Chapter 32: That corrosive, life-changing love

My most successful relationships are the ones I never saw coming.

The ones I never wanted.

I would love to say that I always experience God as a happy-clappy, sunshine and butterflies bubble of fun.

And, yes, sometimes I do.

But, a lot of the time, I experience God as a brutal heart transplant that I find offensive and corrosive.

I stumbled across this “love” quote recently. It’s not the usual happy-clappy, sunshine and butterflies interpretation that one usually finds on Pinterest. It’s gutsy and daring and ferocious and threatening and upsetting and unnerving. I love it.

“Life’s good,” she said. “All I need now is somebody to settle down with, somebody to complete the picture.”

Her friend laughed. “Love is never convenient,” she replied. “And it’s certainly never comfortable or complacent. Love strikes when you least expect it. Love upsets the careful balance of a life and leaves it in absolute ruin. Complete the picture? No. Love is the corrosive that strips your canvas bare and starts all over. So if you are looking for something that will slot seamlessly into your little old life, my god, look elsewhere.”

-Beau Taplin, The Picture.

And that’s exactly right.

When I talk about the effortlessness that successful relationships need, I am talking about how they come about in the first place and how they develop. When the Holy Spirit is in it, there is an effortlessness that just works. It is not forced. It flows.

But in addition to that sense of effortlessness, it should be life-changingly ferocious and unsettling.

I know there are people out there who think I have, a) a diminished brain capacity because I believe this airy-fairy Jesus stuff, b) a blind faith based on wishful optimism and/or a fear of facing a universe of nothing-ness, or c) an affinity to overlook scientific logic and reason that apparently debunks the Jesus stuff.

And, you know what? I get it; the Jesus story is indeed a pretty crazy story…!

A bunch of prophets with funny names and too much time on their hands came up with some nice ideas for the future, which were later somehow connected to a dodgy conception, a man flouncing around with lepers and prostitutes preaching forgiveness and grace and love, claiming to be God in human form, and a death by crucifixion and then suddenly re-appearing again.

Yes, it’s weird and, yes, so much can be explained away.

Maybe Jesus never really died. Maybe he survived the crucifixion. And that’s why he was walking around with holes still in his wrists three days later.

Or maybe Mary was some knocked up teenager who was too embarrassed to tell her fiance that she got pregnant to some other guy, so she came up with one heck of a cover story.

Maybe Jesus was just some do-gooder with fancy ideas about forgiveness or an extroverted attention-seeker who badly wanted a spotlight. i.e. Not actually God in human form, but just some regular mortal who pioneered a new way of thinking which is all well and good, but that’s it.

And maybe he knew what the dead prophets had projected about an eventual Messiah, so he did a little tweaking to tick all the right boxes and – just like when you read your horoscope and you go, ‘ohhh… yeah, I did make an exciting new discovery this week, so my horoscope was 100% spot on’ – maybe we’ve all just given Jesus a little ‘nip and tuck’ treatment and worked the Old Testament prophecies to suit this Jesus guy. No more, no less.

But every time I start to wonder about the many theories that float around in the cosmos – and every time I hear human logic and reason explaining Jesus away or portraying God as an inconsistent, now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t Cheshire Cat – I just can’t get past one thing:

I HAVE EXPERIENCED THE JESUS STUFF TO BE REAL.

And not just once, but over and over and over and over again.

For me, Christianity is about death and resurrection. A death and resurrection that comes from beyond myself. Something that I know I can’t make work on my own.

And it has everything to do with what Jesus was saying all those years ago and is still getting across to me today.

I first experienced it with my father-in-law back in earlier chapters of this blog. You may recall, I hated the man. I hated that he made my mum cry with his wedding-boycotting antics. I hated that he placed rules and expectations on his children in the name of “the lord”. I hated that he tried to tell me homeschooling was the only way to “bring up godly children”. I hated that he had a mentality of people being “good” (Christian/saved/not of the world) or “bad” (worldly/unsaved/not Christian).

So I had my father-in-law all sussed out.

And again as you may recall from earlier chapters, I ignored him. I stayed well away from him. And if I did have to go to his house with Mr Ex for some unfortunate reason, I’d be stand off-ish and keep him at an arm’s length.

Then, bang! Crash! Kick up the butt!

In 2013, post-separation from Mr Ex… My friend Sana speaks the truth to me.

I hadn’t overcome my father-in-law’s “good vs. bad” mentality.

I had just created my very own Essie Bell version of it.

Same sorting system. Just different sorting.

I had put me on the “good” side and my father-in-law on the “bad” side. And tried to carry out my own justice accordingly.

Well, I experience Jesus regularly in the form of a friend who speaks the truth.

In the case of my father-in-law, it was my truth-speaking friend Sana back in 2013.

Sana tells me that God’s grace is not just for me; it’s for my father-in-law as well.

Sana also tells me that every time I draw a line in the sand with me on one side and that person who is pissing me off on the other side, Jesus is always on the other side.

Every time I draw that line in the sand separating me and them

Jesus is always on the other side.

Damn it.

