God is weird: PART 5

An Ordination Candidate’s Experience of The Discernment Process

Into the Great Unknown

Should it be this hard? Should I leave it alone? Why won’t this strong sense of purpose and calling just go away?

Two days later my prayers were answered (many of them at least) and I was told about a job being advertised at the Diocese of Durham. It was to do with stewardship.

To say I was reluctant and lacking in faith is an understatement. I had to look up the word stewardship for a start. I had no expectations of success but, God is weird. God is so weird that the timing was perfect, the actual job description (words like stewardship aside) was perfect and the panel said yes. 

I had a job, I could patch up my finances, I was going to be serving the church full-time and I could use those aforementioned practical skills as a lay person. Hurrah!
So for the last 18 months I’ve been leading The Generous Giving Project, which bizarrely has helped me develop in my worst area of the 9 criteria; knowing about church and stuff.

After I’d only been a practising Christian for a couple of years,  I’m chuffed to bits that I was given the opportunity to work as a Diocesan Officer, advising local churches on developing disciples to be more generous, and writing materials on God’s generosity. I get to present at Chapter meetings, at Deanery Synod meeting, at Bishop’s Leadership Team meetings and I preach most Sundays (sometimes up to three sermons a week!) It’s crazy.

I’ve worked in churches with big worship bands and PowerPoint, where children and adults wave coloured flags and join in with prayer whenever they like. And in churches with bells and incense. And in churches where we hand each other bread and wine in a circle. And in churches who are Forward in Faith and have alternative oversight from a different Bishop.

Until recently I didn’t know most of this stuff even existed. I didn’t even know I was part of a Deanery.

I’ve learned loads, but the more I learn the more I realise I have yet to learn. Each new experience reminds me how inexperienced I am. But that’s OK. It’s not a race (I keep telling myself). What’s really helped is all I’ve learned about the breadth of the Church of England, and how I understand my own tradition. And I still maintain I don’t have one! 

Not really. Whilst this might irk the BAP (if I actually get that far) I can’t comfortably say I’m one thing or another, even though when people meet me they think I give off a whiff of evangelical. I think it’s my brogues.

My weird pathway through faith in my first few years has exposed me to so many different theologies and ways of worshipping that I can’t honestly say there’s one I’m more drawn to above another. I’m a Eucharist loving, modern worship song adoring evangelist, who loves liturgy, saying Morning Prayer, and preaching the Gospel. And I know I’m not alone. I’m told it’s not that rare a condition after all.

But has any of this helped me to discern whether or not I really am called to be an ordained minister? Certainly. Do I have an answer? No. I’m still just muddling through. In this job, at times, I’ve felt so content and fulfilled in my work that I’ve wondered if a future in lay leadership may be exactly what I’m called to do, and that I’d misunderstood that first message in my confirmation service.

Maybe what I’m called to do doesn’t require me to wear a dog collar. I’ve given this possibility much thought, and have talked about what this might mean with my husband, who had just about resigned himself to being married to a vicar.

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I may never become a priest, either because I feel I’m called to lay ministry after all and I withdraw from the process, or the church decides that for me, because it discerns God’s calling me elsewhere. There are no certainties here. A few years ago that would have felt enormously stressful; all this not knowing. But I rather like it. I have no idea if/when I’ll go to panel or what they’ll say. It’s all in God’s hands.

And yes, I’m really getting better with the pride thing. If I get as far as BAP and they don’t recommend me, I’ll be devastated for sure, but not because I’ll think of myself as a failure. I’d be upset because by then, if I get as far as BAP it’s because I’m as sure as I can be that I desperately want to serve the church as a priest for the rest of my days. So a no at that point would still be heart-breaking, but not because of pride. Just because I’ll need to re-evaluate what I think God’s calling me to.

And this whole process of trusting God will hopefully help me to see that if it’s not ordained ministry, then God has planned something else equally weird (and I’ve come to expect equally exciting) around the corner. Let’s wait and see.

