When It’s Not A Happy Ending

Many of you will know that Smallest GLW came to live with us almost three years ago when he was three. He and his mum moved in with our family after she wasn’t coping.  It was a tough time.  Smaller GLW who has some behavioural challenges had to share a room with Smallest GLW and we split our living room in two with a false wall to make a bedroom for his mum.

 

(This got me thinking about how the erecting of walls has become attached to Donald Trump’s racist agenda.  Yet for us, that wall in our living room represented a way of loving and making space for people.  Not all walls are bad, it seems.)

 

Six months into Smallest GLW being with us his mum felt ready to move on.  She got a job and moved out and asked us to adopt him. After much reflection and prayer, we said yes.

 

Every month I have a day with God.  I go to our local seaside town and walk along the shore, reviewing the past month, praying for those God brings to mind and seeking God’s will for my family and me. Soon after we had agreed to adopt Smallest GLW, I was on a God Day.  I realised that I wasn’t truly choosing to take Smallest GLW on as my own.  And when I tried to work out why, at the root of it I realised that it gave his mum a lot of power in my life.  What if she wanted him back?  How could I risk loving a child and taking him on as my own, knowing there was a risk I would lose him? I told God I couldn’t, that it was too hard.  And God told me that I must.  So I did. I trusted that God had told me this because He knew that Smallest GLW would be ours and that we could have faith that it would all be okay.

 

And so, our family embarked on being five and not four.  It was difficult.  Smallest GLW came with a whole load of baggage; it turns out there’s a lot of hurt that can be fitted into the short life of a three-year-old.  We loved him as hard as we could, and we put everything we could in place to help him flourish.  Strong boundaries and clear consequences, constantly telling him we loved him and how precious he was to us.  In response to questions about how many children we had, Mr GLW and I got used to saying we had three, with no qualifiers or differentials.  They were all our babies.  We went from having two older children (nine and twelve), to having a three-year-old and adapting to the limitations and joys of having a small, adorable, hurt little person.

 

Smallest GLW did flourish! In the past three years he caught up from six months social and emotional delay, his health stabilised, he is top of his class in every subject.  His teacher told us recently that out of all the children in her class, he is the one child you would never guess had experienced a difficult start in life. He is kind, caring and wonderful. The moments of helping him hold his hurt gradually diminish.  We all adjusted, and despite the difficult days, it was lovely.

 

But things changed. Smallest GLW’s mum moved over 200 miles away, had another baby, and wanted him returned to her.  We held onto the word from God telling us that Smallest GLW had become ours and we fought to keep him.  As much as we would have loved to help him be returned, the circumstances left us convinced this would not be good for anyone.  The family court system remains highly confidential and so I can’t go into the details, but a year on from his mum seeking for him to be returned and much to our shock (and the shock of everyone else we know), Smallest GLW is going to be leaving us and moving over 200 miles away, returning permanently to his mum.

 

Whilst everyone else was getting super excited about Michael Curry’s wedding sermon, I wept hysterically as I listened to him.  He said,

 

“That’s what love is. Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world…Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way – unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.”

 

And Christian Twitter LOVED it (well mostly).  It’s inspiring to hear about sacrificial love, but it’s brutal to live it.  All these people cheering on sacrificial love, and I was losing a baby in a system that is messed up; when God had specifically told me to take that baby as my own.  How could God do that to me?  How could anyone preach that this was a good idea?  Why were people not struck with fear by the absolute horror of sacrificial love?  Of what it can do to us?  Of how it can break us?

 

It’s been an unbearable few months as we’ve gone through a system where legal aid is non-existent.  Today I sat in a court waiting room and a volunteer brought around a therapy dog.  She was lovely and sat with people whilst they stroked her (the dog, not the volunteer).  Weeks earlier, sat in the same waiting room I had seen a woman broken by an abusive ex-partner dragging her through the court.  She was representing herself.  She was all alone.  Every day women are being dragged through the family court by abusive men and they are alone.  For a moment I stroked the lovely dog and felt relieved that some women would have a dog to stroke while they waited to be re-broken by the man who had destroyed their life, in a system that colludes with him.  I shared my relief with the volunteer that women would have this dog to comfort them.  And she nodded and told me there have been many women who have sat on the floor with her dog and wept as they told the dog the ways they have been wrecked, by men and by the system.

