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 27: Alice, Dorothy, Single at a Wedding, and Electric Blankets

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a husband.”

I tweaked it a little.

The original quote from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was about men.

But I think she was onto something.

There is an overarching culture that enforces marriage and relationships as the hallmark of success and fulfillment.

So – side note to readers – if you are wondering where my most recent chapter ‘Plan B’ disappeared to, I edited it and moved it backwards in the chronology of my blog. I thought the ‘Plan B’ chapter worked better in the context of landing my dream job. So, if you’ve read the original ‘Plan B’, you’ll recognise some of the following… but with a new slant!

January 2014. It was coming up to one year since Mr Ex revealed an affair and walked out on our marriage. That same month, I was also on bridesmaid duties for a friend’s wedding. Great.

Don’t get me wrong; I was absolutely honoured and thrilled to be a bridesmaid.

But there was a half-selfish, half-hurting streak inside me who was pissed off at the whole thing. Pissed off because my Disney fairytale idea of love and marriage was tainted. Pissed off because I now had a nervous twitch when I looked at young, wide-eyed, PDA-ridden, pass-me-a-bucket couples. You know the sort. Couples who just ooze this vibe of, “we know we’re going to live happily ever after”. And Christian couples seem to be the worst!

Maybe that’s because I saw in them myself and Mr Ex. Maybe I was remembering us in that same young, wide-eyed, PDA-ridden vomit. And maybe it was the Titanic-survivor within me. I know Titanic references are kind of dramatic. But gosh-darn-it, I swear there are no other metaphors in the English language for my marriage. And being at a wedding just days before my one-year anniversary of singleness*, it was as if I were a Titanic survivor going back in time, watching passengers embark the magnificent, unsinkable ocean-liner and screaming, “Don’t do it! It’s doomed! You think it’s unsinkable but THERE! ARE! ICEBERGS OUT THERE!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

One thing is for sure: I was hurting.

*Singleness: “The state or quality of being single” -Dictionary.com, 2015.

*Singleness: “An art-form that should be celebrated!” -Ess Bell, 2015.

As a child, I collected bridal magazines. I kid you not. Other girls at school were reading Barbie Mag or Girlfriend but I’d use my pocket money to buy The Bride’s Diary and Weddings Australia. One of my favourite activities at my grandparents’ house was going through Babushka’s (grandma’s) sewing books. Specifically, the weddings section! Maybe it was because I was a flowergirl five times. Maybe it was because my grandma made bridesmaid dresses. Or maybe it was because I absolutely loved Cinderella, ball gowns and the idea of ‘happily ever after’. After all, let’s remember that Elsa was not yet a Disney princess, so all the Disney princesses at that point had their very own prince charming.

Although I always wanted to be a teacher, I did go through a phase of wanting to also be a bridal dress designer. I remember when Lindsay Lohan’s The Parent Trap hit cinemas and her mother in the movie was a bridal dress designer. I decided I’d grow up to have my own boutique called ‘Especially for you, By Essie’ and I’d design and make wedding dresses.

The only snag in my plan was that I am a horrible artist. I can’t draw! I’m also not particularly creative. So I’m definitely not a visionary when it comes to designing or creating wedding dress masterpieces.

I do love writing, but since I can’t write a wedding dress, I had to concede that I was never going to make a living from wedding dresses.

Weddings were definitely something I loved, though.

And I remember being in a wedding dress shop at around the age of 12; I saw my dream wedding dress. It had to have a pink bow.

So, when I eventually married Mr Ex, yes, my dress had a pink bow.

But here I am at this point of the story: January 2014 and single for one year.

Trust me, I was no longer a fan of weddings.

Wedding dresses? Pfft, only good for snow camouflage!

Wedding magazines? Best used for propping up wobbly tables!

Weddings? Doomed!

I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the whole concept of living happily ever after and I definitely wasn’t buying the Cinderella story anymore.

So, preparing to walk down the aisle in my friend’s wedding was going to be a challenge. A challenge because I needed to snap out of my negativity to be a good friend. A challenge because I was coming face-to-face with the institution that I once loved and believed in, but had caused me great tragedy. And a challenge because – let’s face it – nothing will highlight your singleness like a wedding!

At the ceremony rehearsal, I was holding my water bottle as a mock bouquet and standing in line with the other bridesmaids at the top of the stage steps. The celebrant and his assistant were fussing around trying to work out where, exactly, the bridesmaids should stand. At the top of the steps? Or over next to the pedestal? Decisions, decisions.

Then the celebrant turned to me and sharply asked, “Are you married?”

Umm… WHAT NOW?!

Did I just hear him correctly?

Seriously! Of ALL the questions to ask me!!

Are you kidding?!

I hesitated, looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

He was paused, waiting for my reply.

My brain processed possible answers at top speed. Yeah, I guess I am legally married still. But my husband walked out and I haven’t seen him for 11 months and 2 weeks and he now lives with his girlfriend in a different time zone, so I wouldn’t really say that I was ‘married’ per se. But from a legal perspective, I suppose I am married. Or is ‘separated’ a legitimate legal term? I guess it is…?!

My actual answer, though, was a quiet, soft, unsure “No…”.

He then proceeded to ask each of the other bridesmaids down the line the same question: “Are you married? Are you married? Are you married?”

I soon realised the method to his madness.

The celebrant was trying to ascertain which of us had had weddings of our own and could, therefore, provide him with advice on where the bridesmaids would best be positioned.