Advice For Fellow Candidates

If I had one bit of advice for anyone reading this who is just on the edge of the process, or like me, right in the middle of the storm, then it would be to trust God in whom He calls, and what He calls them to. Time and again I’ve been told that it’s OK that I’m nothing like the model of a “normal” priest, and that if I am ever ordained, I’ll be a Rachael-shaped priest, not any other kind of priest. It’s OK to be different.

I’m told the church actually really wants diversity in its leaders. Phew!

As candidates, we don’t know for sure what will come of our future, we just have to trust that we, our Bishops, and the rest of the folk we meet along the way, can wisely discern God’s call, which is not an easy job, and it’s not always to ordained ministry.  God is weird. He calls weird people to do weird things. Thank God.

God is weird: PART 4

An Ordination Candidate’s Experience of The Discernment Process

Where’s My Pigeon Hole?

Back to the process itself. The DDO assigned me a Vocations Advisor (who has since left and I’ve been assigned a new one) whom I met every couple of months to discuss how my discerning is going. These meetings are like a very long three-way job interview. The church is looking at me and I’m looking at the church and myself and we’re all looking to God and asking “Is this right?”

After my first meeting with the DDO it was apparent I knew pretty much nothing about church. This was also confirmed in my meetings with my first Vocations Advisor. We’d been looking at the 9 criteria, a set of qualities which candidates have to show/possess, in order to be considered for training. I stumbled at the second of nine. Not a great start.

I’d have to show “an understanding of my own tradition within the Church of England, an awareness of the diversity of traditions and practice, and a commitment to learn from and work generously with difference”. Tricky, as I didn’t have a tradition. I didn’t fancy (and still don’t fancy) having to decide what kind of Christian I am.

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I was baffled by the various pigeon holes people occupied and what this meant in terms of theology, worship styles and whether one puts one’s hands in their air while singing or not. I’d be flattered to be described as charismatic, but had no idea this had anything to do with the Holy Spirit. The term Evangelical had, in my limited understanding, been hijacked by aggressive hate preachers in America. Maybe I once watched a documentary about it. Maybe Louis Theyroux was in it.

I now realise this couldn’t be further from the truth, and I now see myself as very aligned with elements of this tradition. Anglo-Catholic still confused me because there was such mystery in it all, but I liked the idea of predictable structure and fancy outfits (the Army in me). Apparently there’s much more to it than that.  Indeed, so much more. I now see myself as very aligned with elements of this tradition too.

Furthermore, B.1 (Candidates should have knowledge and understanding of the Church of England) and B.3 (Candidates should have an understanding of ministry within the Church of England) made me again question why, oh why, a brand new Christian would be put through all of this. There was so much to learn.

Here’s a list of the bizarre church-words and phrases I had to look up  in my first few months as a candidate, because I’d either never heard of them or wasn’t sure of their “church” meaning: chasuble, chancel, vestry, cloisters, slain in the spirit, Brethren, laying on of hands, fellowship, getting alongside, testimony, intercession, eschatology, Emmanuel, Maranatha, Hallelujah, Hosanna, dean, canon, rector, elder, crucifer, anointing, ordinance, ordinand, ecclesiology, episcopal, Episcopalian, epistle, apostle, apostolic, apologetics, missal, canticle, Creed, Calvinist, cincture, liturgy, Pentateuch, 39 articles, Magnificat, matins, Presbyterian, Anglican Communion, Zion, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Luckily I’d served as a linguist and cultural specialist in the Army, so saw this as just another vocabulary to learn.  That said, I feared I’d never be able to convince a panel I knew enough. I could read and read but my veneer of understanding would surely be seen through by even the gentlest of interrogations at BAP. They’d know I was a fraud.

Crash Course on Church at Cranmer Hall

September came around quickly and I’d moved the last of my boxes home, had hung up my uniform, and had enrolled at Cranmer Hall. This exposure was just what I needed. Each day began with Morning Prayer in the chapel which smelled dreamily of incense, where I had to wrestle with a colourfully beribboned book and unfamiliar words, and Tuesday evenings were all about informal worship, heartily sung modern worship songs accompanied by a band, and Communion with real pieces of actual bread. It was all rather mind-blowing. I loved it.