 

Then I became slightly hysterical.  What on earth was I thinking?  Why am I pleased that women have a dog to comfort them in the family court, when what they need is a functioning justice system that gives them a fair hearing and does not collude with abusive men?  WHAT THEY NEED IS A FRICKING LAWYER, NOT A DOG TO WEEP ON.  The state of our society is captured right there, in that court waiting room.  A woman weeping on the floor comforted by a dog whilst the system completely fails her.

 

When things began to get fraught for us, before we knew what the terrible outcome would be, inspired by the Eat Pray Love mantra, I took on my own mantra of Run Pray Sleep.  I found that as long as each day included a run, a dedicated prayer time, and at least eight hours sleep, I would be okay.  But then that fell apart.  The stress resulted in me getting severe tonsillitis, then I twisted my ankle.  I couldn’t run.  Nightmares, constantly going over statements and strategies in my head and the clocks changing meant my sleep was terrible.  And I stopped being able to pray, there was nothing to say.  I couldn’t face the possibility of losing Smallest GLW, but neither could I rest in the confidence he was staying, because then if he did leave it would be all the more devastating.

 

The debilitating effect of this situation confounded me partly because I have been through worse (and I don’t say that lightly).  At 21, I divorced my abusive ex-husband, while living in a hospital with a premature baby and a traumatised toddler and was a witness against my ex-husband for raping me and causing the three-month premature birth of my baby.

 

Yet this situation hurt in a different way.  With my sick baby, there was little I could do fight.  I was totally out of control.  Whereas in this situation we had to choose to keep fighting, to believe that we could “win”.  The energy required to fight a broken system was different.  And I was different.  I wasn’t a young parent with no confidence who had been decimated by an abusive man. I had been a competent professional for a decade, I had become a warrior fighting for women and speaking truth. And yet, this whole situation drained me of strength, disempowered me, left me broken.

 

A couple of realisations helped:

 

  1. Every year in June or July I have a God Weekend (me and God for two nights, usually in a cheap hotel in Folkestone, waiting on God, reflecting on the year, working out what’s next), and there’s usually some words that become clear about the year ahead. Last June, two of the words God gave me were Fortitude and Presence.  (I didn’t know what Fortitude even meant, but on discovering that it meant “courage in pain or adversity” I panicked.  Courage isn’t too bad, but a word that promised pain and adversity suggested the year was going to be awful, and in a lot of ways it has been.)  Over the year I had felt guilty about the whole Presence word.  I hadn’t sought God’s presence, particularly when things had got bad.  I hadn’t even been able to pray anymore.  Then a few weeks ago, as I wallowed in the misery of being a failed Christian and not seeking God’s presence, God pointed out to me that I was wrong.  That word “Presence” was about God always being present.  I wasn’t a failure for not being able to pray.  God was present.  I didn’t need to do anything, God was there all along.  God is always there.

 

  1. I’ve been having counselling for almost a year. On my God Weekend some stuff came up that I tried to pray about and God was all, “YOU COULD SIT HERE FOR THREE DAYS AND PRAY, BUT LET’S BE HONEST, YOU NEED TO GET YOURSELF IN THERAPY.”  So I did.  Which turns out to have been very good advice given that this year has involved being utterly wrecked.

 

In one session recently, just before a court hearing, my therapist did this visualisation exercise with me (it took months for me not to be all ARGHHHHH about such things) and she told me to imagine being a boat on a stormy sea and that I was putting down an anchor.  My imagination conjured up a wooden rowing boat and I knew that an anchor wasn’t going to help. I was going to be SMASHED TO PIECES and an urgent solution was needed.  Suddenly my rowing boat became a massive metal warship.  As I drove home I pondered this and realised that I wasn’t a rowing boat, I was a MASSIVE METAL WARSHIP and I knew that I would not be overcome.  I walked into the court room all empowered and confident that I could fight everyone.  And we lost.  We lost our baby.

 

Church has been tough, illness and circumstances meant I didn’t attend for almost two months.  Every song makes me cry.  And I am certainly not a public cryer (no judgement to those who are, I wish I could be).

