Chapter 29: My Church of Quirks

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The other day, I was driving someone in my car. My iPhone’s playlist was randomly streaming in the background. A Hillsong Jesus-y God-praising song came on and I subtly skipped it. Yes. I skipped it. I pressed the button on my steering wheel that makes my sound system proceed to the next song. I didn’t want my new friend judging me by my Jesus music.

And then I realised that I’d done it again. Unfaithful to God.

People who know me often think I’m a fantastic Christian because I have a Christian blog and/or I go to church and/or I’m “such a nice person”.

I’m not.

I’m actually a dilapidated, broken person who fails daily in my relationship with God.

But, the thing with God – which never fails to amaze me – is that He actually still loves me. He loves me even though I fail Him daily.

Just when I think, “That’s it; I’ve done it now! Surely God won’t love me anymore because of ___”, His love tells me that I am cherished and He just keeps loving me back to life.

“I will not forget you. I have written your name on the palms of my hands” -God. (Isaiah 49: 15-16).

Back in 2014, this seemed to me to be a missing element in many churches.

I was convinced that I had experienced Jesus in my life. I’d experienced the radical heart-transplant that the Holy Spirit so beautifully and traumatically carries out. I’d experienced God’s unfathomable willingness to enter the muck and grime of humanity. And even though I was unfaithful to God and spiritually rough around the edges (and still am!), I was convinced that God loved me more when I was honest about my brokenness, than when I was sitting in church pretending to have all my shit together.

At this point, I was still going to the church where Mr Ex and I had attended as a married couple, albeit on and off.

First off, let me say it is a terrific church that meets the needs of so many people and is undoubtedly a work of the Holy Spirit. But I didn’t fit in. For two reasons, I thought.

  1. I felt like it was a group of people with all their shit together. Adults who don’t say “shit” and children who skipped out to Sunday School during the last verse of the third hymn. Married couples. Families. Perfection. And what would I have in common with that?! I didn’t see how couples who married at 21 would have any understanding of what it is like to be single-again. That sounds a little self-indulgent (“no one understands me!!”), but it’s how I felt. [Just for the record, the truth is, they do have their own troubles. All people do. Illnesses, infertility, working through past traumas, issues with their children… not every married couple who looks like they have their shit together actually has their shit together. But, perceptions rule our thinking].
  2. Everyone could quickly and accurately rustle through the pages of their bible to the correct chapter within 5.5 seconds. So, the guy up the front would say “Today’s bible reading comes from Hebrews 11” and there would be 5.5 seconds of page rustling before everyone found the spot. But I couldn’t find Hebrews chapter 11 in 5.5 seconds. Heck, I still probably can’t. And that kind of thing made me feel inadequate and out of place. That’s just one silly little example, but for me, it was a big deal. I remember going to a Bible study group at that church and I drove home in floods of tears because I didn’t understand what the leader was talking about – King James talk makes less sense to me than Shakespeare (and I majored in English at uni)! – and I didn’t pray as articulately and succinctly as they did. Again, that was 100% based on my own perceptions and personal hang-ups rather than anything remotely truthful or accurate about that church and the people who go there, but you know, as I said, our perceptions rule our thinking.

Church shopping is not something I recommend or endorse. Generally, I think we should pray long and hard before church shopping. My general rule of thumb is that it is better to stay where you are because leaving rarely solves the problem. And because, really, you can see my flawed reasons for moving on. My reasons were based totally on my perceptions and interpretations, rather than on anything remotely factual.

But for me, I knew it was time to fly.

So, I started looking around.

One church that I visited asked me if I’d be interested in joining a bible study group during the week. That sounded kind of promising, although, with my Christian “L” plates, I was still very cautious of bible study groups.

“Singles or couples?” the well-meaning lady asked me.

I hesitated and replied, “Well, not couples. So, I guess singles?”

“Great!” the lady enthused. “How old are you?”

“I’m 25,” I replied.

“Oh…Singles might be a little too young for you then, dear!” the lady replied.

And that felt like being swamped by a tonne of bricks.

It’s a sad, sad world when 25 is considered too old for the singles group.

I also went to another church for around 6 weeks. Things started off great! I noticed people who looked to be in their twenties who weren’t wearing wedding rings. It was good to see that there were people my age who weren’t all married off. It made me feel comfortable. No, I wasn’t husband-shopping. It just made me feel a little more normal.

But the problem was that week after week, I ended up sitting on my own.

One day, I met the pastor’s daughter, a jolly, extraverted, larger-than-life girl, possibly a year or two older than me. She bounced over introducing herself. We chatted happily for a while. Small talk. Jobs, careers and that kind of thing. She was a nurse who had done aid work in multiple third world countries.

After some small talk, she asked if I’d be interested in joining a weekly bible study group. That seemed to be a trend that churches offer, perhaps to give me a chance to get to know people better outside of the church context and to kick-start relationship connections. I was interested and keen to make friends.

“It’s for us singles!” she quipped, obviously making an assumption based on my lack of finger bling.

Nice that they cater for singles. And nice that she’s late-twenties and single.

But then it went downhill.

“Never found The One, huh?” she smiled, tilting her head. I think it was a joke. I think she was trying to connect with me or be funny or sarcastic or something. Then she quickly blamed all her overseas aid work for her late-twenties singleness. Because, you know, God forbid she was single because no one wanted her. Foreign aid is a much better reason for singleness. *Insert sarcasm*

“Umm…” I said, unsure. “Well… I am actually separated… so I’m kind of in no-man’s land at the moment”.

“Oh.”  Awkward silence.

“It’s all good!” I spoke up. “I’m fine; I’m happy. I’m moving on!”

And the conversation seemed to quickly move to a more comfortable topic of weather and current affairs. We chatted happily and apart from that brief awkwardness, it was a great chat.

And indeed I did go back the following week.

I walked in, I looked around, and I saw the jolly, extraverted, pastor’s daughter gleefully laughing and joking in a gaggle of girls. I thought I’d resist my natural inclination to fade into the background, so I approached them. And she DIDN’T. RECOGNISE. ME! At all!

That’s OK. She’s probably had a busy week. And I bet she meets heaps of people as she’s the pastor’s daughter. I’ll just jog her memory gently.

“I’m Essie; I met you last week.”

“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah! That’s right, darl!” But I was betting she had no idea.

It was almost time to sit down for the service.

She hugged each of her friends and gave prolonged hand-holds to each of them, before all proceeding to sit down next to each other in a row of chairs.

You’re not farewelling them. You’re just sitting down next to them.

As people took their seats and others moved in, I was shuffled along to the end of the row. And then the girl next to me turned to say, “Sorry, this seat is taken.”

Are you shooing the new girl?!

So, I moved to the seat behind.

The pastor’s daughter was still surrounded by her gaggle of girls. They held hands during some songs and they took notes during the sermon. And when it ended, they went off to the tea and coffee table and I was left alone. Again.

Six weeks there and no one ever remembered me from one week to the next. Needless to say, I threw in the towel.

For a year on, I received occasional updates via email from that church. But I would bet $1,000,000 that not one person there would know who I am.

Then over the subsequent two weeks, I mentioned my unsuccessful church hunting experiences to three colleagues at work at separate times. I chatted with them at over lunch in the staff room on different days, but all three gave me the same advice: “Try Happy’s Church!”

“Happy’s” isn’t the actual name of this church. For privacy reasons, I’m not using the church’s real name, so let’s go with the nickname “Happy’s”.

It struck me as kind of odd that three separate colleagues were recommending Happy’s to me, without any idea that others were recommending the same.

Coincidence or God-incidence?!

And at the end of that roughly two-week period of three different Happy’s recommendations, during Junior Primary choir on a Thursday afternoon at school, I was watching my class on stage practicing for the up-coming Grandparents Day.