And you can read how things turned out with my father-in-law in my much earlier chapter, Made New (Not Perfect).

~~~

You would’ve thought I’d learnt my lesson.

But in early 2015, a girl called Danielle started going to my Church of Quirks.

And she quickly began dating British Comedy Dude.

You guessed it; I didn’t like her.

Several months later, I went to a friend’s engagement party and I wasn’t feeling very well that night. I’d had minimal sleep and I wasn’t in a socialising mood.

So, I was sticking close to Annie, a dear friend who has always felt like a cosy blanket of sunshine and butterflies and we all need that in our lives.

But, I think God knew I also needed some corrosive, life-changing love, too.

Because, at this engagement party, yes, you guessed it again; Danielle was there.

And, at one point during the party – much to my absolute horror – Annie, my sunshine and butterflies, walked over and began talking to Danielle and British Comedy Dude. Grr!

I had two choices: 1) stay on my own and look like a loner, or 2) follow Annie and face possible conversation with people I wasn’t keen to talk to at all.

I took option 2. I followed. But I had zilch intention of making conversation.

So, standing next to Annie and avoiding excessive eye contact with anyone else, I thought I could slide under the radar unnoticed.

But inevitably, the unthinkable happened: Danielle said hello.

And I was now in a conversation against my will.

I thought, I’ll just fumble through some surface-level small talk, laugh at some jokes, show  interest in a few things and then I’ll be on my merry way.

Well, fortunately for me, God always has other ideas.

God never sits still in our best formulations.

Three minutes into my conversation with Danielle, I was laughing. And I realised I wasn’t actually faking it.

HUH?!

It was effortless.

Beyond-logic, Holy Spirit effortless.

We connected like two lobsters in a tank of goldfish. Two crazies in a world of sanity. Two galahs in a tree of magpies.

It worked. Our relationship really worked. And that is where my idea of ‘effortlessness’ (mentioned in earlier chapters) comes into play. ‘Effortless’ because I could hear my soul saying, “There you are! I’ve been looking for you” and it all unfolded without either of us forcing it or willing it or wanting it; Without either of us even seeing it coming.

But more than that, it also changed me.

It was God’s signature heart-transplant, where He reaches down into the depths of my dark, stubborn, vengeance-seeking heart of stone and He replaces it with a beating heart of love and life.

I had Danielle pegged. I had her sussed out. I knew I didn’t like her.

(Just like my ex-father-in-law three years earlier.)

But here we were – Danielle and Ess – literally spending two hours sitting off to one side at that engagement party, chatting and engaging oh-so-genuinely happily with each other.

In that moment, a mutual love was born.

And it didn’t start as convenient, complacent or even comfortable.

It started as upsetting and offensive and it completely, absolutely ruined my careful balance.

~~~

It’s like God loves me too much to sit idly by as I kill myself with bitterness.

God doesn’t sit still in our best formulations and I am so thankful for that.

Instead, He loves us.

And God’s love never starts off as an easy, happy-clappy, sunshine and butterflies thing. It starts with all of those things in the quote above: never convenient, never complacent, never comfortable.

It’s annoying. It’s offensive. It’s painful.

And that is exactly because it goes against our every notion of justice, fairness and right vs. wrong. It goes against our instinct of how to treat the people who hurt us.

It’s like God’s love has to break us… in order to change us… in order to save us from ourselves.

“Love upsets the careful balance of a life and leaves it in absolute ruin.”

“Love is the corrosive that strips our canvas bare and starts all over.”

That’s exactly what God was doing when He took on human skin and bones and walked among us as Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus preached unconditional love and worked both sides of the street, He came to make a change in our little old lives. He was being outrageously offensive in His notions of forgiveness and grace and He absolutely quashed our best articulations of justice, fair vs. unfair, and how to deal with the people we just don’t like. Hence, the hearers of these teachings crucified Jesus in a bid to shut Him up.

But Jesus’s life, love and lessons, as much as they ruined the hearts of the people who heard, they also changed the lives of those people for GOOD.

Did those people wish they could return to the pre-Jesus days?! NO WAY!!

And those people were never the same again.

So, that’s what God was up to when I had my father-in-law all sussed out and when I knew I didn’t want to like Danielle.

And that’s what God is up to whenever I experience a friend speaking the truth to me. When I’m in a shitty, shitty mood and feeling all sorry for myself and Sana speaks truth to me, I experience God all over again.

Jesus’s love is life-changing.

It’s rarely easy to swallow, nor is it what we are necessarily looking for.

But it’s ALWAYS, always, always exactly what we need.

And it ALWAYS, always, always comes with a certainty that change has arisen from beyond ourselves.

Because that light – as offensive as it may seem at first – is where true freedom and compassion and love and solidarity and LIFE is found. And it is something we can never reach or achieve or attain on our own.

~~~

So, when I think about love within our own friendships, relationships and marriages, I now wonder if we are looking at it all backwards.

We want to find someone/something that affirms us in a happy-clappy sort of way. We want someone to complete our picture. And while that’s great, I wonder if there’s actually far more depth and life in someone/something that changes us.

In my marriage with Mr Ex, I was closed to change.

I can say that now with 20/20 hindsight.

I hated the idea of being open to another person changing me. And I get it; being changed by another person sounds like a dodgy practice. I mean, we all get fed nice little self-affirming statements, like “stay true to yourself” and “follow your heart”. Well, I’m now thinking that maybe remaining true to myself isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and following my heart is downright dangerous.

I can say with 100% certainty that because I met Sana and Danielle, I have been changed for good.

So, I wonder – and I’m only wondering this now with three and a half years of post-separation experience under my belt – whether the real power of love and friendship is being open to someone changing us, challenging us, coming out of left field and upsetting the perfect little equilibrium of our life.

You certainly don’t read that on Hallmark cards!

But I wonder.

Maybe love (just like God’s love for us) should strip our canvas bare and leave us in absolute ruin.

Because in post-ruin freedom, the light breaks in.

In post-ruin freedom, we are changed for good.

~~~

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Danielle and I are best friends today.

And we often have a laugh about that first conversation that began through my gritted teeth which almost instantly evolved into this effortless, post-ruin magic.

This chapter is dedicated to those people (you know who you are!) who speak beautifully, wonderfully, divinely corrosive truth to my stubborn little heart, who upset the careful balance of my life, and who strip back my canvas to bare. In post-ruin turmoil, I find new depths of life, love and freedom.

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Chapter 31: Divorce and Dating: My Unwanted D-Words

Divorce or Dating.

I’m not sure which D-word I dislike more.

