one though so maybe have a cup of tea in hand. Or listen to this lovely song as you read. It sums up most of what I’m saying.

Ever since turning 40 I’ve had a strange feeling that I’m returning to the core of me, to the things that were important to me as a child and seem to be an essential part of who I am.  I’ve had a sense of my story circling back again to the things that have always been a part of me. There is another blog post brewing in how this is happening in my love of nature but I can feel this happening with my faith as well. I’ve been struggling to articulate anything to do with faith on this blog in recent years. I’m wary of the internet and wary of the thought police that seems to exist in some Christian tribes.

My faith is evolving in a natural way, I’m less certain of more things and more certain of less things. It seems an utterly normal progression and has been happening for about 20 years (my time when I was certain about everything was a mercifully brief period at the end of university.)

So here’s some of my story.  I write it down to show myself the journey so far and the path from then to now, to see the familiar threads coming up time and time again and to plant a post in the ground to say here we are and here we go from here. An ebenezer. A stone to remember.

I grew up with God. Church every Sunday (the one day of the week I had to wear a skirt until I said, no more). I grew up with Bible reading notes, Sunday school and the learned daily rhythm of having a set apart time with God each day. I grew up with biographies that blew my mind, the Spirit transforming gangland New York (secretly I wanted to be in the gangs), prisoners who saw angels at the bottom of their beds and changed their ways. I grew up with ‘the world’ being a potentially dangerous place. I grew up with awareness of a Bigger reality than me. I knew I wanted to give my life to God (whatever that meant). I found God through the example of my parents, their faith, their ways, their perspective on this world. I found God because they introduced me by being who they were. I am forever grateful.

I walked into my teens and found God through long dark days of depression and anger. Through illness and isolation wondering who I really was. I found God in the words to a song only really a handful of people will have ever heard. ‘I long to be of value, I long to have a friend, I long to have a home to go to, when my life should end’. I found God in the Lake District, standing on mountains in wonder and awe, all breath beaten from me as I knew that insignificant me was known and loved. I found God in learning the language of prayer with a friend. Praying together every week gave words to my heart.

I found God in our youth group, in the community of others trying to work out this God thing together. I found God in our church, in the epic sermons of our vicar, renewed by the Spirit, quoting hymns, poetry and exclaiming loudly of the reality of God here and now in Guildford. I found God in the mental overexcited organ solo’s our vicar used to do as he played along with the band on Easter Day praise services.

I found God in the same man who constantly talked of God bringing light into the darkness each Christmas and in the packed out midnight Christmas Eve services of loud unquenchable singing.

I found God in helping out at a cafe our church ran for a few Christmases in a row, serving breakfasts to the harassed Christmas shoppers of Guildford. I experienced confidence I never knew I had waiting on tables and being part of a team. I found God when I went under the waters and rose again to new life at my Baptism. The physical sacrament bringing deep reality in my soul.

I found God in the writings of Adrian Plass who seemed to offer the example before me to make the world a gift of weakness and know God at work through broken messy people, of which I was definitely one.

I found God in the shadow of Guildford Cathedral, taking a day off school to figure out what my life was about. The rhyming couplets from an 80s chorus have guided me on since, ‘tell my people I love them, tell my people I care, when they feel far away from me, tell my people I am there.’

I found God through my Nana, unconditional love and grace poured out on me despite my rebellious ways. I found God in those soft wrinkled hands in mine, teaching me to twiddle my thumbs and her shiny nails. I found God in her soft northern voice and in the depths of grief as she died of cancer when I was 14.

I found God many many times at Word Alive/Spring Harvest. Wandering around Butlins chatting to my God was a highlight of my teenage years. (Odd eh).

I found God in many things and various ways.

Life moved on.