“Give me a home among the gum trees….” they sang, “with lots of plum trees… A sheep or two, and a kangaroo, a clothesline out the back…. verandah out the front… and an old rocking chair” and they all rocked back and forth out of time with each other.

I became aware of someone just to my left. Someone different. A relief teacher.

James, the new relief teacher, was really chatty and joined in with the song’s actions even though it was his first time at Junior Primary choir. He looked to be about my age. To cut a long story short, we got talking and I found out that he regularly attended Happy’s. He highly recommended Happy’s to me. He also said I should come that Sunday and that he and his girlfriend, Rebecca, would look out for me.

That’s four people at work who have recommended it now.

August 2014.

I remember vividly driving up the cold, dark, wet road to Happy’s. It felt like forever. It was winter. And it was raining cats and dogs. I wanted to turn back. In fact, I was *this close* to turning back.

In the darkness and bucketing down rain, I missed the church’s carpark entry. GoogleMaps told me to turn around. And at that point, it all felt too hard.

“Make a U-turn whenever possible,” GoogleMaps told me.

Pfft! Screw it! I’m just gonna go home.

But then I saw the Happy’s carpark entry. And I drove in, hesitant and uncertain.

I pulled into a parking space and sat in my car, praying.

God, I’m SO sick of trying new churches. I’m not great at small talk. I’m sick of being the only broken one. I don’t fit into the ‘Christian’ scene. If you want me to try this church, please make it really obvious. Please just open the door or slam the door shut. Show me what to do because I’m feeling disheartened and I’m… I… I… Julia!!!!???!??!

First, I saw her colourful scarf. Then her stripey top. And then her umbrella. And then recognised her car!!!

Cast your mind back to my chapter about starting my new job. Julia was a teacher at my new school. Similar story, similar scars. She doesn’t go to Happy’s, but she was visiting that night for – hold onto your hats – a guest speaker!!!

And she wasn’t one of the people who had recommended Happy’s to me. She had no idea I was going to be there that night. With all the rain and wintery darkness, she hadn’t even recognised me or my car.

We were both as equally shocked to see each other there. And to have parked next to each other.

I’m not saying God is a genie who answers prayers on cue with an obvious “ta-dah!”  He’s not and He doesn’t. But I am saying that sometimes (and often when we least expect it) He gives us a tiny miracle – coincidence or God-incidence, whatever you think it is – which fills our hearts with a “Essie, I’ve got this!” reply.

So, I had someone to walk in with! (Believe me, that makes a world of difference when visiting new churches)

And best of all, if Julia hadn’t pulled into the carpark next to me, I can’t guarantee that I would’ve got out the car into the rain and walked into that church that night.

“Then you shall call and the Lord will answer; you shall cry and He will say ‘Here I am.'” (Isaish 58:9).

So after walking in with Julia and sitting with her for the service, afterwards I met two amazing girls: James’s sister Tasmin, better known as Taz, and his girlfriend, Rebecca. Followed by a whole line-up of amazing people, who will feature in upcoming chapters 🙂

What sets this church (aka Happy’s) apart…

  • I’ve never once sat alone. Week after week after week, never alone. I was welcomed right from the start with authentic, genuine love.
  • One of the first times I went there, the pastor got up to begin his message and he started with, “I love unusual people!” Amen! I feel at home! It is a bunch of real people. Normal and abnormal people. Fits and misfits. Crazy and quirky. Boring and effervescent. Black sheep. White sheep. Rainbow sheep. All are welcome. It’s not strange to see a person with mismatched socks, dreadlocks, a total nerd or a surfie-dude. It is home to all types. I love that there is no cookie-cutter to fit into. All come before the throne of grace where they can worship God, a constant source of wholeness for our brokenness.
  • The first time my ‘story’ came up in conversation, I braced myself for the usual awkwardness. But there was none! I felt like I’d known the Happy’s crowd for years and talking to them about my history was never weird or awkward and never followed by a hasty transition to discussing the weather and sports.
  • The second time I went to Happy’s, the guy leading the songs and worship up the front shared some of his own thoughts with the congregation. He was talking about Jesus, the real Jesus; the Jesus who walked our earthly streets and felt anger and hurt and pain. Jesus who wants to have an adventurous, wild, authentic relationship with us in our everyday lives. Not the stained-glass window, out-of-touch-with-reality Jesus that so many people put on a pedestal. YES! That was exactly my kind of topic!!
  • Fellowship and friendship over a glass of red. After church, everyone will sit around together, sharing a meal and a bottle of red. That is where the magic happens. I have nothing against bible study groups – they are vital – but I think it is vital to also just hang out and chat. Talk about everyday things. The boring. The insignificant. That’s important too.
  • Grace-filled theology. Not perfection. It is impossible to find a church that is perfect. Churches are filled with people. And people are never perfect (despite what they may project to the world). As humans, we anger each other, we fail each other, we make cliques, we change our minds, we get things wrong and we misinterpret, like, all the time. The truth is, we don’t have our shit together. And I love it when people are honest and authentic about that. Sharing our hurts, sharing our struggles, sharing our shit-storms, sharing our doubts. It’s real. It’s messy. It’s broken. But, I love my Happy’s family because they are grounded in the grace and love of Jesus Christ and I see that in them – in their love, their words, their actions. Things go wrong and I’ve been there long enough to see the ugly side that forms when any group of humans come together. But we have a God who is slowly, painfully and divinely piecing us all back together continually; us all knowing ourselves to be broken when left to our own devices and in constant ongoing need of our saviour Jesus.

Above all, I have a supernatural deep-seated belief that that’s where I am meant to be.

One of the first songs I ever sang at Happy’s was “One Thing Remains”.

“Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me…

Higher than the mountains that I face… One thing remains…”

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Chapter 25: Grace Upon Grace

It always annoys me when people connect Christianity with judgment.

The missing element? Grace.

Jesus spent the vast majority of his time on earth with people on the margins of society. He washed feet, dined with the outcasts and touched ‘unclean’ people.

How awesome is that?!

Yet, somehow, people still manage to connect Christianity with Type A personalities, perfect lifestyles and hierarchical dualism.

“Out of his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace!” -John 1:16.

Grace upon grace.

Not just a bit of grace, but a whole LOT of grace.

When my father-in-law and I had that heart-melting moment of love and grace abounding, it was because we’d both encountered Jesus. Love and grace. Jesus.

And when I landed my dream job at the amazing school against all odds, that is God’s grace in action right there.

Grace: Unearned, unmerited, undeserved favour.

God’s grace is an un-coerced initiative.

No hidden agendas.

Even when I am kicking, screaming and jumping up and down declaring how unfair my shitty, shitty life is, God just wraps his loving arms around me and he loves me. When I fall from grace, God just reaches down, picks me up, and dusts me off. Over and over again.

*happy dance*

“God’s mercy and grace are new every morning” -Lamentations 3:23.

Grace is a process.

Love is a process.

Forgiveness is a process.

Life is a process.

And maybe that was my beef with the question in a previous chapter about “when” I became a Christian. Because it is a process. A journey. An adventure!

None of this, “Oh, I’m a Christian so I’m all good now!” Pfft!

More like, “I’m a Christian; I totally stink, but my flaws are a canvas for God’s grace.”

God just keeps reaching down, picking me up, and dusting me off. Over and over. Grace is amazing. Amazing grace. An uplifting, inspiring, liberating feeling of arriving home. Finding your true identity in Christ. Finding wholeness. My chains are gone; I’ve been set free! My God, my Saviour, has ransomed me! (yes, I’m quoting the song). And that is a wow-factor moment. And it frees me to be me! That whacky-doo mess that I am.

*Happy dance again*

…it doesn’t end there though.

While that is such an a beautiful concept to come to terms with, I could never seem to escape the reality that I will be set free when I give grace to others.

Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).

And I often find that He is saying that to me.

Whether I like it or not.

In the form of a not-sugar-coating-anything friend or in a Bible verse that pops up or through the example of someone else showing grace, love and forgiveness to someone else who hurt them.