The actual process of getting divorced was pretty straightforward. We’d had the legal red tape and rigmarole when we were legally separated in early 2013. That was hard. But the divorce was much, much easier. I only had to sign one piece of paper, as opposed to the fifty-something back in 2013. Sana came with me to a Justice of the Peace (JP) and I signed the page that Mr Ex had also already signed. There was a long line of people waiting for the JP, so it wasn’t even a situation involving small talk. It was just, “alright, sign here… alright, next person!”

And that was a blessing.

Two weeks later, my divorce certificate arrived in the post.

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Julia, my work colleague and dear friend – the one who randomly rocked up at my Church of Quirks on the day I first visited there, a couple of chapters ago – was separated and pending divorce, too. Her ex-husband and my ex-husband (no connection whatsoever) were both arranging our divorce paperwork, albeit from different countries. Mr Ex was in Bristol, England and Julia’s husband was here in Australia. Yet, unbeknown to both Julia and myself, our ex-husbands lodged our divorce applications on the exact same day. No mean feat for two strangers living in different countries! How bizarre.

So, Julia and I both received our divorce certificates in the post on the exact same day. Surreal. I have a divorce buddy. A fellow Jesus-loving, starting-life-from-scratch-again, had-a-cheating-husband, now-living-out-Plan-B buddy. (Not something I ever thought I’d say!)

It never fails to amaze me how easy it is to get divorced.

Sadly, I think buying a house with another person is actually a far bigger commitment than marriage and significantly harder to ‘get out of’.

Marriage, on the other hand, is ridiculously easy to get out of!

Crazy.

So, anyway, I was now divorced and feeling quite content and happy. That sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true. I was OK.

That lasted only a short while, before my next mother-load tunnel popped up.

An email from my ex-father-in-law.

He wanted to share some news with me. He wanted me to hear it from him, rather than anyone else. He wanted to give me time to digest it.

“Mr Ex and Cosette are expecting a baby.”

And that killed me.

My heart was smashed into a zillion tiny pieces.

And I broke.

Yet again.

It’s one of the three times in my life that I have experienced darkness beyond words.

The first time was when Mr Ex revealed the affair and walked out. The second time was when I signed my separation papers. And the third time was hearing that Mr Ex and Cosette had a baby on the way.

I really, truly wanted to die.

I remember sitting on the bathroom floor in a mess. No will to live. There were sleeping pills on my bathroom shelf.

Would I ever do that?

I thought about it. But, no. Despite my very best efforts to be an atheist and despite my very best efforts to give up on myself, my life and my God, He just doesn’t let me go.

What saved me?

This blog.

Yep.

This blog. By the Grace of God.

After a time of dry-reach crying and hysterically throwing metaphorical ink pots around my house, I logged onto WordPress, my beloved blog host, and I wrote what would form a part of Chapter 19: Free Will and Throwing Ink Pots. Writing is my therapy. And a gift from God, I believe.

So, a big thank you to each and every one of my readers. And thank you, God, for 20somethinganddivorced.com.

In that chapter, I wrote about the feeling of the walls closing in. And me fighting back, like Martin Luther when he literally threw ink pots at what he perceived to be the devil. This was my ink pot moment.

While that chapter worked perfectly within my blogging time-frame (I was up to the bit about signing my separation papers), it was well and truly inspired by my reaction to Mr Ex’s pending fatherhood.

Oddly enough, my parents and friends didn’t see the baby news as upsetting. Sure, they thought it was annoying, unfair and perhaps a little shitty, but definitely not ground-breakingly terrible.

So why did I react in the way I did???

Perhaps knowing for years that I would be the person to have Mr Ex’s children, I was mourning the loss of the children that I may never have.

I’m not sure what it is with women and babies.

I spend 99.999% of my time grateful that I can be a selfish, single person with no nappies to change and the divine luxury of sleeping in (when I’m not skating, that is). I do what I want, when I want.

But then I’ll see a deliriously happy couple (you know the ones… they sit on a church pew and rub each others backs) and I want what they have.

And social media is the WORST for that.

I call it “IRWWTH” (pronounced “earth”) syndrome. I Really Want What They Have.

But, when I truly, honestly, deeply listen to myself… I mean really listen to myself… I am happy. I am complete. I am content and fulfilled and all that jazz. I really am.

It is only when I listen to the universe – through social media or that son of a bitch stereotype that tells us couples, marriages and children are the epitome of fulfillment – that I get jaded.

I don’t want to be that bitter, jealous, angry ex-wife. And I’m actually not.

So, how do I stop her from creeping in?

Fight like hell to listen to God, not the world.

And when I say ‘fight’, I do quite literally mean fight.

It’s warfare.

Much like my chapter about throwing ink pots, I had to fight. Fight the demons that tell you bullshit about your life. Fight the little voices in your head that belittle you and erode your sense of fulfillment.

And that is why my beautiful parents bought me a dog tag. It’s not your average, everyday dog tag. It’s a Tiffany & Co dog tag!

And it has two little words inscribed:

I know

One of my dearest, dearest friends at Happy’s (church), Michelle, gave me the idea.

“I know” signifies the beginning of my go-to Bible verse. Jeremiah 29:11.

‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future’.

God tells me that I am loved as I am. God tells me that I’m complete as I am. God tells me that there’s nothing I could do that could ever separate me from His love. God tells me that I am made new. God tells me that I am worth it. God tells me that He has a plan for me. And a future.

The world tells me that I need a partner, a baby, a Thermomix and those annoying ‘My Family’ car stickers.

Don’t listen to that.

One of my favourite books in the Bible is Ecclesiastes. I can totally relate. It was written by King Solomon and I’m SURE he was feeling emo and dark when he wrote it. He wrote the book of Proverbs first (the previous Bible chapter), which is all nice and rosey and chipper. But then maybe he lived a little and discovered how shittily, shittily unfair this world can be.