 

This week when we announced to our church that Smallest GLW was leaving, people were so sad. One woman came over to tell Smallest GLW, who was snuggled up to me, that no matter what he would never be alone, and I squashed all the tears down as my insides screamed “BUT HE WILL BE ALL ALONE AND I WON’T BE THERE TO KEEP HIM SAFE AND LOVE HIM AND TELL HIM HE IS PRECIOUS AND AMAZING AND CUDDLE HIM AND MAKE SURE HE BRUSHES HIS TEETH AND EATS HIS DINNER AND IS KIND TO HIS FRIENDS”.  Someone else assured me that she thought he would be back, even though he won’t be. But this person just wants there to be a happy ending, because that’s what we all want isn’t it?  Happy endings.  And that’s what we’ve been told the Gospel is, a happy ending.  But for most people in the world, Christian or not, it’s not a happy ending.  The woman weeping into a dog on the floor of a court waiting room.  The Palestinian nurse Razan al-Najjar shot by Israeli soldiers. The American citizens fearful of being arrested and shot or hearing of their sons or daughters being shot, because they are black.  The Syrian people living in a warzone.  The increasing numbers of homeless people in our cities.  Happy ever afters are for fairy tales, not for real life and certainly not for Christians.

 

The sermon at church last week was about brokenness and how Jesus’ light shines through our brokenness.  Inside I was yelling, “BUT NOT THIS BROKEN, BECAUSE THERE’S NOTHING LEFT.”  Then we sang Becky and Nick Drake’s song “City On A Hill” and there’s a line in it, “If God is for me, who can stand against me.”  And the yelling started up again inside me, “BUT CLEARLY THAT’S NOT TRUE BECAUSE WE’RE LOSING OUR BABY.”

 

I have no answers.  I don’t understand why God has put us through this.  I should have had an inkling it was going to be hard when I won a sermon competition two years ago decrying the complacency and comfortableness of Christians (you can read the sermon HERE).  So maybe, now I get to like on of those long ago prophets who lives out some sort of lesson to the people of God.  Or maybe that’s me trying to make meaning out of the unbearable.  Who knows?

 

I do know that for the last three years Smallest GLW has belonged somewhere.  He has not felt like he was a temporary family member.  He has been ours.  And if God had told us he was only ours for a little while, I’m not sure we could have given him what he needed.  To know he belonged.

 

I got thinking about the Prodigal Child (I wrote a story once reimagining this story as a mother and two daughters).  How our model for God as parent is that we mess up and walk away from God and then God waits for us to come back and welcomes us with open arms.  But what about the children who don’t walk away? What about the ones who are taken away, or who find that religious systems abuse them and for their sanity and safety they have to leave?  And I wondered if I’m getting to feel a tiny bit of what God feels when the systems take God’s children away, and how deeply God grieves for those children and how hard God fought but that didn’t change the outcome.

 

There may be people reading this who aren’t Christian (if you’ve got this far, I applaud you!), and you may be thinking that I’m a masochist.  Why continue to love a God who only causes pain?  If God asks that much of me, why do I keep going? How can I call myself a feminist and worship this patriarchal God who demands everything and leaves men to continue wrecking the world?  (I remain forever grateful to the feminists who continue to welcome me, even though they are confident I am utterly deluded about this God business).  I wish I had a snappy answer to give you, but I don’t.

 

Awhile ago, I read THIS interview with Rachael Denhollander who is an absolute Shero for all of her work seeking justice for the many victims of Larry Nassar, and in her continued work to shine a light on male violence in Christian communities.  Rachael was asked if a Bible verse has particularly helped her and she answered,

 

“One was from John 6, where Jesus asks Peter, “Do you want to leave too?” Peter says, “Where else would I go, Lord? You have the words of life.” There was a point in my faith where I had to simply cling to the fact that although I didn’t understand or have the answers, I knew that God was good and that he was love. Whatever else I didn’t understand couldn’t be a contradiction to that.”

 

In all of this I know that to be true.  It makes no sense.  But it is true.  There is nowhere else I could go to find Life like that which I have found in following Jesus.

 

Michael Curry’s sermon, whilst leaving me hysterical, is true. He is not someone speaking nice ideas. He is a 65-year-old black American man. He knows what sacrificial love costs and yet he still advocates it, and even in the midst of all this awfulness for us, I remain convinced it is the only way.

 

I don’t have any answers.  And the pain is going to get worse before it becomes bearable.  Smallest GLW leaves us on 23rd June.  As a family we have to work out a new normal and find a way through.  Both in spite of and because of all we are dealing with, I remain convinced that though we are hard pressed on every side, we are not crushed; though we are deeply perplexed in trying to make sense of it all, we are not totally despairing or abandoned, though we have been struck down, we will not be destroyed.