Ick.

Yep, I face the rather unnerving task of somehow attempting to show grace to Mr Ex.

And Cosette.

My reaction?

Mother of fuckery! Prickles on petunias!

I don’t want a bar of it!!!!!!

As Jesus was dying on the cross, crucified by the very people he was trying to save, he cried out, “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34). Let’s not forget that Jesus was, in fact, completely innocent. He had done nothing wrong – only teach us that we should love each other – and we found that so offensive that we crucified him. Jesus’s disciples, who were witnesses to this whole miserable affair and then went on to all write books which can be found in the Bible, all give an account of this.

These are some excerpts of how Luke puts it:

Pilate told the high priests and the accompanying crowd, “I find nothing wrong here. Jesus seems harmless enough to me.” But the crowd kept insisting, “He stirs up the people…”

Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, because he sent Him back to us. Clearly, He has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore warn him and release him.”

At that, the crowd went wild: “Kill him! Give us Barabbas!” (Barabbas had been thrown in prison for starting a riot in the city and for murder).

Pilate still wanted to let Jesus go, and so spoke out again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!'” 

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.”

What happened next? Plot spoiler: Barabbas, a murderer, was released from prison and Jesus, an innocent man, was tortured and executed.

Again, I say, mother of fuckery! Prickles of petunias!

Jesus loves the people who wanted him dead. Jesus is loving us. Jesus is loving me.

We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.” (Romans 5:7-8).

Now, that’s love. And grace. And forgiveness.

Grace is essentially the opposite of karma. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve, and not getting what you do deserve.

Grace is God giving peace to the broken, love to the unlovable, hope to the hopeless, and light to the darkness.

And that gripes me when I think of Mr Ex and Cosette.

BECAUSE IT IS NOT FAIR.

They don’t deserve grace. And they don’t care whether I give them grace or NOT!

Ah.

Yes, God, I see.

When Jesus told the story of the vineyard workers, the lazy good-for-nothing workers who slacked off and only worked half a day were paid the exact same amount as the diligent workers who sweated it out all day long.

How is that fair?!?!?!?!?

It’s not.

And that is Jesus’s point. He says, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt: 20:16).

And that is how there came to be a screaming, mocking crowd wanting to crucify Jesus.

Jesus’s goodness and grace was offensive.

Because we don’t realise that it is what we need most.

It’s like posture. I know full-well that I shouldn’t slouch. I know I should keep stomach muscles in, chest out, and shoulders back. But dammit, shoulders curved over and back slumped over is just SO much more comfy.

But, alas, then I get a sore back and feel like an 95-year-old. And the more I try to sit upright, the more it feels uncomfortable. Even when physios or the health and safety expert at work tell me about correct alignment-blah-blah, I just keep thinking, I wanna slouch! But, lo and behold, when I do actually suck it up and stick my shoulders back – pushing through the initial feeling of un-comfort – I end up feeling much, much healthier from within.

That’s like grace.

Writing that, I do feel like a bit of a pansy. I have this image of grace going hand-in-hand with fairy floss, unicorns and rainbows. Like that marshmallow fantasy land in Nintendo’s Super Mario Party.

But I am reminding myself everyday that grace is actually hardcore.

It’s bad ass.

There’s nothing gentle and angelic about grace.

Grace sees shit in all its glory.

And it changes us from the inside out.

A friend once told me that she loved my blog, but she was surprised by my swearing. And I reckon there are probably at least four or five other people in my life who have read it and thought the same thing, but don’t want to say that to my face.

So, I prayed about it and I gave it serious thought.

I could easily sanitise my blog.  I could remove the f-bombs and replace them with cleaner, wholesome words and a glossy cherry on top.

But my language is very deliberate. Why?

Because God goes there.

Yes, God meets me there in my pain-filled, gut-wrenching f-bombs. That is how low he will reach down to rescue us. And he will go lower still. There is no limit to how wide his grace-filled arms will span.

And really, ‘Christian’ is NOT a synonym of pansy, pushover, sucker, or weakling.

When Jesus prayed for the very people who wanted him dead, that would take SERIOUS GUTS.

When Jesus asked God to forgive the very people who wanted him dead, that would take SERIOUS GUTS.

And when Jesus said some of his final words, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” that would also take SERIOUS GUTS.

So, I try.

Some days, I’m better at it.

Other days = epic fail.

Grace is when I work through the chips on my shoulder.

Grace is when I accept that some Christians might choose to abstain from alcohol and dancing. Some Christians might prefer to dress modestly. Some Christians might favour the King James language. And, Essie – note to self – that is OK. Just because I think that’s bullshit, conformist and culture rather than biblical, doesn’t mean that I have to compromise my compassion for those people.  The truth is that there are Christians in those conservative, fundamentalist churches and they are still people who are passionate about God. The same God that I worship.

Grace is every time I bite my tongue when I want to actually email Mr Ex to tell him about my AMAZING new job at the AMAZING new school. I’d absolutely LOVE to rub it in his face that MY God has blessed me, while HE and Cosette are up shit creek without a paddle.

Oh, fuck it!

I’ve just fallen off the grace-wagon.

Try again, Essie!

Grace is every time I manage to pray for Mr Ex and Cosette.

Yuck, muck, schmuck, bluck, cluck, ruck, stuck in chuck.

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

But it somehow changes me.

Prayer changes me.

I start praying for Mr Ex and Cosette through gritted teeth.  I start praying, feeling either like, 1) a fraud who just wants to see Mr Ex and Cosette BURN in a FIREY PIT while I get to watch whilst enjoying popcorn and a glass of Molly Dooker, or 2) an absolute PUSH-OVER, weakling, doormat, and downright CHRISTIAN IDIOT who is praying for my ex-husband who CHEATED on me (MADNESS to pray for him, right?!?!)

But something kind of happens.

The coercing, plotting, vengeful Essie is somehow cleansed.

And I feel peace.

God reaches down, plucks me out of my ditch, and gives me a heart transplant. Makes me new. Resurrects me.

Don’t ask me how. But I can tell you now that that process is FAR BEYOND anything I could ever do. On my own, there is NO FRIGGIN’ WAY that I could EVER find that peace.

And that is another of the many reasons that I believe in God.

Then, on other days, I just screw it all up. Actually, I can sometimes screw it up something chronic.

My vengeance-loving, justice-seeking heart gets in the way. And the result? Grace incorrectly administered. And a thwarted view of the Bible and Christianity in general.

I have a particular memory in mind. It is one of those memories where I’d much rather just keep my mouth shut and move swiftly on. But, in the interest of authenticity and honestly owning my story, I admit that, early on this whole shebang, I sent Mr Ex a text. It went something along the lines of, “I am doing really well and I’ve never felt closer to God. That’s because I have God on my side.” And then I included that motherload Bible verse where God says “Vengeance is mine.” It is EASY-PEASY lemon-squeezey to use the Bible for bad. Or to twist it to suit our own purposes and our own emotions.

Essie Bell: GUILTY AS CHARGED.

And the sad thing is that it happens all the time.

Christians send that exact text message to pretty much every non-Christian everyday without even realising it.

“God is out to get you unless you change your cheating ways!”

“God SAID he’s gonna get revenge for ME”

“He’s MY God and he’s on MY side”

*Dr Evil pinky finger to mouth*

Yes, God does say that vengeance belongs to him. God is telling us to not take revenge, but to leave it up to him.

But really, I don’t think we are capable of understanding exactly what God means when he says that.

God is love.

And the thing with God, is that He doesn’t have our mean, vengeance-loving, spiteful heart. So when he ‘gets vengeance’, He can actually do it from a place of love.

And, I know I can speak for myself when I say that is SO beyond my comprehension. I can only imagine vengeance coming from a place of hatred and spite. I can’t even begin to imagine vengeance coming from a place of love.