Ecclesiastes starts off with, “Everything is meaningless; completely meaningless”. A little while on, it says, “I observed everything going on under the sun, and really, it is all meaningless – like chasing the wind.” Not the most commonly known Bible verse, that’s for sure. But I love it. Because it addresses the universal disappointment that we experience when we place our hope, identity and faith in anything other than God. We will be disappointed. Guaranteed.

But in God, we have hope. We have completeness. We can move mountains with Jesus.

That sounds really preachy. But, truthfully, I’m writing that to myself more that anyone. Because that is the stuff I need to be reminded of regularly.

The other part of my pain?

HOW, HOW, HOW, HOW, HOW is it fair/possible/OK for Mr Ex and Cosette (who cheated on their respective spouses) to have a baby, when there are SO MANY beautiful, faithful couples experiencing infertility?! And HOW, HOW, HOW, HOW, HOW, HOW is it fair/possible/OK for Mr Ex and Cosette to get pregnant seemingly at the drop of a hat, when Mr Ex and I were trying for HOW LONG?!!?? And we didn’t get pregnant?!

SOOOOOO FREAKING UNFAIR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But that’s life.

And truthfully, I know I should be thankful that I never had children with Mr Ex. Because if we had children, things would be SO much more complicated, painful and unfair. I know that. But still.

It was in that headspace following the Mr Ex/Cosette baby news that I signed up for internet dating. eHarmony, to be exact. Just the free trial. (Thankfully, I didn’t part with any dollars.)

It really hit me that I am single. And he’s totally not.

I went on a blind date with one guy. We had several mutual friends, so it seemed like a safe bet. I lasted on this date for 32 minutes, before I managed to excuse myself and escape! I rang Andrew, Cosette’s ex-husband and my now-dear friend, as I was walking running to my car. We just laughed. It was an utter disaster! Basically, the guy (a 33-year-old Christian) was still living at home with mummy and daddy, he actually told me that his mummy does his washing for him and that’s why he likes living at home, he told me that he’s never had a girlfriend before and that he has lots of first dates but they never go any further AND he told me that he understood my divorce because HIS BEST FRIEND MOVED TO QUEENSLAND.

Umm… what?!?!?!?!

A best friend moving interstate DOES NOT equate to your spouse CHEATING on you and walking out!!!!!!

He’s probably a really lovely guy. And I’m sure his awkwardness and nervousness would be endearing to the right girl. But that was definitely not me.

My next internet dating experience didn’t actually result in me meeting anyone at all.

A friend of mine had been dating some guy called Steve. She told me a little about him; Steve, aged 30, a Restaurant Manager from Glenelg. I was really happy for her! And although it was still new, it sounded positive! No one had met this Steve guy yet.

And Steve had no idea who I was.

But I think God revealed His epic sense of humour and desire for me to have good blogging material, because eHarmony emailed me a notification of a ‘kiss’ and ‘5 questions’ from…guess who? Steve, aged 30, a Restaurant Manager from Glenelg.

WHAT THE FUCK?!?!?!?!?

The guy that my friend is dating IS ALSO ON eHARMONY?!?!? Dating my friend but also shopping around for girls online?!? Sending me creepy questions and a ‘kiss’?!?! VOMIT!!!!!!

And you know what’s worse?? He’s a Youth Leader at a local church.

ASSHOLE!!!!!

And thus ended my very short 1-week spell on eHarmony.

Let me just say, I’m glad it’s over.

And I’m glad I never parted with any money. And I’m glad I never uploaded a photo of myself or any specific details about me.

Internet dating is truly heinous.

A little while later, there was a guy (not internet dating, but real life) who asked me out on a couple of coffee dates. I wasn’t sure if he was “interested” or not, but I later found out that, yes, he was. The couple of coffee dates were followed by a pier-side dinner at Glenelg (I did wonder if we went to 30-year-old Steve’s Restaurant?!) and a couple of pub catch-ups. You would think I’d have big trust issues, considering my history with Mr Ex, but oddly enough, I do trust people easily. Stupid me, perhaps. But anyway, I enjoyed his company and I considered him a friend, so I had him over to my place for dinner and British comedy. Let’s call him British Comedy Dude.

Despite catching up with British Comedy Dude on a number of occasions, sharing a friendship circle and developing a [what I thought was genuine] friendship, he then unexpectedly began ignoring me. Like, literally just stopped talking to me and responded to any texts with a couple of words max.

I don’t know what happened. Someone later told me that he was interested in me, but he changed his mind. All I can deduce: British Comedy Dude heard ‘my story’ (i.e. the abridged version of this entire blog) and he ran a mile. At least I think that was the reason. He never communicated, but timing-wise it added up. And it pissed me off, mostly because I thought we were friends.

So, I see a major problem with the dating scene.

And that goes 100% for church dating scenes.

I’ve seen it time and time again with others and I’ve experienced it myself once.

The formula goes something like this…

Guy is interested in girl. Guy asks girl out for coffee. Guy and girl get coffee. Guy and girl get to know each other. Guy and girl hang out a bit more. Guy changes his mind. Guy backs right off.

Is it just me, or is that not OK?!

I can’t offer any amazing revelations for an alternative to this formula, but my two cents worth is: I don’t think we should ever compromise our compassion.

And it seems to me that that formula seriously compromises compassion.

If we decide we don’t want to pursue a friendship/relationship/any kind of connection with someone we’ve been hanging out with/investing in/share a circle of friends with, I would say it’s never OK for you to just start ignoring that person.

COMMUNICATE, people! Communicate!

Own your feelings!

Be bold enough to SPEAK!

Have the guts to tell that person how you’re feeling.

