Guest post: Thoughts of loss and hope at Christmas

I was pacing the landing with my teething baby at 3am last night and all I could think of was you. As anyone who has been bereaved knows, the build up to Christmas is never easy. If you have children you try to retain the excitement, the magic, the wonder of Christmas. Yet behind the smiles, lies an anxiety, a dread, a hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach that represents the gaping void left by loss. This Boxing Day marks 20 years since you were cruelly snatched from us that bitterly cold morning. Twenty years! The same length of time that you were married to my mum. I was 14, you were just 45. 

When you experience a traumatic bereavement, whether as a child losing a parent or a parent losing a child, your world is irreversibly changed. The wounds are deep and the scars only partially heal. I was reminded of this only three months ago when we experienced two close family bereavements and the scars were reopened. Old memories were reignited and the full force of raw emotion came crashing down once again. 

Yet there is also the possibility for reflection and growth, heightened empathy and compassion, and a greater understanding of the fragility and precious nature of life.

Continue reading “Guest post: Thoughts of loss and hope at Christmas”

Forgiveness Series: 4. Forgiving yourself

One of the hardest aspects of grief – as a grieving parent – is forgiving yourself.

Children die every day. And, for every child that has left this world, is a parent left wondering what they did wrong, how they could have prevented it, why they weren’t in their child’s place.

Abi’s death could not have been predicted nor prevented, yet still I wondered what I could have done to save her. If I’d have noticed sooner and taken her to hospital… had she had some injury in her past that may have caused her hemorrhage… or perhaps things I did or didn’t do in the pregnancy and birth affected her. Then there was the guilt of every single time I lost my temper with her, or punished her, or said no to her.

Even, as in my case, where there is very little scope for ‘blame’ or ‘regret’, guilt still found a place in my loss.

Continue reading “Forgiveness Series: 4. Forgiving yourself”

Forgiveness Series: 3. The Fourfold Path of Forgiveness

In The Book of Forgiving, Desmond & Mpho Tutu offer a process called ‘The Fourfold Path’, which helps us to move from a position of anger and resentment to one of forgiveness and (inner and outer) peace.

This part makes up most of the book, but I have outlined the basic elements of the path below:

Telling the story – this is you talking, and talking, and talking, about what has happened – the shock, the pain, the fear, the details. Getting the story out, again and again can help you to process the events and move towards understanding and forgiveness.

It will also help you to ‘own’  the story. I owned the story of how Abi died by talking and writing about her death, in all it’s real and painful detail. Yes, it’s all devastating to hear or to read, but it’s also MY story and will forever be. Talk about your pain – whether that’s a traumatic death, a life-changing medical diagnosis, an offence or abuse – and own your story. Try to do this factually, without the addition of things you thought happened or were in the another person’s mind.

Exercise: Tell your story to your stone, whisper it or shout it, but hear your voice say the words to the person who you want to forgive. Explain why you feel the way you do, talk about how you want to move on from the resentment. Then, when ready, write your story down, the whole thing. Get it out and work through the key points. This will help you to see where the roots of the problem lie. You can always destroy or delete it afterwards. 

Naming the hurt – It is very important to name your hurt. When we bury our true feelings we only seem to suffer even more because of it. Marriages crumble under the weight of unspoken resentments and unacknowledged hurts. When we ignore the pain, it grows and spreads like a tumour that eventually drains us and affects all our relationships.

This happens a lot in grief. After a death, people stop talking about the deceased. No one wants to mention their name because it reminds everyone of the loss, so nothing is ever said, and this silence screams at those most deeply grieving. If you feel angry, admit that – to yourself and maybe others (the authors guide you through this). Put a name to your emotions and they won’t seem so scary and overwhelming.

Exercise:

  1. Hold your stone in your dominant hand. Name out loud a hurt you are feeling. As you name it, clench the stone.
  2. Open your hand. As you release your fist, release the hurt.
  3. Repeat this for each of your hurts.
  4. Write down all the things you have lost and name the feelings that accompany those losses. What does your heart tell you. What is the weight of your loss. Name it so you can heal it.