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I was at Cranmer Hall for a year, and in that time I took modules in the Old and New Testaments, Mission and Evangelism (I got sent away on a mystery mission for 24 hours with no money which you can read about later), and preaching. I chose these modules because if I wasn’t recommended at BAP and couldn’t afford to continue my degree, at least I’d have some really useful practical skills to use as a lay person in my local church. This forethought proved worthy, as I’d soon find out.

By the spring term I was quite unwell and for a variety of reasons (I’ve written blogs on this, check the homepage) I had to leave. 

This was traumatic. I loved the community and all the staff. My head was full of new learning and ideas, and I felt I was being stretched in all the right ways. But alas, I couldn’t continue, so I told the Warden, who was very understanding, and I stepped out into a scary world of great uncertainty, wondering what on earth had just happened. What do I do now?

I just didn’t understand it. No job, no money, no more studying. Wasn’t this what God had wanted? 

I was unwell and very sad, and so very confused by my calling. 

God is weird: PART 3

An Ordination Candidate’s Experience of The Discernment Process

Out of My Depth

A few weeks later I was sitting in front of the DDO feeling incredibly nervous. I’d spent hours deliberating over what to wear, for fear of appearing too formal and Army Officer-like, or much worse, too casual. Perhaps those hours would have been better spent reading the Bible. One of the first questions I was asked was whether my conversion experience in Afghanistan felt more like a Road to Emmaus experience or more like a road to Damascus. Hmmm. Jolly good question. If only I knew more about these roads. Damascus is in Syria. What might that have to do with Afghanistan? Was this a trick question?

“Gosh, it’s hard to say really.” I stalled for time. “It wasn’t a very road-y experience at all. It was in a shipping container.” Hadn’t he been listening at all? I’d been very clear about where it’d happened. There were no roads.

Then I was asked about my tradition. “Evangelical or Anglo-Catholic? Up the candle or down? High church or low church?” This man is speaking another language, I thought. I faltered. I desperately wanted to answer correctly. My future could depend on it. But I hadn’t the faintest idea what any of this meant. My first 9 months of being a Christian were spent worshipping in tents and in the back of armoured vehicles in Helmand Province. How should I know if I was an Evangelical? And Anglo-Catholic? No, I was definitely Church of England, I knew that much. It was certainly a trick question.

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I feared the interview wasn’t going well at all, but the warmth and friendliness of the DDO helped a lot, and we carried on for another hour. I told him stories and shared my fears and concerns. He seemed rather excited about having a shiny new Christian to work with, which was a relief. He diagnosed me as very possibly having a case of potential vocation, and prescribed me several months of prayer and further discernment. He handed me several kilos of paperwork to fill in. I was officially a candidate.

Spilling the Beans: Going Public

I still hadn’t told many people about this. In fact, other than Kate from Cranmer Hall, Richard the DDO, Dickie my husband and Justin the Padre, only two others knew (best pals). I was still embarrassed. Why, exactly, took months to work out. Eventually I figured it was pride. Up until this point in my life, I had been very driven by success and achievement. In fact I’d have probably once told you that my biggest fear was not spiders, or death, or War of the Worlds (the new one with Tom Cruise…seriously terrifying). It was failure. I wouldn’t normally put myself in a public situation that was so uncertain. And putting yourself through the vocations process is pretty public and pretty uncertain! At any stage someone may say no. And it can take a long time. Months, years…even decades for some.

I was keeping it to myself because I was so unsure the church would say yes, and I didn’t want to have to face people if I was rejected. And I know that’s really not the right word to use, but in layman’s terms, and certainly in my own mind at the beginning of this process, it felt like the right word. I’ve since learned to say “not recommended.”