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Are You Sitting Comfortably?

In 2016, I entered the first Sermon of the Year competition run by Preach Magazine.  I only submitted an entry due to knowing how few women put themselves forward and feeling that I had a responsibility to represent womankind by putting a sermon entry in.  And I won it!  Which was amazing!  The prize was free study at London School of Theology and I convinced them to let me enter one of their Masters programmes without a first degree (I left education at 18 having done a two year course to gain a childcare qualification).  Fast forward two years and the competition is in its third year, the final will be on 21st June at LST and I’m now a regular columnist with Preach Magazine!

 

Anyway, I thought it was about time I put my sermon online.  It turns out that the sermon I wrote and preached has involved our family living out the message in some sort of old skool prophet way (which I can tell you is not that fun).  There’s been a lot going on in GLW family life over the last few months and I’m hoping to write something to share with you about it, but I felt to firstly share this sermon as I kind of feel it is part of what needs to be told.  So here goes…

 

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.”

 

I am much too young to have “listened with mother” but this question has followed us through the generations. I shall ask you again, “Are you sitting comfortably?”

 

This sermon is entitled “Reason For Hope”. Hope involves balancing on the line between despair and complacency. It is the narrow road we are called to as Christians. For if life is too comfortable, what have we to hope for? Hope can only exist until it is realised. We can celebrate the realisation of our hope, but the hope itself is replaced by the delight of hope fulfilled.

 

Paul tells us in Romans 8 that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to daughter and son-ship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?”

 

What have we to hope for if we are sitting comfortably?

 

Hope requires a deficit; something not yet received. However most of us want a reason to hope without the need for hope in our lives, without the discomfort of any deficit. There’s a reason why the fastest growing churches are in geographical areas of persecution and oppression; when people are in need of hope, Jesus offers Life, whereas there are conversations aplenty in the UK about whether the church is dying and how to revive it.

 

Maya Angelou, in her book “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” says, “I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend in material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at commensurate speed.”

 

We hear Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry mocking the existence of God, as they enjoy the privileges of financial and social security; as white men with enormous power and control over their own lives. Last year Stephen Fry used the example of a fly that burrows into a child’s eye as justification that God can’t be real. Yet often we will find that the children and families who have actually dealt with the burrowing eye fly are more likely to believe in a loving God than Stephen Fry is. Because when you have nothing, God can become real very quickly.

 

As Christians we are called to a life of discomfort. The artist Banksy famously said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Although he is talking about art, this is also the truth of the Gospel. In a world that sings along with Pharrell Williams that “Happiness is the truth” Jesus’ call to “pick up our cross daily” leaves the gospel of happiness echoing hollow and empty. For as much as Jesus comforts the disturbed, the lonely, the wounded, the abused, He does not call us to be comfortable.

 

Those familiar with nineties and noughties Christian music will know the band Delirious. One of their songs is called Find Me In The River. Within it are the lines, “We’ve longed to see the roses, but never felt the thorns. And bought our pretty crowns, but never paid the price.”

 

In our comfortable existence we want the goodness of God’s gifts and blessing, but the fullness of life Jesus talked about is accessed by dying to ourselves every single day. This is not to say that we should engage in self-hatred. Selflessness is not thinking less of ourselves, it’s thinking of ourselves less. The paradox of Christian faith is that in giving ourselves to God, we find ourselves.

 

Are you sitting comfortably?

 

God loves us so much. If like Cain, we come to God in our plenty and choose to give Him less than the best of what we have, He will still love us. He will still meet with us. Yet, it was Abel who was “looked upon with favour”. God will not demand our all, but if we give it we will find Him and know Him in that.

 

Having grown up in a Christian family, I knew cognitively about the hope Jesus offers, yet it was only after 4 years of being prevented from loving God by an abusive man that I discovered in my heart what it really means to have a reason to hope. I found myself living in a hospital, with a three-month premature baby and a traumatised toddler. I hoped my baby would recover and that my life would improve. Yet God didn’t pat me on the head and grant my wishes. God asked me to give up even the hope that my baby would get better. He told me to stop praying for my baby to recover and start praying for His will to be done. He told me I needed to be confident of my love for Him, whether my baby lived or died.