In my grief, I felt so many emotions. Sometimes they all came at once and led me to feel overwhelmed. Other times, I went through periods of anger, or depression, or anxiety. Recognizing these helped me immensely, and while I still have periods of these feelings, I now know that it is better for me to allow them to happen than to try to bury them because they are too painful.

Granting forgiveness – This is how we move from the position of victim to one of a hero – a hero being someone who takes their pain and uses it to do something awesome like forgive and love others. All of us are human and are all capable of love, hate, beauty, cruelty, indifference and goodness. It would be nice to think there are those who are perfectly good, but that’s just not the case.

It’s easy to say ‘I forgive you’, but incredibly hard to mean it. You’ll know when you do, because you’ll feel able to breathe deeply again, your shoulders will relax and yes, it will feel like a weight has lifted off your shoulders. What you may actually find is that you begin to grow through forgiveness – that spreads to all areas of your life – your past, your relationships, even the person who cuts you up on the motorway…

Exercise:
1. Take your stone and wash it. You have spoken to it, clenched it and now you will cleanse it.
2. Get a bowl of water and dip the stone in three times. Each time you dip the stone in say ‘I forgive you.’
3. Write down what you have lost by not being able to forgive. Write about the person who has harmed you – why do you think they have done what they did? Now write how this experience has made you stronger. Has it helped you grow and show empathy for others? Write your story again, but not as the victim, as the hero. How did you deal with the situation and how will you prevent such harm happening to others?

For a long time after my loss, I felt like the perpetrator in a battle of resentment and anger. Why wasn’t I being forgiving? Why didn’t I forget? Why wasn’t I moving on? This only led me to clam up even more. It became a vicious cycle. I knew that in order to break this cycle I had to open my heart to forgive. Not to ‘make up’ or ‘tolerate’ but to truly forgive. It wasn’t easy, but it did transform my life and my grief.

Renewing or Releasing the Relationship – Having worked through your path to forgiveness, you’re left with a ‘what next?’ You can now decide what will happen to your relationship with the person you have forgiven. You can renew the relationship, using your forgiveness to create a new connection. Or, you can release the relationship, putting the person and the emotions related to them behind you. It is possible to release a relationship and forgive. Forgiveness is not about putting yourself in another vulnerable position. In cases where the perpetrator isn’t asking for your forgiveness or is no longer alive there isn’t a relationship to have. It can take a long while to get to this stage of the process, but when you do it will be immensely beneficial for you and your peace of mind and heart.

Exercise:

  1. Decide whether you want to renew your stone as a thing of beauty (paint it or place it somewhere), or to release it back to nature.
  2. Write down if it was possible to make something beautiful out of what you had. Was it difficult to do this. What did you learn about renewing and releasing?

The final post about forgiveness looks at forgiving yourself.

 

Forgiveness Series: 2. The forgiveness myths

In my first post about forgiveness, I outlined the impact resentment can have on our physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

In the second chapter of The Book of Forgiving, Desmond & Mpho Tutu explain what forgiveness is not. This might seem odd, but there are many things we assume about forgiveness that only add further barriers to our ability to forgive.

Forgiveness is not weakness
We greatly admire people who are forgiving, who seem to move on from their hurt or ‘cope with their loss’. We don’t think they are weak, far from it; we tell them how strong they are, yet somehow, if we forgive, it can feel as though we are giving in, being weak. Forgiveness requires immense strength, but it also offers complete freedom.

Continue reading “Forgiveness Series: 2. The forgiveness myths”

Forgiveness Series: 1. Why forgive?

Grief is a complicated emotion. In the early days, life’s trivialities pale into insignificance. Little disagreements or annoyances fade away as you are thrown into the stark reality that life is precious. Arguing about whose turn it is to put the bins out seems petty and pointless, which of course it is.

However, over time, grief can breed resentment and anger as you try to find your place in this world without your child and try to understand other people’s emotions. You’ve changed, they’ve changed, everything you ever knew has changed.

These feelings are always natural, as I described in my post about the Whirlpool of Grief. However, it is easy to get caught up in the cycle of anger. Once you focus on those feelings, it is hard to move on from them. This leaves you feeling bitter, lonely and hopeless, and others feeling unable to help you or understand you.