There’s a good chance that person may agree with you. And if they don’t, at least have the heart to show respect to that person by giving them some kind of communication. Sure, conveying our feelings can be shithouse to give and receive. But I think it’s just common courtesy to tell a person how you are feeling. They deserve that. Because they gave you their time and energy and they let you into their world.

And in my case, at the risk of sounding woe-is-me, I was a damaged, recovering soul.

While I didn’t think British Comedy Dude was a good match for me whatsoever and while I didn’t feel any spark there, I did consider him a friend and I did take the leap of faith in sharing my story with him.

But then I realised something.

It was forced.

I was reacting to my hurt, pain and devastation at Mr Ex’s happy little life with pending child. I was being reactive.

My most successful friendships are the ones I never saw coming. The ones I never even wanted. The ones I didn’t pursue or hope for or self-generate. The ones that effortlessly happened.

So I made a promise to myself:

“Ess, that’s it. Don’t force it.”

And so, dating was over before it even properly began.

If I ever embark on the world of dating again, I have two rules in place:

  1. He loves Jesus more than me.
  2. It must be effortless*. Like, Holy-Spirit effortless. That deep-down effortlessness that you just feel in your soul.

*I described ‘effortless’ in In The Stranger. There are those people in life where your soul just goes, “Oh there you are! I’ve been looking for you!” and I think it is Jesus in and within these people that our souls are recognising. You connect on multi-dimensional levels and you are sure you’ve been friends for years.

I was talking to Andrew (Cosette’s husband) recently and I acknowledged the fact that I really have limited my dating options. I said to Andrew, “If I ever date, it’ll be with a fellow wine-drinking Jesus freak, who is the same breed of crazy as me, and who isn’t fazed by my F-bomb-riddled life.”

…Yes… That does limit my options SIGNIFICANTLY.

But I’m OK with that.

And if I’m single forever and ever, I’m OK with that too.**

(**And if I ever doubt that, I’ll just scroll up and re-read this chapter; what God tells me, versus what the world tells me).

And on that note, Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City has some wise words of wisdom…

“…The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. And if you can find someone to love the you you love, well, that’s just fabulous!”-Carrie Bradshaw.

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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…”

Chapter 26: Anam Cara

I think I’ll have this engraved on my tombstone: “Yes, terrible things happen. But sometimes, those terrible things – they save you.”

That is a quote from Chuck Palahniuk.

It’s now around November 2013.

By the grace of God, I had landed my dream job with a bunch of exceptional people who were fast becoming my second family. I discovered that my lifelong dream to teach was indeed my passion or my calling or whatever you call something that is simply an extension of yourself. The 5-year-old who lined up her Barbies and teddies and gave them spelling lessons, put stickers and ticks on their ‘work’, and taught them how to count turned into the 25-year-old who was living the dream. Even at the end of the toughest day, I still go home thanking God for planting me there and, with a skip in my step, I look forward to returning the next day and doing it all over again.

I’ve come to realise that is rare.

Most people just exist at work. I get to live!

When your life is on God’s course – and when you feel that God himself put you on that course – you are your most powerful. Because no matter what comes your way, no matter how long or icy your winter may be, you will be spurred on by an invincible inner springtime. Or, if you’re anything like Elsa and myself, maybe the cold never bothered you anyway.

I think Steve Jobs said it best: “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

At my new workplace, Narelle was one of the first people I connected with. Twenty years older than me and a total stranger, but Narelle had the exact scars as me. Her husband left her in January 2013 after revealing an affair. Snap! Crackle! Pop! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s exciting when we find bits of ourselves in other people. Our soul says, “Oh, there you are! I’ve been looking for you!”

A wise lady once told me that a scar just means you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you. And I started to realise something:

Damaged people are dangerous, because they know they can survive.

Damaged Christians are even more dangerous, because they know they can survive AND they have experienced first-hand grace and love from the creator of the universe.

“It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness.   Now I take limitations in my stride, and with good cheer; these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.” -2 Corin. 12:10.

I also quickly connected with Julia. Same scars, same story too.

And I went on to discover a whole heap of inspiring women at my new work who had scars of one form or another.

There is a compassion, a sensitivity, a depth, an inextinguishable fire in the belly of those people. And they wear their pain like they do L.K. Bennett stilettos. No matter how much it hurts, they just get more beautiful.

But there was someone missing from the picture at this point. Someone who often popped into mind.

Andrew, Cosette’s husband.

After hearing in the early stages of this whole shebang that Cosette was married too, I felt inextricably linked to him – whoever he is. Two strangers with a hell of a lot in common. My husband and his wife were shacked up and living large. What a bizarre connection to share with a total stranger.

Thanks to technology and the likes of Google, I found Andrew’s work email address. And I sat down to email him.

Holey socks!

Getting the wording right was hilariously impossible.

“Hi there, You don’t know me, but our spouses know each other wayyyyy too well…!”

LOL!

No, I didn’t say that.

In the end, I didn’t give it too much thought.  I figured I’d just get some kind of collection of cohesive English words onto the page, send it off and forget about it. I mean, there was every chance that he might not want anything to do with me.

Don’t over-think it, Ess.

It might be too painful for him to reply. Or he might actually be celebrating the end of his marriage!

But, within a day, Andrew replied.

And I couldn’t have asked for a nicer reply. He suggested that we meet up, so we arranged to meet by the beach the following weekend.

I remember feeling surprisingly un-nervous. It was a natural progression. Organic.

I arrived first and waited at a white plastic table and chairs on the foreshore. The sun was shining brighter than ever and the sea was bluer than blue.

I remember Andrew walking straight towards me; no hesitation on his part, just a 100kW smile. We greeted each other like old friends. There was this unspoken camaraderie. Instant family.

And really, that is just so damn hilarious considering we have absolutely NOTHING in common apart from Mr Ex and Cosette.