So having identified pride as the obstacle, and humility as my aim[2], I decided to come out of the discernment closet. I told my parents, brother and sister-in-law at a family meal on Easter Sunday two years ago. That conversation could have gone better! At first my family, whilst very supportive of anything I do, were rather concerned. It was such a massive departure from my ordinary life; my army career. And leaving the security (relative; financial) of the army to embark on a second degree did appear rather drastic, especially as there were no certainties it would lead to a job, as it were.

My mum was particularly unhappy about it all, and her maternal instincts manifested themselves in interesting ways. She viewed the established church as cold, dusty, old and miserable. She feared it would take the life out of me. None of my family had had much contact with the Church before, and sadly none of them could imagine it as a lively, joy filled, and life-giving environment. I could see why my mum would want to protect me from a life, which she probably thought, would drain away all the energy and happiness that characterised her daughter.

I’d have to help my parents to see the unbridled joy that knowing and worshipping Jesus could bring. But I wouldn’t change their minds overnight. For now, they’d just have to trust me.

I realised my problem with pride was fairly deep rooted, so I took the rather extreme approach of going to the press. Or rather, the press came to me on a totally unrelated issue, which I used to tell the world “Hi, I’m a Christian!”. As a serving female Army Officer, the local newspaper had, over the years, interviewed me as a “local girl” about this or that to fill space on slow news days.

 

It was supposed to be an article about the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I’d recently been serving as been part of a British delegation. In the interview I decided to tell the reporter that I was a new Christian, I was discerning a call to ordained ministry, and would soon leave full-time Army service to start studying theology while I worked it all out.

This excited her. She ran the story on Bosnia, and a few months later got back to me and did one on faith. Whilst reading it in the paper was hugely embarrassing for me, as the reporter hadn’t quite got the exact nuances of the some of the things I’d said (it’s snappier to type “trainee vicar” than “discerning a call to ordained ministry”), it was quite a relief that pretty much everyone I knew would now know about this bizarre change of direction. This article was followed up by one eight weeks later about me doing a faith sharing mission weekend in HMP Durham, alongside about 30 convicts. Again, I cringed at the wording, which didn’t reflect how very unsure I was and am, but at least now all my colleagues, family and friends now knew, which helped me to deal with the problem of pride.

Yes, now people very much know I’m a Christian and that I’m wondering about becoming a priest. They’ll also very much know whether the church decides to recommend me for ordained ministry or not. Taking this risk, and being open and honest really has helped me to accept that my future is no longer in my hands. It is in God’s hands. This verse helps me:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6

A second, totally unexpected and totally brilliant side effect has occurred as a result of me going public; conversation starters about Jesus. I couldn’t count the number of times in bars, at dinner parties, or at the gym that I’ve got into a conversation about careers (“So, what do you do?”) and I’ve been able to say, “Well I was doing that and now I’m doing this. Yes, crazy isn’t it? Oh you want to hear how this U-turn came about? Let me tell you about my weird conversion experience in Afghanistan and how knowing Jesus has changed my life”.

Within a couple of sentences we’re totally away from whether or not I may one day wear a dog-collar, and slap bang in the middle of the Gospels and how ace Jesus is. So “coming out” as a candidate in the discernment process was definitely the right thing for me to do. But, what now?

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[2] All of James 4 helped me, but in particular vs 6-7 “Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God.”

 

God is weird: PART 2

An Ordination Candidate’s Experience of The Discernment Process

In the car on my way back to the barracks, I turned to my husband and asked if he’d heard what the Bishop had said. He had. Well? Well, what? Hadn’t he heard the Bishop was say I should become a vicar? No, he had not heard that bit. It was a tense journey. The message seemed clear in my mind. And as I’d just promised to live the rest of my life for Jesus, which meant making some big sacrifices and changes, so I decided there and then to leave the army and work out if I really was called to become a priest.