 

We are so often taught the Gospel of Sitting Comfortably. The catchall verse of Jeremiah 29:11 is trundled out to tell us that God has good plans for us, to bring us hope and a good future. Yet what about all the people who haven’t known a good future? The ones who struggle with depression? The ones who die of starvation? The ones who are abused and raped? The ones with children who are blind because a fly has burrowed into their eye?

 

The Gospel of Sitting Comfortably owes a lot more to capitalist culture than to Jesus. We are sold the lie of consumer based self-actualisation. That we can access total fulfilment through consuming, spending, owning; that the abundance of our possessions leads to the overflow of happiness in our lives. That sitting comfortably or even better, drowning in a sea of excess, is what life is all about.

 

But that is not the Gospel. That is not our Hope. For we are blessed when we are poor, blessed when we are mourning, blessed when we are humble and blessed when we are merciful. Blessed when we are pure in heart and blessed when we make peace. We are blessed when we are persecuted because of righteousness, when we are mocked and when people lie about us. Because ours in the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

Are you sitting comfortably?

 

How much are you willing to give God? Will you be obedient if He asks you to move house? To give up your job? Do you need a reason to hope or do you just like having one.

 

In one of the Hunger Games film there is a scene where the not-so-benevolent dictator is explaining his theory for maintaining order amongst oppressed people, “Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”  Sisters and brothers, we have access to a hope that can set the world alight. Yet because of God’s grace, He allows us to contain it. He allows us to hold just enough hope to know we are saved, without forcing it to change us, to make us people of the deficit.  We have a hope that could set our lives and our communities ablaze, yet we are sitting too comfortably.

 

Until we are willing for God to disturb us, to take us outside of comfortable, then He won’t. And though we have a reason to hope, we have no need of it. No need of it at all.

 

We are called to be a people of deficit. Our Saviour was tortured and died. We cannot shy away from pain and wounded-ness, for our hope is in the resurrection of a tortured God.  The title of this sermon is from 1 Peter 3: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

 

Does anyone ask you for your reason to hope? Or does your life look the same as those who don’t know Jesus? Maybe people know you’re a Christian; not because of your “reason to hope” but because of your lack of gentleness and respect. Maybe they know your opinions on different issues. But discussing our opinions has little to do with our reason to hope. In fact, the certainty of our rightness can sometimes stand at odds with a life of faith; it is certainty and not doubt that is the opposite of faith.

 

Maybe you’re sat here, and you’re wondering what I’m going on about. What is this “reason to hope” that I’m talking about?  God came to earth over 2000 years ago, He was birthed out of a woman as a human baby and grew up to live and teach a way of life that almost every religious and ethical group would agree has never been surpassed. He willingly died to once and for all transform humanity’s relationship with God. And then He rose again, conquering death and making a way from death into eternal life for all of us, regardless of the way we mess up or are messed up by others. After Jesus had risen from the dead He supernaturally floated back up to heaven and in His place came the Holy Spirit, another aspect of God, who would guide and gift us to live radical lives, according to The Way that Jesus taught and modelled in His life.

 

My children and I lived in a hospital for five months. In that time I separated from my ex-husband, and went through a court case against him for raping me and I moved to a new area. Since I chose to give my whole life to God I have not been comfortable, my ex-husband was found not guilty; I still have post traumatic stress disorder; my premature baby became well but has been left with behavioural issues; my traumatised toddler has become a gloriously self-assured 12 year old; I have remarried and moved when and where God has told me to. Recently my mum died and the shockwaves of that have been very painful for me. My 22-year-old niece and her 3-year-old son have come to live with us and we have had to trust God for the money to provide for them. We have carved up our living room to make her a bedroom and my 9-year-old son has had to learn to share a room with a 3-year-old. Our house is filled to bursting. We face pain, disappointment and frustration on a regular basis.

 

And yet, I do all this in the full assurance that I am loved and called and precious. Because Jesus became human, I have a God who can walk beside me and knows what it is to suffer. Through the Holy Spirit, I am held in the painful times. I am comforted, though I am not comfortable. And I live a life of freedom and in the hope that this life is not the end. Jesus’s death and resurrection made a way for each of us to have hope for this life and for the next. This is my reason to hope.

 

As you leave this place, may you know the God who disturbs, may you embrace a life with deficit, where the cost is great and the blessings many. And may you be willing to live a life with a need for hope. For those here that don’t know Jesus, may you know that He is the reason to hope.

 

Are you sitting comfortably? I hope not.