I was recently thinking about how much my life has changed from this time last year (Facebook Time Hop helps!) and felt the urge to explain just what a huge part one small group of women in Oxfordshire who call themselves Pitstop, have played in my life.
I joined Pitstop (it didn’t really have a name at the time, I used to call it the Wednesday Morning Ladies’ Group) just after Easter last year. I had recently become a Christian whilst serving in Afghanistan but because I came to faith on my own, rather than as part of a friendship group or family, I found myself yearning to be around other Christians. I began attending services at my local Anglican Church back home, but because I was stationed at Shrivenam and was on a language course at the Defence Academy, I was only able to travel home about once a month. I didn’t feel part of a Christian community, I wasn’t familiar with ‘Christian ways’ and my early experiences as a Christian had all been worshipping in tents or outdoors in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. I didn’t have any Christian friends and I was worried I was beginning to bore my non-Christian friends by banging on about Jesus too much. I needed a safe place I could explore my new faith.
I looked online and found that a group met just outside camp on Wednesday mornings, so I adapted my study routine to accommodate this and turned up one day and introduced myself. I had never been around such a big group of Christian women before. I’d been around Christians in church but since we spend most of the time facing forwards and listening to the Vicar or singing hymns, there isn’t exactly loads of scope for interaction when you’re a newcomer (and there’should only so much coffee you can drink afterwards).
What I found was an eclectic mix of women of all ages and backgrounds, many of whom were attached to the Armed Forces in some way, some of whom brought along their babies or children, and all of whom were welcoming and friendly people. I immediately felt at home there. Over the coming months I ate a lot of biscuits and cake and the occasional breakfast buffet, I drank a lot of tea and coffee and I learned what it means to worship in a community.
There were lots of surprises in store. Firstly, I’d never prayed out loud before, apart from the Lord’s Prayer or other set prayers in service booklets that my local church uses. I had never in my life spontaneously prayed out loud for something or someone. I had never been part of a Bible study group. I’d never been asked to comment on a passage from the Old Testament and consider what it might mean. I’d never sat by a piano in an almost empty church and sung unfamiliar hymns in a group of only 7 or 8 others. To me, all these things were both daunting and delightfully exciting. I so looked forward to Wednesdays.
For the first time ever I felt I could freely talk about Jesus, though to be honest I did a lot more listening than talking- unusual for me. I listened because, as far as I was concerned, I had little to add. I didn’t know the first thing about God, and I certainly wasn’t familiar with the colossally huge Bible. I didn’t yet know the Christian lingo. I was only just learning what fellowship meant and slowly but surely I was learning to incorporate phrases like ‘I feel so blessed’ and ‘Let’s worship together’ into my vernacular. I was also learning not to swear.
One of Pitstop’s greatest assets is that it’s ecumenical- another new word for me! I didn’t know or understand it at the time, but our group was filled with women from different Christian denominations who each worshipped differently and even had differing opinions on certain aspects of theology. But I never really knew who was from which church because we never focused on that, and I was as yet too much of a novice to spot the Evangelicals with their arms in the air. I was denomination-blind. And ater all, we were all there because we were Christians. The differences meant it was like a rich fruit cake of ideas and experiences, rather than a bland, plain scone drawn from only one church tradition.
Within those walls we shared deeply personal struggles and situations and exciting ways we saw God working in our lives.
I learned an awful lot from Liesel Parkinson who taught me not only about characters and stories from the Bible, but also how to illustrate and explain them creatively. One day we walked in and she had used a bundled sleeping bag to represent Jesus lying asleep in the boat as the storm raged around Him and His disciples. Another time we shared loaves and fish in the sunshine as we thought about another of His miracles.
The big moment for me came when Liesel asked if I would lead a study series on a topic of my choosing, as she would be in Cyprus due to her work with the Armed Forces Christian Union. As part of my own Christian calling, I’d already decided to leave the Army and begin a degree in Theology, Ministry and Mission at Cranmer Hall, Durham University, which I hoped would help me understand whether Ordained Ministry was what God was calling me to do (at the time it seemed very unrealistic indeed!). Liesel could see that it would do me good to lead the group over a couple of weeks, so I said yes. As a Captain in the Army I was certainly familiar with leadership, but I’d never tackled a subject area before that was so alien to me. What was expected of me? How would the women respond? Would I pitch it at the right level? How could I teach mature Christians when I knew so little about Christ?
As it happened, my attempt at leading Bible Study and leading worship went well, thanks to plenty of supportive prayers from the group and many late nights poring over books. I was given the opportunity to research, discover and interpret a Biblical theme, work with religious texts, choose hymns, write prayers and think up questions to pose to the group. And all of this in the safety of an intimate group of friends. This experience was a real turning point for me. It helped me to feel more comfortable with what I felt called to do/be in the future, and more prepared for beginning my studies in the much more immediate future.
Since then, I’ve completed my first part-time year at Cranmer Hall, and though I’ve had to postpone my studies (I ran out of money rather quicker than expected), I have recently begun a full-time position working for the Diocese of Durham. I’m running a two-year project called The Generous Giving Project which aims to bring about a culture of change in the North-East in people’s attitudes towards generous giving and money in relation to God. My work involves writing about faith, teaching others about faith, presenting to Christian groups, and occasionally preaching in churches on Sundays. It’s incredible to think that only a year ago I was so daunted at the prospect of leading a Bible Study at Pitstop! Who’d have thought I’d end up working for the C of E?
God has guided me expertly, and opened doors I would never have thought to walk through. I still very much consider myself to be a novice Christian, but I keep being told that, in this job, it can be a good thing. Being exposed to different traditions at Pitstop, plus worshipping in an Anglo-Catholic church at home, and attending a very Evangelical seminary means that I don’t really fit well into any particular church tradition, but rather feel comfortable slotting in to many. Thanks to the support of Pitstop, I could develop and grow as a Christian and see Jesus’ kindness and warmth reflected in the women who made up its numbers. So, a big thank you to Liesel and the team, and a big hurrah for all the other Christian fellowship groups across the land who provide a supportive and safe place to learn about God. Well done you.