My husband was very understanding. All he asked in the car was, “Where will we live? What will they pay you? Will you get a car?” Our lives might be very different from now on. Our hopes as a newly married couple of a certain lifestyle and combined salaries would need some realigning. I sensed my husband was sad about the holidays we probably wouldn’t have and the new Mercedes he’d definitely never have. I couldn’t answer any of his questions, as I didn’t know any vicars. This thing needed exploring, which he agreed I should do. I thank God for this marvellous man who was and is totally fine with me giving it a go.

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The thing was, I still couldn’t get my head around why God would want me. I just seemed like such an inappropriate choice. One of the earliest stumbling blocks, was that I personally knew a much more sensible candidate and simply couldn’t figure out why she hadn’t been called. She was a fellow Army Officer, a devout Christian, and she had a well-maintained and state of the art moral compass. She was wise and kind, and a competent leader. She really would be the better choice.

It didn’t occur to me at the time that, even if she felt she had a priestly vocation, she couldn’t take it very far, being a Roman Catholic. But still, I thought, if you take anyone Lord, take her!

I looked at my life and thought, wow God is weird. This can’t be right. It can’t be me, God, come on! (I’m told this denial phase is totally normal). I’d done some stupid stuff. Stuff I was embarrassed about. Stuff I was sorry about. What on earth would the Church do with me? A rugby playing, weight lifting, craft gin drinking, potty-mouthed, Army Officer? Aren’t priests supposed to be mild mannered and quiet? Reflective and peaceful? I was more likely to be found on the floor of the Officer’s Mess at 5am, showing off in front of everybody by challenging the Regimental Sergeant Major to a press-up competition, than saying my morning prayers.

Seriously God, you don’t want me leading a church.

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That night in bed, having decided I’d do my very best to follow Jesus, even if it meant exploring ordained ministry, I looked at my life and wondered how much of it I’d have to change. Indeed, would the lot have to go? Part of my discernment process has been trying to filter the bits I think Jesus rather likes about me, which perhaps make Him smile, and the bits that make Him face-palm, and say “No, Rachael, that’s definitely in the redemption pile.” A rather timely moral MOT. And it’s an ongoing process.

Spilling the Beans on a “Need to Know” Basis

I sat on this vicar-secret for what felt like ages. I was pretty embarrassed about it. Firstly because, as I’ve said, it seemed so unlikely, and secondly because it seemed so dreadfully arrogant. What gives me the right to think I could be a Priest, when I’ve only been a Christian for five minutes, when there are others before me that should do it, and, frankly, I’m not entirely sure what being a Priest is all about?

After a few weeks I confided in the man who married me. No not that one, the other one. Padre Justin Bradbury. We’d already spoken quite a bit about my new faith during marriage prep, and I trusted him implicitly. He seemed like a very wise and measured man.

I must admit I was rather hoping he’d say I’d lost my senses. But, alas, he recognised something and suggested my next move. He told me priests needed a degree in theology, so without further ado, I made an enquiry at Cranmer Hall, Durham University. It seemed sensible to move back up North to my home in nearby Darlington while I worked all this lot out.

To my surprise, the Deputy Warden Kate Bruce, who had arranged a meeting with me to listen to my inquiry, offered me a place there and then on the course as an Undergraduate, beginning in the September. I was totally at a loss. It was so very unexpected, and unlikely. But I had agreed to walk through doors if they opened when I pushed them. So, that was that. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to study theology as an undergraduate at Cranmer Hall alongside real trainee priests. This should help me work out if I could imagine myself as one of them.

As I stood to leave, still trying to keep Kate’s Labrador away from my crotch with my briefcase (a futile task), she asked if I’d seen the DDO. What’s a DDO? I wondered, hands covered in saliva. The Diocesan Director of Ordinands interviews and processes everyone exploring a vocation. I needed to book an appointment with him as part of my discernment. This scared me. This would make it official. More official.

Part 3 is out now

God is weird: PART 1

An Ordination Candidate’s Experience of The Discernment Process.

So You Want To Be A Vicar?