Continue reading “Forgiveness Series: 1. Why forgive?”

Some happy news..

It’s with joy and relief that I can announce that our baby girl was born on Monday. Her birth wasn’t entirely as planned or expected but she arrived safe and well and we are all smitten with her.

We have named her Naomi Grace.

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Choosing her name was fairly easy on reflection although during my pregnancy it seemed a huge responsibility, and perhaps because Abi isn’t here we wanted to think more deeply about what this baby should be called.

We like quite traditional names but ones that are not that common, also we like names that are easy to spell and that won’t cause a lifetime of explanation about spelling or pronunciation.

We seriously considered another A name, so rounding and completing our family with another A. For a few months, I had a strong yearning just to say an A name again! But I found the names we liked were similar to Abigail’s, either in the number of syllables or the sounding. We could do it, but I wondered if we’d later regret it.

My hubby came in from work one day and had a few names on a list. There were 3 or 4 ones I liked and one in particular that we all liked. Naomi.

We chewed them over (and over and over) for a few months but always came back to this name. It didn’t sit entirely comfortably when saying all the children’s names together, but I reasoned that she will be a person in her own right, not a part of a rhyme or always talked about as a set of children.

I also wanted a name with meaning. Not necessarily biblical, although Abigail is a biblical name meaning father’s joy and my sons have variations of the biblical names Joesph and Jacob. We considered flowers or something natural to represent the blessing of this double rainbow baby, there is so much choice! But Naomi had such a serene and pleasent feeling to it, it felt right. It is also the name of a strong and admired female from the bible.

Naomi means pleasentness. Grace, which we chose much later, means God’s favour.

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I’d not read the book of Ruth until we thought of the name. I was interested to find out more about this woman and when I did I felt the name was even more relevant.

So who was Naomi?
The book of Ruth is very short but it’s a beautiful book of the Bible that I encourage you to read. Naomi was a widow and in fact not too much is written about her, but what is gives a huge impression of God and his awesome forgiving love and how he turns pain and misfortune into the greatest blessing.

In short, thanks to Ruth’s (Naomi’s daughter in law) love of Naomi, they looked after each other and through Naomi’s distant family connections and wise and loving counsel, Ruth, having been widowed and childless, married a wonderful man called Boaz and had a son.

It could be a perhaps unremarkable story but for the fact the son of this marriage would go on to be a distant relation of Jesus himself.

Ruth was a poor widow, she was also a Moabite, someone not recognised by the Israelites; again God surprises us by not doing things the way we expect (or want). Using people from ‘humanly’ low backgrounds, sinners, the poor, a woman, perhaps not seen as of value to anyone… and creating something wonderful out of their story.

Jesus was expected to come as a strong king, not a weak vulnerable baby,  which is why his own people eventually killed him. He wasn’t the warrior saviour that they expected.

What I like most about Naomi and Ruth’s story is that the ultimate blessing (the birth of the Messiah) isn’t seen by them as they lived out their lives. They had no idea how their family line would continue, like all of us. Yet they trusted God nonetheless and were thankful for all they had.

Life was far from easy yet even in their bleakest times they stayed true to (perhaps clung to) their faith. Despite her inner strength and kind heart Naomi still expressed despair, grief and unhappiness following the loss of her husband and children, and the desperate situation she found herself in. I like that she is so relatable and real.

My children may not do what I expect all the time, but I trust that God has their lives in His hands and that our stories are just tiny, beautifully created links in His chain.

I also liked in this story, when Ruth’s son was born, the people celebrated that Naomi had a son too. Ruth’s blessing had blessed her life again, a double rainbow of hope, as she sees her beloved daughter-in-law settle into a loving marriage and is able to see new hope and God’s grace. Just like my rainbows have brought joy to not just me and my husband but our family and friends too.

But then isn’t that what God wants? I believe without doubt he has eased my anxious heart through this pregnancy. He has helped me through my two losses with hope upon hope. A double rainbow.

And that’s by any means a romantic Christian dream that everything will be OK. That God’s will be done and all that. This is a much more realistic kind of spiritual acceptance. I feel that, no matter what, it will be OK.