By the way, don’t get me wrong; It would be completely inappropriate for me to tell Mr Ex and Cosette that I love them. He is my ex-husband and she is ‘the other woman’. I don’t think for one second that God wants me to email them saying, “Hey guys, just wanted you to know that I love you!”

But I can show grace by praying for them. And just for the record, I don’t get bogged down in praying for them everyday. That’s ridiculous. On a good day, they’re far from my mind. And that’s awesome! I shouldn’t be thinking about them. I have plenty of other things to think about and pray about. But on a bad day, I get bitter and twisted. And that’s when I need to practice grace. To pray for them. And to pray that God’s will be done in their lives.

Like antiseptic cream, it stings at first.

But it is what heals me when I need it.

And like a flood, His mercy reigns. Unending Love. Amazing Grace.

Chapter 18: The Pink Guitar

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May 2013. About four months following D-Day.

Declaration Day, I mean.

It was around this time that I found a song by Rudimental, simply titled ‘Free’. And I felt like I had written it.

I am Free. That is such a terrific thing to be able to say. But it didn’t come easily.

Freedom is a really interesting concept.

I wonder if freedom actually scares most of us. Or maybe we don’t even realise that we need freeing, because we convince ourselves that we are perfectly happy.

When I think back to married life with Mr Ex, I was happy. I was damn sure of it too. And I didn’t want anything to change. Don’t forget, we were the unsinkable Titanic!

But maybe that was because life with Mr Ex was all I knew.

I know who I am with Mr Ex.

But I don’t know who I am on my own.

I’ve never been on my own.

They say that abused wives will often stay with their abuser, even when given the chance to leave. Maybe there’s an aspect of half-dead kangaroo love there. Or maybe it’s something different altogether. I’m not an expert and I wouldn’t like to speculate too much. But I do wonder if it’s something to do with having a fear of the unknown. The known is safer. Better the devil you know, or whatever that saying is.

I’m not at all saying that Mr Ex was abusive. I’m just saying that I think we all have this desire to stay inside our comfort zones. For better or worse. Whether life is good or actually kind of bad, we like to stay in our comfort zones with our rose-coloured glasses and just keep telling ourselves that life is dandy.

Don’t question anything.

Don’t change anything.

Just keep all your arms and legs inside the comfort zone at all times.

And I’m the first to put my hand up and say that I had every intention of staying inside my comfort zone, thank you very much!

Let’s back-track a few years.

In my first year studying to be a teacher, I was walking through a shopping centre with Mum. There was a pop-up music store in the middle of the walkway. It had quality musical instruments on sale. I played a couple of instruments in primary school but I wasn’t especially musical, so I can’t say that the pop-up musical instrument sale attracted my attention whatsoever. But something caught Mum’s eye. A pink acoustic guitar. And upon closer inspection, I had to agree; it was just gorgeous!!! So I was filled with inspiration that I would learn to play the guitar and even play for the children that I would be working with as a teacher one day. You know, Spaghetti and Meatballs, B-I-N-G-OOld McDonald… good ol’ campfire favourites!

So, we bought the pink guitar and I took it home.

And that was it. It was perched majestically in my house!

I got caught up in my studies, working and the day-to-day running of life… then getting engaged, getting married… and when Mr Ex and I got married and moved into our new home, the pink guitar became a display feature on the landing at the top of the stairs.

I’d often walk past that guitar and wish that I could play it.

I’d often consider calling my childhood music teacher, who could teach guitar too, but it never happened. There was always something else that needed to be done, a better way to spend our hard-earned dollars or just that it’s all too hard attitude.

But I was happy. And so was Mr Ex.

(Or so we obviously told ourselves).

And yes, Mr Ex obviously concluded at some point that he wasn’t happy.

But in all honesty, for the most part of our seven year relationship together, we were both very happy.

But my ‘happy’ was probably a bit thwarted.

I tried hard to be perfect.

And I thought I was nicely succeeding.

Think Hyacinth Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances! Haha, no, I was never that bad. But I was certainly the kind of person who would clean the house just before the cleaners came, so as to make sure they didn’t think our house was ever that messy. And I was careful to always project an outward perfection to the world.

For years, that worked!

Perfect life. Perfect house. Perfect everything. Perfection = happiness.

I had absolutely no idea that I was in desperate need of freedom.

And I think that feeling of a ‘desperate need for freedom’ is what Mr Ex was starting to cotton onto.

But he maybe dealt with it by having an affair and leaving.

As for me, I started to realise something even more liberating…

I am not perfect.

And that is exactly how I found my freedom.

“We please Him most, not by frantically trying to make ourselves good, but by throwing ourselves into His arms with all our imperfections and believing that He understands everything –and still loves us!” -A.W. Tozer.

Jesus was about freeing us. Liberating us. Giving us an abundant life. He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

I would go so far as to say that people who don’t know Jesus don’t know real freedom.

That’s a big statement, I know!

I believe all humans have an innate desire to search for answers. To seek freedom. To seek something more. And maybe that it exactly what Mr Ex was doing (whether he could articulate it or not) when he shacked up with Cosette.

But I believe that our wandering hearts can only be truly satisfied by the One who created them. Someone famous said that, not me. Maybe CS Lewis?

Anyway, Jesus is about freeing us from the graves we dig ourselves, freeing us from the brokenness of our world and freeing us from the messes we inevitably create.

“…wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).

And I think that is one of the most exciting aspects of the Christian faith.

We are freed from the necessity to work our own redemption. We are freed from trying to climb the staircase to God’s love, because God came all the way down. This means that we are freed from the captivity of hierarchical dualisms one usually finds in religions -A.Christensen.

John Eldredge wrote one of my favourite books, Beautiful Outlaw. He talks about testing our culture and language by “dropping it in the middle of a bar or on a bus”. If we can’t connect with people in these places and if we can’t drop our church culture and language in these places, then it is not from Jesus.

Because that is exactly what Jesus could do.

He could connect with anyone. Any place, any time.

Jesus is about freeing us: “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

It is incredibly freeing to be able to say, I am not perfect. And I don’t need to be. In fact, in my own strength, I actually can’t be.

I make bad choices. I am flawed. I stumble, trip and sometimes even fall flat on my face.

BUT God’s amazing grace to me is that my shit is not the end of the story. He sees that I am a mess but he loves me anyway! So I choose to give myself over to Jesus. To die to myself everyday. I come as I am to the cross where I find renewal, regeneration and restoration.

Jesus is also about love: “As I have loved you, love one another!” (John 13:34).

I think that’s the hallmark of someone who intimately knows and loves Jesus. They love others. Including those who are different. Including those who might have differing beliefs or opinions.

Jesus-followers have the passion to reach out to anyone, full-stop.

None of this attitude of, “Oh, I don’t agree with that couple living together before they are married, so I’m not going to their house” or “he left his first wife and I don’t agree with that, so I’m not going to his second wedding.” Jesus-followers kind of understand that we all make bad choices and we are all saved only by God’s abounding grace.

And that is incredibly freeing too.

Through grace and love, comes an amazing confidence to be ourselves.

We are taught in Sunday School, “Jesus loves me!” We see images of Jesus always saying “I love you”.

And while that’s absolutely true and valid, it’s more than that.

Jesus’s love is radical. Life-changing. Ferocious.

It’s the kind of love that changes lives.

Once you have experienced Jesus’s love, you are never the same again.

There is something oh-so-powerful about being loved just as we are. And that changes us. That is what kills us and breaths life back into us.

“Embrace the glorious mess that you are!” -Elizabeth Gilbert.

And that frees me to live!

That frees me to live enthusiastically! To live with gusto! To live uninhibited! To be free from my own fears and weaknesses!

To be human!

“The fact that we are embraced by God means we are freed to be fully and honestly human. We are freed to be eating, drinking, excreting, sexual, working, sweating, hoping, fearing, crying, nurturing, and thinking beings.” (Christenson, 2004).