I’m a candidate somewhere near the beginning of the formal process where the Church is discerning if God is calling me to ordained ministry. Risky, therefore, to be publishing my experiences and thoughts on the discernment process whilst I’m still in it. But I think it’s worth the risk, because in the very first few weeks and months after I felt “called” I really knew nothing about discernment (more on me knowing nothing later) and wondered if I was completely alone/insane in sensing a calling, so I turned to the internet to read blogs about this well-trodden path, from those wo had gone before me.[1]

Whilst I found blogs detailing what actually happens at BAP (the national selection panel, but don’t call it a selection panel!) there were few, if any from people this side of it. The blogs were from folks on the other side; those who had been recommended. Perhaps it’s too painful to drag up and write about if the panel said no.

So this is a blog from an insider who has no idea where her future will be. I’m inviting you to follow this journey with me over these 5 instalments, through it’s many twists and turns. There are many hoops to jump through, interviews to be had, prayers to be prayed, and ultimately a number of wise clergy and lay people will make a decision. I’ll be recommended to train for ordained ministry, or I won’t… or option three, I’ll be deferred until I’ve worked on whatever it is that’s needs developing further; the “not yet” category.

I write this completely open to the idea that I may have got this wrong and God’s not calling me to ordained ministry after all, but has something else up his sleeve. There’s that option too. In which case, that’s exciting as I have no idea what that could be.

The Conversion Bit

This candid blog about the process, my hopes, fears, anxieties and faith, is titled “God is Weird” because God is really weird. Here are a few reasons why:

I first met God in 2012 in a shipping container in Afghanistan. I was an agnostic, probably, if I’d cared enough to give myself a title, which I didn’t. I wasn’t really bothered one way or the other, but I certainly didn’t believe the universe was created by an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God, and that the Gospels and Jesus were true and real respectively. So it was a bit of a shocker being confronted by the awesome and terrifying truth that God exists. I won’t tell the whole story here but you can read it later if you wish.

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So that was weird. And God, it seemed to me, wasn’t going to let me get away with just a feeling of awe and wonder. God, it seemed, wanted me to have a very active, personal and constant relationship with Him… immediately. And like the screaming of a child you just can’t ignore, or an eyelash that’s caught in your eye that you have to attend to right now, God got my full attention. I began exploring everything I could about Jesus, with an insatiable appetite. I was a very hungry caterpillar, eating (metaphorically of course) the Gospels.

I also really felt the need to share. I wanted to tell everyone that I’d just started reading this amazing book and that they should read it too. A real page turner. I didn’t know it at the time (because I hadn’t yet learned the proper church words) but I was evangelising from the offset. I was telling the soldiers I lived and worked with on the front-line in Helmand Province, that I’d just heard that God is real and Jesus is awesome and would they like to hear what I’d learned so far?

And that’s pretty weird. I had no clue about most of the Bible- indeed the version the Padre gave me was just the New Testament and Psalms, so Job and Leviticus would have to wait- and I was in no position to answer tricky questions. Frankly, my friends back home, and indeed most of my colleagues probably thought I was nuts. But what can I say? God made me do it. And what’s weirder is that at least one of the soldiers I told, began exploring faith for herself, and got booked onto a Christianity Explored course. Winner. This was all within the first few months. God is weird.

Drama at Confirmation

And then within two years (2014), and only three weeks after I’d made other life-long promises before God at my wedding, I was at my confirmation service. At my confirmation, as I knelt in my smart army service dress, a uniform which has scarcely changed since the 1940s, I remember feeling so excited and overwhelmed by these huge pledges I was making.

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Yes- I’d firmly decided- yes, I will serve you Jesus and I’ll do whatever you ask of me. I’ll change my life. Right here and right now I am turning away from the old me, and I’m going to live differently. From now on I’m all yours. I squeezed my eyes shut and my hands together, and shed a few tears.

All sounds rather dramatic doesn’t it? Maybe I got a bit caught up in the moment. Maybe this is how you’re supposed to feel at your Confirmation. I don’t know. All I know is that in that moment, surrounded by 11 year olds and their parents and the Bishop and my brand new husband, I totally meant every word.  Twenty minutes later God tested my resolve.