So really, I could’ve happily advised him. My wedding was a magazine feature and I had been in a grand total of eight weddings at that point, not to mention years of reading bridal magazines under the covers with a torch. But, by that stage, my heart was aching and I was over it. I wanted to cry. I wanted the ground to swallow me up.

The next day, it was the actual wedding day. The biggest day of my friend’s life. I was trying jolly hard to get into the wedding spirit, to believe in the eternal-love branding of weddings and to put this country’s dismal marriage statistics to one side.

But really, I felt like drinking wine straight from the bottle and lighting up a cigarette. This was a dry wedding reception, though. And I don’t smoke. I’ve never smoked.

When it comes to weddings in general (and I’m thinking of all the weddings I’ve been to in the past two years now), I sometimes find myself asking some pretty shallow questions.

We were JUST as happy as them IF NOT MORE!!  Why didn’t this marriage concept work for me?!  Why do some people get to live the dream forever?!

Well, weddings are THE worst place to be single.

1) The bouquet toss: Beyonce’s All The Single Ladies blasts loud and clear over the speakers and you know it’s that time of the evening. I had never participated in a bouquet toss and I wasn’t planning on starting now. Getting married at 20, I was the one who got to watch all the desperados diving for the bouquet. But now, for the first time ever, I was being dragged by well-meaning friends to participate. Gah!

2) Couples dancing: All the couples hit the d-floor first. And, of course, singles can join in, but then it just gets awkward when slow music starts to play. Weddings are a couples’ world. Thankfully though, my friend Kayla, who was another bridesmaid in that wedding, had her 4-year-old at the Reception. He was my dancing partner.

3) All that talk about “two being better than one”: The Bible says, (in Ecclesiastes chapter 4) “Two are better than one… if one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! And, if two lie together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?” I’ve heard it quoted a billion times at weddings. And it negates the many other Bible verses that talk about the blessings and benefits of singleness. Not to mention the fact that Jesus himself was single, so it can’t be THAT bad.

“I have an electric blanket; that’s how I keep warm alone!” my chipper friend told me.

YES!

Yay for electric blankets!  (And, in my case, a dog!)

By the way, a side note to that celebrant: In this day and age, don’t flippantly ask random people “Are you married?”  I seriously think that is one of THE worst questions to ask a stranger. Some people are single against their will, some people would give their right arm to be married, and some people don’t know the exact definition of their marriage status at all (that one was me, by the way).

I don’t blame the celebrant though. Silly question, unfortunate timing. Not his fault. No one would look at 25-year-old Ess and think it remotely possible for me to have been married and separated.

Well, I’ve heard it said that Cinderella didn’t go out looking for a prince. She asked for a pretty dress and a night off.

So, I remember promising myself that night that I would never. EVER! be one of those girls who is hellbent on finding a man and misses out on life in the meantime.

And at some point at that wedding reception, in my coral bridesmaid dress and spray tan, I whinged a prayer. Yes, whinged a prayer! That’s a thing. It goes something like…

God, this sucks. It really, really sucks. I feel like shit. Maybe you’re growing me or refining me or improving me, blah-blah-blah, but I don’t want to be improved or grown right now. Weddings suck. PDA-ridden couples suck. Singleness sucks. I don’t need to be changed; just leave me in my rut.

Well, time and time again, my relationship with God is always God coming down to me. Stooping. Plucking me out of my rut. Or grave. Or ditch. It is always God coming to us. Resurrecting us. Making us new. And sometimes it’s whether we like it or not, and even if we are running in the opposite direction! God just comes to us anyway. Maybe in a dear friend who speaks the truth or maybe in a heart-transplant, exchanging our hearts of stone with a heart of flesh.

I am complete.

Jesus is all I’ll ever need.

I have an electric blanket and a dog!

And if I wanted SO much to make it work with my cheating, lying, AWOL husband, then just imagine how awesome love could be with someone who doesn’t cheat on me, lie to me, and abandon me.

Hold the fort!! I think I like who I am becoming.

And that was a pretty cool moment.

(Don’t get me wrong; singleness has its challenges, but that’s a whole other chapter!)

Rather than identifying with Cinderella, I saw the greatness of Alice. Alice in Wonderland. She had to fall pretty hard down a deep hole. But she made it to Wonderland. And her wise words were, “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”

And Dorothy who made it to Oz. She even had Toto. That’s me to a T. Caught up in a tornado and a black-and-white world, her little house and her little dog landed smack-bang in the middle of Munchkinland. Colour! Pizzazz! And munchkins! But, best of all, a yellow brick road journey, making new friends, and a whole lot of growth and learning. It wasn’t what she wanted and it wasn’t what she expected, but it was everything that she needed.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a man.

But I think that is a culture. A frickin’ annoying culture.

So I decided, from that point, that I wanted to ENJOY my single years. Whether I’m single for six more months, six more years, or forever, I want to enjoy it.

Because being alone doesn’t equate to lonely.

Single doesn’t mean sad.

And flying solo isn’t a transition faze before a relationship.

I challenge Hallmark to start making cards about that!

Solitude is the cure for loneliness.

Engagement, wedding and anniversary cards, new baby cards and graduation cards are all well and good. But what about single cards? Cards that celebrate singleness! There should be a Single and Loving It Day.

“[God]… is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” -Ephesians 3:20

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