And to be free in the here and and now. Not staying away from this place or that, but by being whole wherever we might find ourselves.

I really love that word, ‘whole’.

And I love that I don’t have to be ‘whole’ all on my own. Actually, I can’t be whole all on my own. Believe me, I’ve tried. And I fail every time.

But I have an unlimited source of wholeness who makes up for my brokenness.

And that is Jesus.

Harold Kushner offers the following commentary…

“My candidate for the most important word in the Bible occurs in Genesis 17:1 when God says to Abraham, ‘Walk before me and be tamim.’ The King James Bible translates it as ‘perfect’, the RSV takes it to mean ‘blameless’ …. Contemporary scholars take the word to mean something like ‘whole-hearted.’ My own study of the verse leads me to conclude that what God wants from Abraham, and by implication from us, is not perfection but integrity …. That, I believe, is what God asks of Abraham. Not ‘Be perfect,’ not, ‘Don’t ever make a mistake,’ but ‘Be whole.'”

So, I don’t think I need to cut myself off from the world in order to follow Jesus. I don’t need to complete a checklist entitled ‘thou shalt not’, nor conform to a prescription of what I should wear or how I should talk or who I should spend my time with.

I think it’s more like, when you follow Jesus, everything just changes.

And it’s not me. But it is Christ in me.

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

So here I am at 24.

Learning to be me!

The broken, messy, quirky, crappy ME. With an awesome, loving, freeing Christ who is a constant source of wholeness for my brokenness.

Dad was walking to the post office and literally bumped into my childhood music teacher. They hadn’t seen each other in more than ten years, but they recognised each other straight away and had a chat in the walkway. Thank you, Jesus! She was retired from full-time music teaching, but Dad told her about my untouched pink guitar and she was keen to give me guitar lessons.

And so began the adventure.

I discovered that I absolutely LOVE playing the guitar.

My finger tips get calluses and I’ve lost my pick inside my guitar more than a few times (and then I have to spend an hour prizing it out, which is much like trying to get the ball into the hole in one of those annoying and impossibly difficult toys inside a Happy Meal), but I love every second of it.

I also discovered I love music festivals.

I love pastel pink lipstick.

I love not camping.

I love writing.

I love doing my weekly shopping at a Farmer’s Market, because how can supermarkets compete with buying bread in a brown paper bag?

Also, I love going out on weekends with my friends. I know. I know. A 24-year-old who didn’t know she liked going out on weekends with friends…? Very odd.  But when you’re settled in married life, doing the whole ‘grown up’ thing instead of just being a free-spirited 20-something, and you have a spouse who you just do everything with (go out for breakfast with Mr Ex, go for a beach walk with Mr Ex, go to the movies with Mr Ex…), it’s easy to fall into the routine of spending all your spare time with your spouse. Or just stay at home. Because you have someone to stay at home with. So it kind of eliminates the need to physically go out. And it limits the need to spend time with friends. There’s also the consideration that I didn’t really like going out with friends too much if I knew that Mr Ex was at home alone. So it becomes ridiculously easy to get into that rhythm of spending all your downtime with your partner.

But now that I was suddenly living alone and making new friends, I discovered an enjoyment of going out with friends. My diary had never been more busy.

I discovered that I love Saturday morning brunches at quirky coffee spots.

I love organic pizza cafes.

And I love going to bars and enjoying wine or cocktails into the wee hours.

I also discovered a few things that I can do, which I never thought possible.

I can catch a spider in a glass and take it outside.

I can reverse the car down a challenging driveway.

I can fill the car up with petrol.

I can order my own drink in a noisy, crowded bar.

I can bury a dead blue tongue lizard in my backyard. (Actually, it was only half a dead blue tongue lizard. I have no idea where the other half was).

And I hear you; you’re probably saying, “OK, burying a dead lizard is just gross, but filling up a car with petrol or reversing a car… No big deal.”

But, you know what, they are all things that Mr Ex would automatically do.

And, because of that, they were all things that scared the living daylights out of me. For the first couple of times anyway. But now I can catch spiders and order drinks like a pro.

And, above all else, I discovered that I am significant to God. I am loved. I am a disciple and friend of Jesus. I have been redeemed. I have been reconciled to God. And nothing can separate me from God’s love. I have an assurance that all things in my life are working together for my good. I am complete in Christ. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

And I can now say with passion and conviction, I am Free.

“Because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving spirit has freed you…” (Romans 8:2).

Chapter 17: Fairness, Forgiveness and other F-words

“It’s just not fair!”

It’s easy with hindsight to say “Thank you, God, for the mountains in our lives”, but at the time, I was saying that through gritted teeth thinking how unfair this whole thing is.

And that is something that I’ve struggled with for quite some time.

We have this ingrained ability to suss out fairness and unfairness. It’s not a concept that needs to be taught to us. We are all born with a fairness radar. And if something is unfair, we know! I work with children and they’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not fair when one person gets a bigger slice of cake. Or if someone heartlessly breaks the block tower that you just spent half an hour building.

Trying to explain to children that, when someone sticks their tongue out at you or knocks down your sandcastle, you need to just walk away…? Don’t react. Don’t retaliate. Don’t seek revenge. Doesn’t that just go against our every instinct?

And that is why karma is so appealing. Karma’s a bitch, right?!

Oh, I wish!

Believe me, I wish karma were true.

How awesome would it be if we could rest in the knowledge that, ‘What goes around, comes around’?!

And if a murderer gets hit by a drunk driver or if Cosette cheats on Mr Ex!

Unfortunately though, reality is more like an innocent mother-of-three gets hit by a drunk driver. And Cosette and Mr Ex live happily ever after.

That SUCKS!

But such is the broken world we inhabit.

The next morning at the holiday house with Tom and Samara, as I sat on a bar stool at the island bench sipping a cup of tea, my iPad sounded a new email notification.

It was the dreaded reality of an email from Mr Ex.

Not the Mr Ex that I loved, but the lawyer-mode Mr Ex. Straight to the facts. He was sending me a list of items that he wanted; items that he had apparently forgotten to collect from the house. Royal Doulton whiskey tumblers made the list. And a solid gold chain that I gave him a few years ago. And the Weber BBQ from the holiday house. He also added the tent to this list.

WHAT THE ACTUAL?!

He knows how I feel about that tent. He saw my torment and he heard my feelings.

And Royal Doulton… seriously?! Since when does he care about Royal Doulton?!

Thus began the to-ing and fro-ing of settlement.

In Australia, settlement is the process where both parties legally settle on how their property, belongings, and even pets will be split. Once this has been decided, the paperwork goes through the courts and the couple is officially separated. Stamped, sealed and separated.

So, my lawyer and Mr Ex’s lawyer negotiated.

Emails flew from lawyer to lawyer and lawyer to client. But not-so-much client to client anymore. Sad, but after seven years together, our communication happened through lawyers.

Credit where credit is due, Mr Ex let me keep our house and our furniture without a fight. And ‘The List’ was only a few items that he wanted.

But, ‘The List’ upset me no end.

Why? Gosh, I don’t really know. They were not items that I used. In fact, I’d probably never use that stuff.

But it went something like this: I’ve just lost my husband and my marriage… and there’s NO WAY I’m letting him take the whiskey tumblers that I’ve never actually used.

Yes, I hear how ridiculous that sounds.

From my perspective, my incredibly generous parents fed him, clothed him, included him in overseas holidays and treated him as their own son for seven years. So, maybe it was a bit of me wanting karma or justice. I don’t know.

I’m not saying my stance was the right one. I’m not saying that my logic makes sense. I’m saying I was hurt.

And what I’m also getting at, I suppose, is that none of this is fair. There’s nothing fair about this whole situation. It’s unfair on so many levels. And when people are hurting, it’s even worse.