A mo-fo sized universe with nine known planets, 204 countries on earth, 809 islands, 7 seas… and I am having coffee with a 40-something-year-old (remembering that Cosette is a fair bit older than Mr Ex) Irishman with a sciencey PhD and a keen interest in crustaceans and golf.

Utterly uncanny. Bizarre. Downright ridiculous!!

And he was no doubt thinking the same thing about the 20-something-year-old Aussie figure skater and Jesus-freak that he was talking to.

LOL!

Granted, we both enjoy a glass of red. So we’re not totally incompatible 😉

But, I guess what really resonated with me was that Andrew could’ve been an asshole.

Andrew could’ve been unhappily married, miserable in his life with Cosette, and thrilled to be set free from her.

He could’ve so easily been a dickhead husband who treated her like shit.

But, reality?

I remember just thinking, Ah geez… Andrew loved Cosette.

Andrew adored Cosette.

And he’s not an asshole. He’s one of the kindest, sweetest, most generous people you’ll ever meet.

How shittily, shittily, shittily unfair is that.

In many ways, it would be so much kinder if he was an asshole. But, much like my amazing work friends with their scars and stiletto-wearing pain-threshold which makes them the most beautiful people I know, BAD STUFF HAPPENS TO GOOD PEOPLE!

AND THAT SUCKS!!!!!!

Even Jesus himself struggled with the ravages of pain and hurt (Matthew 26). Jesus said, “…In this world you will experience troubles and pain. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world!” (John 16:33).

Reading that in November 2013, I had new ears. I’d heard that verse many, many times before. But, I kind of always pictured Jesus as a high and mighty overseer who was serenely preaching about how bad we all are and how good he is.

But, as usual, I had missed the essence completely. And I’m sure Jesus has lovingly rolled his eyes at me many, many times.

How did Jesus conquer the world? I wondered.

OMG! RESURRECTION! Messy, hardcore resurrection!

And in resurrection, there is hope.

Jesus is God in human form. So, this is a God who has experienced birth, childhood, friendship, love, betrayal, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, hard work, arrest, trial, death, and burial.

And Jesus’s followers were feeling mightily depressed when he died, because it looked like the light of the world – a man who taught that goodness will always overcome evil, if only we LOVE each other – had just been successfully killed. Talk about a depressing anti-climax to the teachings of someone who claimed to be God. And talk about an epic disappointment in the good versus evil debate. It looked like evil had triumphantly won.

As Jesus’s disciples were wandering along a dusty road with glum faces and feeling rather duped, Jesus casually walks along beside them and asks what they are talking about. They don’t recognise him, so start recalling recent events of Jesus’s death. One of Jesus’s disciples then says, “We had hoped that He was the One…” (Luke 24:21) but, of course, Jesus had been dead three days and it wasn’t looking good. At all.

But here he is, resurrected! Made new. “The resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

And just as the disciples are saying “we had hoped…” in a heart-heavy, feeling very let-down, ‘this didn’t go according to our plan’ kind of way, they realise that THAT IS JESUS right there walking with them! The very guy that they saw buried three days earlier.

Jesus has come back to life! Death could not hold him! Evil did not win!

And it’s heartily spectacular that a cross of crucifixion which is a symbol of death, evil and destruction can be turned into a symbol of hope and light and overcoming.

Only a god who has bore real suffering can bring us real hope.

And that’s it!

Jesus’s take-home message is my overarching mantra.

Evil is simply not more powerful than good.

Because God CAN and DOES bring goodness out of the worst evil.

“And we know that for those who love God, that is, for those who are called according to his purpose, all things are working together for good.” -Romans 8:28.

Thinking back to Andrew’s 100kW smile as he greeted me, I was amazed at his resilience. Talking to Andrew over coffee that afternoon, I remember an overwhelming realisation that he had been just as broken, devastated and downright shattered as I was. It amazes me that humans have a strength and resilience that transcends scientific reason. And since we are made in the image of God, that points to a beyond-imagination amazing God.

I think it all comes down to having hope.

And for me, I see that as resurrection. Goodness conquering evil.

I can’t imagine looking at the vastness of the ocean or the expansive sky and putting my hope in optimistic thoughts and wishful thinking. For me, the symbol of the cross – an act of evil which was conquered by goodness – is all that I need. Resurrection is all around us.

When a child has cancer and the whole community raise funds to pay for life-saving treatment… When a murder victim’s family is supported by the killer’s family… When a site of death, pain and horror is covered in memorial flowers and messages of hope and love… When two victims of an adulterous relationship join together for coffee and support under the bright sunshine…

That’s resurrection. Hope. Goodness conquering evil.

And we joked that we should take a selfie with the sun and sea in the background and send it off to drizzly Bristol where Mr Ex and Cosette were now living.

Andrew and I chatted about our hesitation going into our first Christmas as singles. Thinking back to the previous Christmas, both of us were happily married to our respective spouses, or so we thought.

Quick flashback to Christmas 2012:

Mr Ex and I were happily married (if you’d asked me). We enjoyed a Chrissy lunch at my parents’ house. All the trimmings. Family, food, and festivities. And life was looking pretty sweet! Mr Ex was in a new position at work. I was starting my fourth year in child care.

At the Christmas lunch, Mr Ex retired to my parents’ upstairs sofa with his iPad, complaining of a headache. When I went upstairs to check on my headache-suffering husband, he put his iPad to one side, pulled me to the sofa, and I just remember him being all hands.

WTF?!

So much for a headache!

It’s Christmas Day and we’re having lunch with my family!!!!!!!

Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. And my beloved, randy husband was undoubtedly communicating with Cosette. Headache-schmedache.

On that same Christmas Day, Cosette and Andrew were visiting their homeland, Ireland. Neither Cosette or Andrew have family in Australia, but had been living in Australia for a few years, working. Going back to Ireland to spend the festive season with their family would be a special time of closeness and quality time. But, Andrew’s 20/20 hindsight made it all-too-clear that his beloved Cosette was somewhat distracted on that trip too, spending time on her laptop.