God is so weird. Following the pattern of immediate action that had characterised my new faith, within a matter of minutes of me being in the church, the Bishop was delivering his sermon, which he illustrated with the story of his own calling; his own sense that God was saying he should be ordained. What the…

I sat there sweating, with a dry mouth. A film reel of significant moments of my life flashed in my mind. The good bits, the bad bits, the hard bits. The regretful bits. The choices I hadn’t understood at the time. The stuff I’d always thought was just good luck. The weird way my life had been mapped. The strange sense that I was meant for something but hadn’t yet, perhaps, figured out what.

Was it…? Surely not. The idea that it could be becoming a vicar actually horrified me. What a ridiculous and comical suggestion. It seemed so implausible, so outrageous, so unlikely, so clear and obvious. It was like the Bishop was talking directly to me, though we’d never met. Things slotted into place and made sense, but at the same time it all just seemed so… weird. I was probably getting the wrong end of the stick. My first test. But I’d never felt like this before about anything.

Here I am Lord. Is It I Lord? I’m Not So Sure Lord…

 

There are 4 more chapters and I’ll post one each day this week. To get them direct to your inbox (so you don’t need to faff about finding this site again), just click follow.

[1] I also read Rev. which I highly recommend, even if it isn’t on any official treading lists.

Forays in Fellowship

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.

God has called you by name and made you His own

Last week I attended the confirmation service of a dozen or so candidates at my local church. I had the honour of being the ‘Crucifer’ and carrying a great big wooden and metal cross. I got to lead the Bishop and the rest of the party up and down the church, which I thoroughly enjoyed as it was much like drill, something I’m both experienced in and fond of. This was another one of those moments where my two worlds and identities collide; being a soldier and being a Christian.

I wasn’t always a Christian, but I feel like I have always been a soldier.

I’ve been getting paid for it since I was 17, and prior to that I just played at it with my cousin. We had Action Men toys and would run around the woods and North Yorkshire Moors with sticks, pretending to be soldiers. We used to make dens and catch fish and draw maps. We’d lay silently and patiently for hours watching birds through our binoculars, consulting the Dorling Kindersley British Birds book, whilst eating packed lunches our Grandma had made us, then we’d spring up, startling the farmers and we’d pretend we were fugitives on the run from the German Army and would hurtle down the hill together back to the caravan.

Real soldiering is somewhat different, but I feel as though my outdoorsy and somewhat non-conventional childhood prepared me well. I was accustomed to cuts and scrapes, exercise, being too hot and too cold and hiding in bushes. So whilst I may have always been destined for soldiering, or at least very comfortable doing it, I couldn’t have imagined spending the rest of my life as a Christian. This second part of my identity is a recent development. I was never interested in faith, and though I attended Sunday School as a child until I was 10 or so, I understood church to be in the same category as the Brownies or Guides and so I grew out of it as I did other my childhood clubs. My faith in God came as a huge surprise. I felt ill prepared and it certainly seemed that God sought me out, rather than the other way around. My account of just how I came to believe in God, whilst serving in Afghanistan, can be found here.

This blog is about the endlessly surprising ways in which God has changed my life since I committed to being a Christian. It is also about why I think the C of E is so weird and so wonderful, and about the many and frequent embarrassing mistakes I make as a new Christian. I’ll be writing about what I feel God is calling me to be and what this discernment process feels like. I will write about living out my faith in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Shrivenham and other exotic locations, and the organisations and people who have shaped my faith and helped me to become a disciple of Christ.

This personal blog is also linked to my work blog TheGenerousGivingProject. Yes, another surprise for me was landing a job working for the church, shortly after leaving full-time service in the Army. If you like short stories that poke light fun at the church whilst tackling a serious message (in this case what it means to be generous with our money) then you might like these. They’re also useful as resources for your own church and will be updated every few days. You don’t have to be an Anglican to read them.

That’s it by means of an introduction. Enjoy and be sure to pop back if you like what I write.

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Photo by Sgt Jamie Peters