I’m on one side wanting to hold onto the tent that I’d never use (because I don’t like the thought of Mr Ex and Cosette getting hot and sweaty together in our tent), while he’s on the other side legitimately wanting the tent that he would actually use.

And he’s totally justified in saying something along the lines of, “Essie doesn’t like camping and she doesn’t like BBQs, so it’s not fair that she’s holding onto that stuff JUST BECAUSE!”

And I understand that. I see that shit in all its glory.

And the thing with settlement, divorce, cheating, break-ups, relationships in general… there’s SO MUCH that’s just not fair. For everyone.

Jesus said some very annoying things.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:44).

Humph.

Jesus also says things like, “If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much! If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that!” (Matt. 5:46).

Jesus was all about loving the unlovable.

And, annoyingly, the unlovable tend to be your enemies… or the people who hurt you.

Maybe that’s why Jesus was so unpopular. He was walking around teaching this stuff in a culture which was based on the notion, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!’.

Jesus told us not to delight in revenge, but to give our enemies food and water.

Food and water?!

For real?!?

Can’t we give our enemies a swift kick up the backside or at least the cold shoulder?? Or ideally, watch as they get struck by lightning?!

Yes, that’s my fairness-seeking, darkness-loving heart right there.

But really, in my defense, it was this kind of ‘loving your enemies’ and ‘forgiveness’ talk that got Jesus killed. People who were offended by Jesus’s radical grace and unconditional love tried veryyy hard to shut him up.

But here I am, over 2,000 years later, still reading his teachings.

And yes, I find it just as offensive as Jesus’s own contemporaries did!

And Paul said, in Philippians 2:5, “You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had.”

Ouch.

So does this just make me a doormat?

How do I reconcile loving my enemies when I’m angry and hurting and my fairness-radar is telling me THIS IS NOT FAIR.

If I try to adopt Jesus’s teachings, am I not just saying to Mr Ex and Cosette, “Hey, you guys! Come and walk all over me because I am joining a club of do-gooders and I have no choice but to forgive you! So, go ahead! Cheat on me! Go and have fun times in our tent! And I’ll forgive you!”

Screw that!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But wait.

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Jesus was all about good overcoming evil.

That is why he came into this world.

To overcome evil. To defeat it once and for all.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).

So, if he’s teaching forgiveness, I hazard a guess that it has something to do with overcoming evil.

And Jesus was not a pushover.

Yes, it’s unfair that Mr Ex and Cosette get to enjoy romantic candle-lit dinners together while I sit heartbroken on the floor in floods of tears. I don’t think there’s anyone who would argue with me that that’s fair.

It’s unfair.

It’s fucking shit, actually.

But if I hold onto bitterness, anger, and pain – or if I seek revenge or hate them – maybe I’m just fuelling evil. Encouraging evil. Embellishing evil.

I think it was Wikipedia (or some other arguably secular source) that said Jesus Christ pioneered the notion of forgiveness to the world. Yes, forgiveness is definitely one of Jesus’s number one buzz words. And there have been lots of other people who have seen the benefits of forgiveness.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” -Martin L. King. Jr.

Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” -Abraham Lincoln.

“An eye for an eye just leaves the whole world blind.” –Mahatma Gandhi.

But to add to it, Jesus told us to leave revenge up to God. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone…. Don’t take revenge, dear friends. Instead, let God’s anger take care of it. After all, scripture says, ‘I alone have the right to take revenge. I will pay back’, says the Lord” (Romans 12:17, 19).

He taught us to trust God. “The Lord himself will fight for you. Just stay calm” (Exodus 14:14).

And he told us to love. Love, love, love, love. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

So, if I hate Mr Ex and Cosette, maybe I’m succumbing to evil. And in turn, corroding myself internally, burning myself with acidic hatred and anger.

And that’s why the world is such a horrible place. Because there is just SO MUCH HATE!

It’s a trap, really.

We think revenge or holding onto grudges will makes us feel better. We think our perception of justice is right. We think punishing those who do the wrong thing will combat evil. But, it’s an illusion. It only makes things worse.

Jesus came to be the light in a world of darkness. He came to show us another way of living. To show us that it is possible to find peace in this world. And that it is possible to set ourselves free from the hurts, anger and hatred that can otherwise engulf us.

Since starting this little blogging project of mine, I’ve been enjoying lots of blogs in the blogging world. And one stood out to me. It’s a man who cheated on his wife. I feel a sense of connection with his blog in some weird kind of way. He mentioned that he gets abuse from readers and I’ve seen some interesting comments filled with bitterness; women in my situation who have been cheated on by their husbands and are still trapped in the hurt caused by their husband’s affair. But, I can honestly say that I don’t have any anger or bitterness towards ‘cheaters’. I’m not saying that cheating is ever OK. It’s not. But consider this:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said…

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?

The self-confessed ‘cheater’, who is now blogging, has acknowledged his mistakes and is living life anew in Christ. Broken and redeemed.

And I think there’s something rather powerful about me standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a ‘cheater’ and defiantly proclaiming together that evil is simply not more powerful than good.

That’s what Jesus was all about.

A light shining in the midst of darkness.

Proclaiming that evil will not win.

If I hold onto my notion of unfairness and bitterness, I’m just hurting myself. And creating a culture of hatred around me. And that is what makes the world a horrible, evil place.

There is power in forgiveness.

It’s not easy – and sometimes I’m just totally faking it – but when I love my enemies (or at least give it my best shot), I am somehow brandishing a rather large chainsaw which cuts down evil.

It’s not me being a doormat allowing Mr Ex and Cosette to wipe their dirty feet on me, but instead it’s me proclaiming that good will always triumph over evil. Actually I think that deserves bold print, capitals and an exclamation mark; Good WILL always triumph over evil!

As much as it sometimes kills me and goes against my natural instincts, I will wave my chainsaw around and cut off any hatred and bitterness, in Jesus’s name. It’s hard. Impossible in my own strength. And that’s what it is to be a follower of Christ. To triumphantly brandish a chainsaw and say, “Love and Light will always shine!”

And – surprise, surprise! – every time I die to my natural inclination to seek revenge or spout bitterness, I find a new depth of freedom.

Everyday. New. Over and over. Death and resurrection.

Chapter 15: Made New (not perfect)

My father-in-law and I arranged to catch up again.

After our initial meeting at a café (back in Chapter 6, which I’ve just significantly revised today after I remembered some ‘minor’ details which I’d conveniently forgotten 🙂 ), we emailed a couple of times. My father-in-law’s wife sent me a couple of emails too. She has walked this road of dealing with a cheating husband who left her, so she knew exactly where I was at. Two of the most powerful words when we are living a nightmare are “me too!” Whenever I ran into someone who could say “me too!” about my situation, it was always magical. No words are needed to explain. They just know.

So I went to their home. They had recently moved onto this property.

It is a large acreage in the Australian countryside situated amongst pine forests, wild flowers, kangaroos and other native animals, and plenty of walking tracks. Access to the property is by dirt track. The house only has a couple of in-tact rooms and there are brick ruins all around where other parts of the property once existed but have collapsed over time. They live an unusual, back-to-nature lifestyle omitting many of the modern conveniences of the average person. Very different to my city-slicker upbringing.

We went for a walk. Their young children wearing gumboots ran ahead picking dandelions and green stalks. My father-in-law, his wife, and I chatted as we strolled. I recounted Mr Ex’s recent final visit to collect the rest of his stuff and they showed a very genuine care for me and my wellbeing.

My father-in-law and his wife are unlike anyone else I know. And I suppose, we really have nothing in common. The city mouse meets the country mice. I mean, let’s be honest. I’d never be caught alive wearing socks and sneakers with a skirt. And they would never spend $600 on a Mimco handbag. But, for some strange reason, we were suddenly getting along like old friends.

Something was different.

Something was actually really different.

There was no tension. There was no judging. By either party.

There was just grace abounding!

What the hell happened?

We had both encountered Jesus, that’s what.