And then, around one month later, January 2013 long weekend and Mr Ex revealed his affair and bugged out. Horrible, darkness, evil, and just like the disciples who said, “We had hoped…”, I can echo those same sentiments. It’s all looking pretty glum. Looks like evil has won.

Fast-forward to Christmas 2013:

Ess and Andrew: Two victims of Mr Ex and Cosette’s relationship, single against their will, covered in cut-marks from the shattered glass of their respective marriages to Mr Ex and Cosette, and dreading the Christmas 2013 holiday festivities.

“One of the most beautiful gifts in the world is the gift of encouragement. When someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might otherwise never have crossed on your own.” -John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom.

So, in the spirit of goodness overcoming evil – or resurrection, as I like to say – we spent Christmas Day 2013 celebrating together.

Andrew caught a taxi to my parents’ house. The taxi driver, an Indian man, made small talk with Andrew, asking where Andrew was off to. Andrew explained. The taxi driver’s response? “Wait… So let me get this straight… You are going to your WIFE’s LOVER’s WIFE’s FAMILY’s house for Christmas lunch?!?!?!?!?!” Haha! Yep!

Sitting at the same table where, only twelve months prior Mr Ex and I had been sitting, hand-in-hand unwrapping presents together, was rather bizarre. Despite the bizarreness though, I love that my family and Andrew could all eat, drink and be merry together for that Christmas 2013. And even more bizarre is that I had this rather random new addition to my family; Andrew, my newest big brother. Andrew will always be a member of my family. And I think his arrival into my family is a way of us kind of saying, “Get stuffed!” to the evil, darkness, hurt and pain that we have all felt – and sometimes do still feel.

A year of brokenness, shattered dreams, pain, anger, evil… and yet, the shining rays of goodness and hope prevail. Resurrection.

For Christmas that year, Andrew gave me Christmas a giant bunch of flowers, a bottle of Moet, and Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom.

And Anam Cara means ‘soul friend’.

Chapter 22: Snowflakes and Sparkles

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When I got back home, I remember a deep-rooted feeling of displacement. From the Eiffel Tower in Pairs to Wittenberg in Germany, returning home to Australia made one feeling rather clear to me: Australia is not where I want to be anymore. I was returning to familiar places and surroundings that held significant memories. Married memories. But I was single now. Horribly single. And that was tough to transition back to.

My first night home in Australia, I stayed at Mum and Dad’s house. My furry friend, Rommet, still had one more night at his 5-star doggy resort and I was rather jet-lagged and exhausted, so I stayed at Mum and Dad’s that night. It was actually the first night I’d slept there since before I was married. I remember lying awake, feeling ridiculously over-tired but unable to switch off. And a damn email from Mr Ex came through on my iPad at around 11pm, just as I was trying to get to sleep.

Fuck him! I’ve only been back in Australia a few hours and he’s on my case already! It’s as if he KNOWS that I’ve just stepped off a plane and I’m trying to get some much-needed sleep! Gah! Douche-bag, you can’t ruin our marriage AND my sleep patterns!

Yes, I was overtired and hating the painful jolt back into reality.

And no, Mr Ex didn’t know that I’d been overseas and he also didn’t know that I was jet-lagged, grouchy and trying to get to sleep. That was just a happy coincidence.

In this new email, Mr Ex was asking me to send some documents. Paperwork. Something about superannuation. Blah, blah, blah.

But interestingly, I also got an email from Jillian in the next day or two. You know, the lady who worked with Mr Ex and Cosette, who had become a very dear friend of mine, as well as informant extraordinaire for Penny, the P.I.

Jill’s news? Mr Ex and Cosette were moving!

To Bristol!!

Bristol, England!!!

What the actual?!

I was surprised. Really surprised. And it totally explained Mr Ex’s email wanting paperwork and documentation.

Mr Ex and Cosette hadn’t really ‘come out’ at work.

They’d sort of outwardly maintained that they were just friends. But Mr Ex had told Jill, “You may have noticed that I’m spending a fair bit of time with Cosette.” Pfft!

A couple of other ladies from Mr Ex and Cosette’s workplace contacted me too.

They had been in a very similar situation and their hearts went out to me.

To this very day, I still catch up with those three ladies for breakfasts and coffee dates.

And, with Mr Ex and Cosette moving to Bristol, it freed up Australia to be my home-sweet-home again. And it freed me up to have those breakfast and coffee dates with Mr Ex and Cosette’s work colleagues.

Mr Ex lived in the U.K. for a portion of his childhood. In fact, those years were probably his cheeriest childhood memories because his parents were happily married in the U.K. His parents later divorced and returned to Australia where things just went from bad to worse. Mr Ex always talked with unending love and joy about his memories in Ireland and the U.K.

Cosette is also from that region. She is Irish. An interesting connection, I think.

For those really observant readers, you may remember that Mr Ex and I gave each other Irish Claddagh rings representing love, friendship and loyalty during our dating years. They’re beautiful rings. A heart representing love, held by hands representing friendship, and a crown on top representing loyalty. And Mr Ex was still wearing that fucking ring when he was having a fucking affair. Pardon my French, but the irony is unbelievable. If anyone should’ve known what the ring stood for, it was Irish-native Cosette!!!! Hashtag Vomit.

And I can still sense that feeling of anger and pain, thinking of Mr Ex and Cosette starting their life anew.

And I do sometimes wonder if Mr Ex and Cosette have exchanged Irish Claddagh rings of their own?

Or what did Mr Ex ever do with the Irish Claddagh ring that I gave him?

Vomit, vomit, vomit, vomit.