With my grief, I have had to find a way, through my faith, to accept the ugly side of life. I may well face pain with my husband or children in the future. Life doesn’t feel secure in that sense. So I’ve tried to find a way that I can live with this and still walk with Christ.

Naming our child Naomi Grace, I am reminded of God’s immense love and
grace, and I hope she will be too. No matter what happens, we are loved and I will try not to doubt that. Even though I know the life journey ahead will not be a smooth road, having that deep trust in God will be essential to my journey on this side of heaven.

Welcome to the world little one!

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Grief, selfishness and ‘me time’

One thing I’ve noticed about grief is how selfish it makes one. Rightly so, of course, as grief is a personal pain that has to be endured by the individual – there’s nothing ‘giving’ about it. We cling to the memories, we absorb ourselves in the pain of our loss, we channel our energy into coping with how we are feeling – often to the detriment of others.

In many ways, for which I’m thankful, Abi’s death helped me to be less selfish as a person. I had pursued my career running my business, giving all my spare time to it (in truth, it was my escape from the strain and monotony of family life). I considered myself an independent soul within my marriage. I did what I wanted. I deserved the things I wanted. I was dissatisfied if things didn’t go my way. I worried that what I had wasn’t enough.

My priorities shifted completely when Abi died. I saw what was important, that living now was more important than waiting for the right time. That I needed to treasure what I had, not hanker after what I didn’t have. Despite the pain of Abi’s death, I am forever grateful she gave me that insight, because I realised that my life’s perspective had become totally skewed.

But, confusingly, while grief has helped me to appreciate them more and the material stuff less, it has also pushed me away from them, as I try to cope with loss and protect myself from more pain. And this is more obvious to me (and them) when my energy tank is near depletion. Selfish mum is still there, it’s just that she’s selfish in a different way now.

When I found out I was pregnant again in August 2015, my toddler was 18 months old. I wasn’t prepared for the news at all. I was in a vulnerable place emotionally and had just started to get stronger after a period of psychotherapy and finally starting on medication for my anxiety. I felt better for the first time in a long time. The foggy anxious-filled weeks and months after having my fourth child were fading and I felt more like me again. Yet here I was, given a gift I wasn’t expecting. A gift I knew was going to sap my emotions and energy even further and most likely throw me right back to square one.

I asked God what was going on. If this was wise given my situation. If this was really what He wanted for me. I had just started to ‘get back out there’, to feel like I was controlling my ship again. My life wouldn’t be about serving Him, but about serving little people with big demands!

I found I craved even more personal time alone – to think, to do the things that interested me (working, blogging, creating, zoning out), to do things my way. Now, my ‘me time’ isn’t about sitting down for five minutes with a book and a cuppa, my me time is more about having some emotional space from the constant worry and grief – being with my children and dealing with their own complex emotions is draining and me time allows me to shut off from that.

It takes a lot more than a cup of coffee for me to zone out these days
It takes a lot more than a cup of coffee for me to zone out these days

Blogging is a big ‘me time’ factor that my family don’t understand. I need to write this stuff down to save my sanity some days! And as much as I love them, I found I wasn’t good at mothering them because I craved peace, time to grieve, time with my thoughts – I wanted to be mothered myself! The problem starts when that craving begins to overtake everything else.

But God has given me another child. A fifth child. Me? Lord, don’t you know, I’m really not that maternal. I really don’t have that many hours in the day. I’m really not that good at this selfless parenting thing like other mothers. Yeah, I can do the baby days with my eyes closed, but once characters develop and cuddles aren’t enough and the challenging starts I find my head in the biscuit barrel wondering why I’m finding this so hard!

My children need and want to be nurtured. It’s not their fault they were born and need me. It shouldn’t be that I resent them at times for that and then feel terrible, knowing all that I’ve lost! A perpetual cycle of mum-guilt.

This post isn’t meant to be a self-pitying rant, it’s recognition of how intricately life’s web is spun and how making sense of the details helps me to understand the bigger picture. I was brought up in an insecure environment which made me self-reliant and only trusting of myself. I know I’m a deeply thoughtful and caring person, but I have an inherent fear that switches my ‘flight or fight’ button on at any given moment.