And something rather amazing ensued.

For the first time ever, I was authentically connecting with my father-in-law, who I would’ve just a few weeks earlier described as a judgmental and hypercritical dictator.

We both cried.

And hugged a very genuine hug.

And we shared stories of Jesus popping up in our lives.

“If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are gone; and all things are made new.” -2 Corinthians 5:17.

Now, this is a really hard thing to term. When Christians say things like, “I found Jesus” or “I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour,” I can totally understand why that just sounds bizarre to bystanders. Ridiculous. Pious. Crap!

“I let the LORD into my HEART!” “I’ve TURNED from my SIN and now I am SAVED!” “I SURRENDERED to God!” Yikes. That talk just sounds so unappealing. And it makes the speaker sound like they’re joining some brain-washy occult. I get it. It just sounds ludicrous. They give the impression that finding Jesus is some kind of spectacular, flashy, pious encounter and they are now professing a perfect life of purity and cleanliness. They’ve said and done a few things and now they pledge a lifestyle of “not doing stuff”.  Something along the lines of “I used to smoke and drink and speak profanities, but now I DON’T because I’m a Christian!” And maybe it is like that for some people, I don’t know.

But in my experience, the whole concept of “finding Jesus” is not about me finding at all. It is much more like Jesus randomly popping up right where I least expect Him. And maybe even when I am totally convinced that I don’t want or need Him. He just casually pops up. And perhaps even kind of scares the bejeebers out of me.

Just like I’d previously discovered, when Jesus died and reappeared again, He popped up in front of his friends who were fishing. A casual encounter. No fanfare and no red carpet. Jesus pops up and asked how many fish they have caught; just like when He pops up in the face of the stranger, like my mortgage broker Shaun with his “me too!” common experiences and comforting words of wisdom, or possibly in the face of that homeless guy I walked past the other day.

People expect to see Jesus in churches.

But newsflash! Jesus spent very little time in church. He was always out and about. Meeting people, walking, on the street, engaging with those on the margins of society. He was dining with the mightily unpopular tax-collectors and talking to – even touching! – outcasts and lepers.

In my experience, Jesus would hands-down choose to sit on a bar stool in a crowded nightclub rather than a church pew.

And He never looks like we expect him to.

When Jesus rose from the dead and came back to earth, Mary Magdalene was the first person to see him. Perhaps the most unlikely, un-special, un-pious person around. And what’s more, a woman! She was near His tomb where his body was buried and Jesus casually walks up to her. She saw Him, but she just thought He was the gardener. The gardener! If Mary Madgalene was thinking Jesus was the gardener, maybe He wasn’t looking like an angel with a white robe and halo of light.

I mean, Jesus had been ridiculed, spat on, tortured, executed and died a ghastly death. But here He is, resurrected. Made new. But Mary Magdalene thinks He’s the gardener! Has there ever been a more down-to-earth, humble man? I don’t know about you, but if I’d just conquered death, I think I’d be going for the Edward Cullen sparkly skin, a puffy cloud to float on, and a rather spectacular array of fireflies to surround me for added effect. But that’s not Jesus. At all!!!

So maybe being ‘made new’ isn’t about projecting an outward perfection to the world.

Maybe ‘new’ can be imperfect. And messy. And unglamorous. And looks more like a gardener than royalty.

Because it’s real.

And with Jesus casually popping up like a pikelet in a toaster, in my experience, He’s actually about making me new. And my father-in-law. And our relationship with each other. New, not perfectly polished in a neatly tied package with a bow.

And if I am made new, then ‘new’ can be scarred. ‘New’ can have touch-up paint. ‘New’ can have stitches.

“New looks like recovering alcoholics. New looks like reconciliation between family members who don’t actually deserve it. New looks like every time I manage to admit when I was wrong and every time I manage to not mention when I’m right. New looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness and every moment of letting go of what we thought we couldn’t live without and then somehow living without it anyway. New is the thing we never saw coming – never hoped for – but ends up being what we needed all along.” -N. Bolz-Weber.

If God had hobbies, I wonder if car or furniture restoration would be one of them. He specialises in Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang-style makeovers. He just keeps taking on dilapidated, crappy people and their fragmented relationships with other dilapidated, crappy people and fitting together the broken bits.

And, through his handiwork, the end result is always much better than what it was to begin with. Our loving God keeps reaching down into the muck and grime of our messed up world, pulling out our hearts of stone, giving us a much-needed heart transplant, and resurrecting us from the rubbish piles we land ourselves in through our penchant for grudges, selfishness and pride.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” –Ezekiel 36:26.

Left to my own devices, there’s NO way I was going to be having a heart-to-heart with my father-in-law. HA! That was just not possible. Out of the question.

And even if I had eventually managed to let go of my grudge from the wedding (as unlikely as that is) my stubbornness and pride would’ve stopped me from actually going through with having a cup of tea with him and chatting civilly.

But Jesus pops up, gives me a heart transplant, and resurrects me from my ditch.

And the fact that I truly, honestly and whole-heartedly LOVE my father-in-law today is one of the many, many, many reasons that I believe in God.

God makes all things new.

And here I am, having a heart-to-heart with my father-in-law, genuinely connecting.

Heck, even having a beer with him!

A new relationship.

Catching up, visiting his family on their acreage in the hills, enjoying a laugh together, staying in touch, chatting about what Jesus is doing in our lives and, best of all, defiantly declaring that we are two crappy, stubborn, rotten individuals who are made new by a loving God who specialises in heart-transplants and resurrections.

And this is what God’s still doing for me. He’s making me new. Every day. Over and over.

By the way, just for the record, I’d be a hypocrite if I said that I now have a happy-clappy relationship with everyone I encounter because I am a Christian. That would be the biggest load of bullshit. I still get pissed off. I still get annoyed. I still hold grudges. BECAUSE I AM HUMAN. But I have a loving and gracious God who just keeps picking me up, dusting me off, giving me a heart transplant, and putting me back on my path.

Chapter 13: In the Stranger

“The movement in our relationship to God is always from God to us. Always. We can’t, through our piety or goodness, move closer to God. God is always coming near to us. Most especially in the Eucharist and in the stranger.” –Nadia Bolz-Weber, a fabulously controversial pastor in the US.

Sitting in the backseat – sans rings – on the way to Tom and Samara’s family dinner.

A Simon and Garfunkel song started playing in the car.

Mr Ex and Tom are Simon and Garfunkel fans. Samara and I would always roll our eyes when the boys listened to Simon and Garfunkel and even more so when they started to sing along. The truth is, I actually quite like Simon and Garfunkel. But it was fun to take the mickey. The boys would be enthusiastically singing just to annoy us. And we’d be groaning and rolling our eyes. The four of us always had a hoot together. By the way, it wasn’t nearly as cheesey as that just sounded, but hopefully you get the idea. It was fun.

No laughter this time though.

Simon and Garfunkel started playing and, instantly, the tears came flooding.

Grief sucks!!

Tom and Samara quickly skipped the song.

At their family dinner, Tom and Samara, and Tom’s family, were exactly what I needed.

They were the Carpathia ship coming to pick up Titanic survivors from the icy waters, offering warm blankets, hot drinks and comfort.

Too often, people minimise pain by telling us that everything will be OK (which it will), but that’s not what we want to hear. Too often, people trivialise pain by saying that there are bigger problems in the world (which there are), but that is also not what we want to hear. Instead, Tom’s mum told me that it hurts because it mattered. She said that it’s OK to be sad. We all played ‘Balderdash’ and drank cups of tea.

And I felt loved.

The most wonderfully spectacular – and yet modestly simple – way that God has shown His love to me is through the people in my life. Those that have crossed my path, seemingly random yet oh-so-beautifully orchestrated. And He is still doing that today.

Tom’s family are technically ‘Mr Ex’s people’. Team Mr Ex. Mr Ex’s side.