But, as I always say, every time that I dump that anger and pain at the foot of the cross, I somehow find a new depth of freedom that I never knew existed. And I experience Jesus yet again. We don’t serve a distant, aloof God who sits on a throne watching his creations feel like crap. We serve a God who enters into our suffering and weeps with us. He’s right there with my mascara-smudged face and pillow full of tears. Through Jesus. Jesus, our Immanuel.

And Immanuel means, ‘God is with us’.

I have always loved Disney on Ice. As a child, I went to Disney on Ice each year religiously and I always bought the over-priced glossy program. I remember spending hours looking through the pictures, imagining what it would be like to skate like them. I’d read the bios of the principal skaters and stare at the sparkly costumes and skating boots, wishing that I could be a part of that.

After seeing what was probably my tenth Disney on Ice show in my first year at University (FYI it was High School Musical: The Ice Tour), I started figure skating lessons. That must’ve been around 2006. I was crap at it. Total crap. I’d never skated before. Needless to say, we don’t get snow or ice or anything like that in this country. Learning to skate in my first year of Uni was hard. But I did love it. And I continued on-and-off for a few years.

But, somehow, just like that pink guitar that I bought about the same time, skating fell off the priority list. Sad, really. But it’s true. Married life took over. Day-to-day routines and the mundane existence of two play-it-safe DINKs took over.

And so, here I am. Separated from Mr Ex. Still dealing with the abrupt ending of our marriage. A superb, life-changing, self-discovering overseas holiday. Fabulous revelations and experiences in Europe. A new ring to mark those milestones. But now, jolted back to reality. Learning how to find peace in my hometown. The town where I met Mr Ex. The town where I got married. The town that held umpteen-million memories of my relationship with Mr Ex. Is it even possible to find peace in this place?!

As I was saying, vomit, vomit, vomit.

*Lay it at the cross.*

And bang! Voila! Ta-dah! Zip-a-dee-doo!

Jesus, Immanuel.

My parents gave me a card. It read, “Do more of what you love!”

How beautifully simple.

YES! I thought. And what do I love?

I love figure skating.

And so I went back to figure skating. My previous coach was no longer there. Probably a blessing because it meant that I didn’t need to explain my period of absence to anyone.

The club had had an overhaul of staff and skaters. It was new!

I do love that concept of ‘new’!

If there is anything that will give you the unrelenting drive to nail a one-foot spin, it is pain. Pain gives you a bitch of an appetite. It pushes you better than the harshest of coaches. Pain propels you further into the galaxy of abilities than any NASA rocket could ever do.

And pain launched me further into figure skating than I had ever been before.

I was made to feel super-dooper welcome by a skater called Rosie. Rosie is Mum’s age. And she was on a synchronised skating team of amazing women. All around Mum’s age, actually. But don’t let that fool you! They are sharp skaters and oh-so-fun to hang around with. And they warmly invited me to be on their synchro team. Woot!

I got to know my fellow skaters over many months. But one thing was rather God-ordained. I’m always going on about how one of the most poignant ways that I encounter God is in the stranger… well, Rosie is another perfect example of that.

There was one day when we were standing in the middle of the rink. She said something about church and my ears pricked up. Yep, Rosie is a Jesus-follower. And it was really nice to make that connection. Always nice to find a fellow follower of Jesus.

But, things got seriously amazing a month or so later. Taking our skates off, I asked Rosie about her children. Rosie told me about her children and grandchildren. She had one child in particular though, who was a teacher. Single, apparently. And a Christian. Hmm… A single, 30-something-year-old Christian? There’s gotta be a story there! And amazingly, Rosie started that unbelievable sentence that her daughter had been married, BUT…

*Ding, ding, ding!*

It’s really, really exciting when you find parts of your story in other people. That, right there, is another perfect example of my soul saying, “Oh! There you are! I’ve been looking for you!” And I am totally convinced that’s one of the many ways of encountering Jesus.

Putting on my figure skating boots post-separation, after several years away from the rink, was life-changing. Life-altering. Life-inspiring.

And best of all, Jesus was all over it!

I also met two amazing coaches, Donna and Stacey. Both incredibly talented and warm human beings. And I had so many unforeseen opportunities.

A definite highlight that came along just recently was skating in Broadway on Ice.

I’d never thought I’d get the opportunity to skate in front of people. That was always a far-away dream of my 5-year-old self who stared at Disney on Ice programs for hours on end. But in true Cinderella style, I say that a pair of shoes CAN change your life! And for me, my life-changing glass slipper was actually a figure skating boot!

Sparkly costume, top hat and tails! I’m a Broadway star, baby!

Well, not quite.

But close!

And underneath the sparkly costume and stage make-up is just a little girl who fell in love with Disney on Ice. Not 20-something and separated.

I could recreate myself in a positive, new light. So I threw myself hook, line and sinker into skating.

Figure skating is a ‘survival sport’. Much like sailing, I imagine.

When you’re doing it, you have to be 100% in the moment. Focussed 100% on what you are doing. In order to ‘survive’. If you are not concentrating 100%, you are highly likely to stack it in a rather spectacular fashion. And get massive bruises. So when I skate, I’m in the moment. No room for other thoughts or worries. No room for baggage. Or history. Or Mr Ex. It’s all about me. And the jump that I’m landing.

I do sometimes wonder what heaven is like. It kind of does my head in a bit though. Too massive, too surreal and too incredible to grasp. I wonder if there will be an ice rink there!

Think about that hobby or that task that you do, which makes you feel like time flies. That thing where you feel like you’re doing exactly what you were made to do. Whether it is painting, or playing a sport, or listening to classical music, or gardening – we all have that ‘thing’ that makes time fly. Makes our soul sing. I think that’s what heaven will be like.

And for me, figure skating – oh! and writing – gives me that feeling.

I think everyone should search and search and search until they find that.

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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