An Unpromising Beginning
It is no exaggeration to say that I had waited 30 years to find someone to talk to.
The conversation started with an unlikely person and we had an unpromising beginning. Joel Hylton, leader of Serge’s Apprenticeship Program, and his wife Cindy had just moved into in Ealing, West London.
Americans! They were not a natural choice for a British woman with strong anti-American prejudices. And to cap it, ten minutes into this momentous first meeting, Joel corrected my hopes by telling me that I can be certain of one thing, he will not be able to fully understand me!
How on earth have I found myself unburdening my heart and struggles, never before revealed to anyone apart from my husband and mother, to this virtual stranger?!
A Joyful Openness
The trail starts here: two years earlier a young woman worker at the church my husband, Chris, pastors in North London had joined Serge’s Apprenticeship program in West London. Before long she invited us to the first of a number of Apprentice parties held at the Hyltons’ home. I was taken aback by what I encountered that evening and spent the car journey home processing the experience with Chris. Those Christians were so joyful. I wanted that joy! They were so open. I certainly didn’t want that. (They were American, that must be their problem!)
Their joy and openness was such a contrast with my life! Year by year, I would choose the words of Romans 15:13 to express what I longed for: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” This was a longing of my heart and yet it never seemed a reality.
“Joy and peace?” Just what my life lacked. Serious Christian devotion, yes. Perseverance, yes. An outwardly good life, certainly yes! Respected by other Christians? For sure. But no one knew the struggles going on inside my heart. No one knew the fears that felt like a grey fog that I fought my way through day by day. I just could not make sense of my life. I laid claim to God’s promises; yet they made so little difference. And however hard I tried it seemed that God had a way of turning out right, and I wrong. It was just so unfair.
I had been a Christian since I was a young child. I was brought up in a Christian home and my father was a minister. For more than 25 years I had been married to a minister. With great sincerity, I had tried to live to God’s glory. I had credentials good enough to make the Apostle Paul boast, had he wished to!
Eighteen months on from that first Apprentice party, with my 50th birthday approaching, lots of questions started jostling in my head: is this really what God wants my life to be like? Can I hope for anything more? How can I engage with reality with other believers? Hope was stirring. At the age of 50, maybe a risk or two was in order. After all, there was not quite so much to lose! Perhaps I – who had never shared the real struggles of my heart with any Christian friend – should throw caution to the wind. And that is how, in April 2012, I found myself in the Hyltons’ front room talking to Joel!
Understanding God’s Adoption
Two things stick in my mind from that meeting: the first was Joel’s challenge to risk sharing with other Christians. The second was a simple statement – “You don’t understand adoption!”
I fought the first. How could I share what others may not understand? Perhaps my problems would harm others; maybe other people would harm me! Joel was unrelenting – “Why can’t we just be messy together?” – an expression so “American” it repelled me, so convincing it changed my behavior from that day on. As for the second, that I didn’t understand “adoption,” that was shocking, an insult! That I (see credentials above!) did not understand adoption?! Yet at that very same moment never did an insult bring so much hope. I knew it was true. I had no doubt. I did NOT understand adoption (despite being brought up with as much biblical teaching as the best).
Over the last three years, I have taken the risk of allowing some others into the inside of my life, sharing my current struggles, learning to admit weakness and my need of the prayers and support of others in the Body of Christ. I’ve started believing that this indeed God’s chosen way of building us up together. In doing this I have had the privilege of others sharing with me in a way that I had never dreamed possible. What a liberation it has been to come out of hiding.
I have been finding out what it means to have God as my Father. Just a little! I discover I am the daughter of a King; greatly loved, and I barely knew it.
Promises or Formulas?
Years ago, as a student, I worked on the Royal Household Staff at Balmoral Castle. I remember then it struck me that I was living, sleeping, under the same roof as the Queen of England and, for all the world, her presence made no difference to me.
In effect, my relationship with God had been the same: living under the roof of his promises but not engaging with HIM. The promises were formulas. I didn’t look beyond them to the heart of my heavenly Father who is speaking them to me. I have been amazed to find that He, the Almighty God, enjoys me!
It still seems ludicrous even as I write. But “he takes great delight in me; in his love, he will no longer rebuke me, but rejoices over me with singing” (Zeph. 3.17). Day by day, and moment by moment, I can talk directly to One who loves me in such an outrageous way.
One risk led to the next! I was well aware of need and weakness. But I had no day-by-day sense of my sin. In fact, to be brutally honest, I had barely repented of sins for 30 years! They simply weren’t on my radar. Hadn’t God forgiven me in Christ? Issue over.
I started to pray God would show me my sin, a prayer that felt as dangerous as falling backward off a cliff clutching vainly onto the grasses at the top. But dangerous only it turned out without the tender hand of my Father. And that I had. I also had Jesus.
As I saw over the months that followed the bitter, harmful ways my sins impacted others, and how incurably determined I was (and am) to walk, orphan-like, detached and independent of God, I experienced grief that drove me to the Savior. My realization of Christ’s love grew as the sight of my sins grew. My bitterness and sorrow encountered His extraordinary healing.
Inevitably all of this has been played out in the imperfect earthiness of everyday life. Stumbling and faltering I am seeking to live out this reality in my relationships with others.
At work, with some of my non-Christian friends, I am freer than before to acknowledge how at times I struggle with anxieties or with getting stressed; how I need to know the love of my Father. Sometimes the gospel shines out just because I need it so much.
In one time of particular difficulty at work, it came as an unusual blessing to be reminded by my far-from-Christian friend: “Remember Who you are looking to!” With my Christian friends, to a growing extent, I am becoming freer to live without pretense, and enjoying fellowship and connection I did not know to be possible.
Am I fixed up?
So my life got “fixed?” No, not exactly! (Though one day, yes). I can hardly convey how strong the default of my heart is to live independent of God. I see myself sometimes like one of the ragtag orphans in the story of Oliver Twist. I, the daughter of the great King, who should be living in his royal palace, keep finding myself out and about with the pickpockets on the street, and sleeping rough under the bridge. What a deeply erring heart! What passionate love in my Father, enveloping this tired wanderer and leading me to rest.
Much of this change the Spirit set in motion following a period of counseling from Joel. Leaving my isolated cave was a risk worth taking. Sometime later Joel mentored me and two friends from my church through the Sonship Course, which helped me connect with the gospel in a much deeper way.
The Gospel Propels us Outward
For me, these gospel insights are treasures I cannot keep to myself. They are the key that unlocks the Dungeon we, conservative, Bible-believing Christians in Britain have been holed up in for so long, living worthy lives of outward performance and inner isolation, doggedly faithful to the Word yet with so little connection to the Word-giver, so often joyless, beaten down and defeated.
Over the last year or two, I have had the joy of mentoring others using the Sonship course. Over the last 12 months, it has been wonderfully exciting to have been involved in organizing – along with a number of Serge missionaries – a Sonship Week in the U.K. aimed at Christian leaders and their spouses. The conference took place this past April.
How moving it is to hear the voice of the Savior: “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you.” It is an untold joy that other British believers, stuck like me in biblical correctness and committed to lives of hiding and pretense, have started to hear that same sweet voice calling.
A little excerpt from an email from a British pastor and his wife who attended the recent Sonship Week gives you a taste: “God used our time with you all to work some profound changes in our lives which have already begun to spread out to people in our church…it was a week that was to me like ‘life from the dead.’” Praise to the Father!