I mean, Tom and Mr Ex have been friends since childhood. So it is only natural that Tom would remain loyal to Mr Ex.

But it struck me as impressive and amazing that Tom still also remained loyal to me.

There are plenty of others on ‘Team Mr Ex’ who have kept me at an arm’s length since our separation. I would take a stab in the dark that it is not because they agree with Mr Ex’s actions. I guess it’s just easier to keep me at an arm’s length because they love Mr Ex and they don’t know how to still love me too. Mr Ex’s mother and extended family would fall into that category. And I’m not having a go at them. I get it. It’s easier to remain loyal to only one player in a tennis match.

It was a shame though. I always clicked effortlessly with Mr Ex’s aunt (his mother’s sister). I also really liked his other aunts and his grandmother. But I’ve never heard a peep from that clan. EVER. And that’s OK. Again, I get it. It makes me sad. But I do get it.

And really, to refer back the tennis player analogy, you can’t barrack for two opposing players in a tennis match, right? Just like you can’t show simultaneous support for two opposing political parties. And you can’t love someone AND love their ex.

Or can you?

Maybe gutsy people can!

Tom’s family are gutsy; grace and love abounding. They have so beautifully walked the tricky path of showing love and grace to both sides of the fence. And they’ve had plenty of practice; they did the same when Mr Ex’s parents divorced. Some people just ooze love and grace.

I say, stick close to those people.

When God brings strangers into our lives, it is never random.

Penny the PI, Jill from Mr Ex’s workplace, my new friends Sana & Bree, Tom’s family… they were just the start of a long list of strangers who became very, very dear friends. Strangers who parachute-landed in my life bringing love, wisdom and humanity.

It’s like we have met these people before.

And it seems that through chance and circumstance, we are meeting them again. But we are not. It’s a first-time encounter. Maybe that feeling of being re-united is because we are actually encountering Jesus – Jesus is with and within these people – and it is Jesus in them that we are recognising.

Our souls kind of say, “Oh, there you are! I’ve been looking for you!”

And I think there are too many Christians out there who think that God is only working with and within other Christians. I call bullshit to that. I don’t think God is limited by our ability to recognise Him at work in our lives. Just because someone calls themselves an atheist or says they are indifferent to religion, doesn’t mean that God isn’t at work in their life.

Shortly after Mr Ex’s last appearance, my friend Nicky invited me to a festival with her and a group of her friends. A really big step for me: Going somewhere as a single person.

And with no rings on my finger.  Yikes! This is a first.

I got a bit dressed up, donned some make-up, and spruced myself up. It was incredibly nerve-wracking to venture into a group of strangers, only knowing Nicky, and fly solo.

Maiden voyage of Ms. Essie Bell: First solo expedition to circumnavigate a festival amidst strangers.

This was exactly the kind of thing that I’d never done solo before. Mr Ex would always be there with me. Whether buying a drink, walking through town, or just being with a group of people who I didn’t know very well, Mr Ex would always be there. His presence was always a comfort. A safety blanket. A guaranteed person to talk to or just stand next to. Now it was only me. No safety blanket.

It was hard.

By joves, I admire single people. It’s SO much easier having a safety blanket.

It was hard to make small talk. The past few weeks of my life had been anything but normal. Trying to integrate back into normal social settings is weird at the very least. But I did it. I’m not one of those extroverts who finds small talk easy. I actually find small talk incredibly cumbersome. But, I am not shy and I do love making authentic connections with people and talking about deep and meaningful things. And that trait was to stand me in good stead for later in the evening.

A great evening, great food, great wine, great entertainment, and lots of great people around.

So, my maiden voyage was a positive one.

At the end of the evening, I had to walk through the city to get to my car.

A stranger called Jade was walking in the same direction.

“We can walk together, if you like?” she asked. This is maybe 11pm, so probably a good idea to walk through the city streets together.

As we set off, we introduced ourselves.

“I’m Essie,” I told her.

“I’m Jade. Lovely to meet you, Essie, how are you?”

Never, ever underestimate the power of those three little words. How. Are. YOU?

You could be standing next to someone who is completely broken and you’d never know. Ask them, “how are you?” and you might just alter the course of their life. No kidding.

Those three little words have the power to make a world of difference. They really do.

So I proceeded to tell Jade exactly how I was. The flood gates of honesty opened. I told her about the significance and the challenges of this evening’s first solo voyage because my husband had just recently left me for a colleague and I was trying to make head or tail of a new ‘normal’. She definitely got more than she bargained for! I’ve never had any trouble getting straight to authentic conversations with people. It’s small talk that I really hate.

Anyway, Jade and I walked and talked through the CBD to our cars. And, little did we know at the time, that was the first “walk and talk” of many!

It turned out that she loves Jesus too and she lived in the suburb next to mine. We exchanged numbers and from that week onwards, Jade, her friend Lily, and I went walking and talking weekly. Beach walks, walks through the local national park, up hills, down hills, over bridges, under bridges… Jade, Lily and I were walking buddies! And it was like we’d been friends for decades. Maybe even longer. Jade and Lily quickly went from being total strangers to my dear friends.

Mr Ex’s emails about “The Practical Stuff” (i.e. sorting out our finances, insurance, properties, etc.) kept coming. He said that I needed to see our mortgage broker to arrange house details.

A couple of days after my maiden voyage, our mortgage broker, Shaun – who was, for all intents and purposes, a stranger to me – came over with a stack of paperwork.

You see, Mr Ex and I had recently purchased another house in the Hills. It was an investment that we hoped would soon become our family home. Yes, Mr Ex is a lawyer who had an impressive pay cheque at the time, so we were sitting pretty comfortably on Easy Street. Not bad for a 26 and 24-year-old. We bought that property in November 2012. Interesting timing, since you might recall Mr Ex telling me that his affair had been going on for two months in mid-January 2013. So we were literally buying our future family home in the same month that he was starting an affair! What a busy month it was for Mr Ex!

Anyway, the bank owned most of it. It would just be a matter of selling it and giving money back to the bank.

As Shaun, the mortgage broker and virtual stranger, was going through the massive wad of papers to sort out administration for the bank, I saw a photo of three children on his laptop’s desktop background.

“Cute kids,” I smiled. So he told me their names and ages.

“What school do they go to?” I asked. Typical teacher question.

He told me. And it was a Christian school.

“Oh! I’d love to teach at that school one day,” I replied.

He looked up at me for a moment, intrigued.

“You’re a Christian?” he asked me.

“Yep!”

And then the magic happened.

Shaun, my random mortgage broker, loves Jesus too.

But not only that, Shaun had been married with a child for several years and his wife cheated on him and left him! WTF?!

Just like my situation, Shaun had had no heads up, no warning signs; A bolt of lightning in a clear blue sky.

Shaun hit an all-time low in his life. Alcohol abuse, depression and other dark stuff. He didn’t want God, or church, or anything to do with Christians. He’d had no exposure to religion or faith of any kind. But, in a valley of darkness and pain, he went searching for answers to life’s big questions; suffering, the meaning of the existence, etc.

And there, in the midst of messiness and brokenness, Shaun reluctantly stumbled across Jesus. He’s been a follower of Jesus ever since.

Many years later and he is now re-married with another couple of kids. He offers counselling and speaks in churches about his experiences, giving comfort to people who are on that same road of being single against their will and/or having a cheating spouse.

Talk about turning a mess into a message!

When Mr Ex and I had ‘randomly’ selected Shaun to be our mortgage broker four years earlier when we purchased our first house, it was because of his credentials and his locality. We’d never spoken about personal things with Shaun. It was strictly business. Professional. But God knew exactly what he was doing.

So there we were, Shaun and myself having an in-depth, no-holding-back, souls-connecting discussion about our experiences of finding Jesus in the midst of grief.

And boy, did we talk for a long time!

Jesus pops up in the face of a stranger. And it’s always when we least expect it.

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