I went to University and found God all over again in a different place. I also found a strange undercurrent in this faith thing. The starting of seeing people mark out who was right and who was wrong. I was taught some people were more on track than others, in amongst the zeal of students and the confidence of youth God was at work but there was a new thing alongside that, a subtle desire to work out those who were in and those who were out. There was a call to cling to truth, search for objective meaning, the fight against the scary thoughts that postmodernity seemed to bring.

I still found God, in many and various ways, and always in the Lake District, but the undercurrent remained. Some people were in and some were out. Some needed more prayers. Some had drifted away, some were talked about in sad hushed tones. I rode the emotional rollercoaster of worrying about friends who seemed to be giving up on it all. I wonder now if they were just giving up on a certain way of living with the divine rather than the divine reality.

The idea of faith as linear progression was big. You gave your life to God and then progressed up the holiness ladder to heaven. (Obviously it wasn’t put in those terms but that was the impression I was left with and still battle against)

I still found God in helping people walk on through the mess of life and knew that it couldn’t be as simple as one tribe having the monopoly on the way, the truth and the life (surely only one man really did). But all the time I saw fences going up around me, the battle lines drawn ever tighter about what to think and what to believe. (Never mind that the heroes of the different tribes didn’t always quite match up in having the exact theology of those tribes…).

I found God in the old old verses that called me not to worry all the time about what the ‘right’ belief was or which tribe I belonged to but whether I was trusting in, paying heed to God, seeking God, asking for the ancient ways, waiting for God to work, asking where God was, turning from broken cisterns and accepting the ways of overflowing everlasting patient love.

I abandoned my ship of fulltimepaidchristianministry, got married, ploughed into the parched desert of early parenting and clung to the heart of what I believed. God was here, I was stripped away of any kind of active involvement, offering little faith or activity of my own but as I nurtured my boys I felt God nurture me, constantly love and hold me through the long dark nights.

I found God in the cot, at my breast, in dancing around the kitchen with a small one in the sling. I found God in doing the same things over and over again, I found God in ordering the chaos and in the long walk home.

As I come out of those early parenting years I’m starting to look around more and see what faith looks like here. I can’t abide the tribal barriers anymore. I can’t be bothered with the people who have the time to draw up long lists of who is in the club and who is out. I can’t deal with the emotional weight of worrying that if someone alters their theology on one detail that they are thrown out. It doesn’t feel very Jesus like to me. The man who made the way abundantly open and as narrow as it could be. Who did that according to who he was talking to at the time. Who tenderly loved the outcast and reserved his anger for the whitewashed tombs who put the external barriers too high for anyone to get over.

At the moment we are part of a church where there is room to breathe, to explore and question, where there isn’t a line in the sand to adhere to. I find myself, in this freedom, more certain than ever that I belong to the Maker of the universe, that God is at work in the world and that Jesus calls us to love and care for this beautiful mess of a city we live in. I find God on the school run, in the conversations I have with others, in the light on people’s faces, in the daily plodding on. I find God in the world around me, the slow never changing transformation of the seasons. I find God as I explain the world to my boys and marvel at how they are trying to figure it all out.

I find God in the tears of those who’ve been rejected and excluded finding a home. In the freedom of being loved and known. In the constant joyful knowledge that I don’t have everything neatly sorted out, and that no-one ever has in the whole of history. And still God works patiently with us. I find God in the wonderful knowledge that God is at work through many people and in various ways speaking constantly of Jesus. I find God in the knowledge that here we see dimly and in darkness but one day we will know fully and I can joyously wait for that day. I find God in the knowledge that all of us are loved, so loved, whatever we believe or not today.

I still find God at Christmas, moving in to abide with us. Our Immanuel. Our hope in the face of blackest dark. Our everlasting light when all other lights flicker and fade. I cannot wait to one day know fully but for now I trust that I know in part and God can take care of the rest. I don’t need this all figured out. Someone else has. I can rest in the God who is slow to anger and rich in love. Who comes with tender mercy and welcomes all who would come in. Phew.

Ebenezer planted.

On we go.

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