With this new baby, I consider that God doesn’t want to give me the easier (for me) route of one-off giving such as helping a charity or someone in distant need, He knows I’d still have my selfish steak, that I’d still be wary of opening up to those I love most. He made me strong. He knows bringing up children with love, trust, selflessness and encouragement is what I need to build on, to show His love daily, and by doing so I will not only allow the better side of me to come through, I’d also be living my life as He intended, for Him.

That’s not to say ‘me time’ isn’t important. I know that in order to give to them I need to feel as though I’m giving to myself a little. We all need time to ourselves. It’s about recognising that I shouldn’t get consumed by the need for me time so much that it affects my ability to give all the other times. That life’s pace is slower than the one in my mind. One day I will have all the ‘me time’ in the world and will miss the sound of my name being called for the umpteenth time. I’ll miss being needed!

For now, I will remember that the joy is right under my nose! I’ll remember that I’m only human. I’ll remember that I am enough. I look back on this post and see all the ‘I’s and ‘Me’s I’ve written and how self-centred life has become. Yet I have been gifted with the most valuable treasures and I need to look after them. They depend on my love and love is the most important gift of all.

This post was inspired by the wonderful Melissa over at Your Mom Has a Blog who wrote this thought-provoking post about ‘The Me Time Myth‘.

 

 

 

Take me home – a pop song prayer

When trying to rebuild a life that’s been broken – it can feel like you’re grappling in the darkness, utterly alone, tired, afraid. Even the simplest routines go out of sync, the pace of life seems five steps faster than what we can manage. We’re barely breathing.

Fear, grief, faith, hope all mingle into a mess that leaves us feeling lost, numb. How can we go on…? And where do we go on too…?

Whenever I hear this song I can never hold back the tears. It strikes at the heart of the prayers of the weary me, the me that just can’t do it all anymore, the me that’s fed up with the burden I carry, the me that wants answers, that needs reassurance, to feel safe. I suppose, the vulnerable child within.

Songs can bring so much comfort to the grieving, and while I’m in a fairly clear place right now, sometimes I need to pray songs like this – to get me through, and that’s okay because it helps. I’m sharing this for those readers who need to feel a bit of release, who need to allow the tears to fall, to possibly help them move to a clearer mind.

If you need to hear this, watch Take me home, by Jess Glyne

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Wrapped up, so consumed by all this hurt
If you ask me, don’t know where to start
Anger, love, confusion
Roads that go nowhere
I know that somewhere better
‘Cause you always take me there

Came to you with a broken faith
Gave me more than a hand to hold
Caught before I hit the ground
Tell me I’m safe, you’ve got me now

Would you take the wheel
If I lose control?
If I’m lying here
Will you take me home?

Could you take care of a broken soul?
Will you hold me now?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?

Hold the gun to my head, count 1, 2, 3
If it helps me walk away then it’s what I need
Every minute gets easier
The more you talk to me
You rationalize my darkest thoughts
Yeah, you set them free

Came to you with a broken faith
Gave me more than a hand to hold
Caught before I hit the ground
Tell me I’m safe, you’ve got me now

Would you take the wheel
If I lose control?
If I’m lying here
Will you take me home?

Could you take care of a broken soul?
Oh, will you hold me now?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?

[3x]
You say space will make it better
And time will make it heal
I won’t be lost forever
And soon I wouldn’t feel
Like I’m haunted, oh, falling

Would you take the wheel
If I lose control?
If I’m lying here
Will you take me home?

Could you take care of a broken soul?
Oh, will you hold me now?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home, home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?

My journey: a mother’s testimony through grief

I’ve got to know Vicky through our mutual journey through loss and faith, and our blogs. We both write about our emotions and thoughts as a way to process our experiences. Vicky’s story is very different from mine; however, our views are very similar.

Vicky has shared her faith testimony on her blog which I would encourage you to read, especially if you are dealing with, or have dealt with, the terminal illness of a loved one. Vicky blends her relationship with God so movingly into her story, and while her daughter Leah’s illness and passing is so heartbreaking, I also felt encouraged by her words and very grateful for her transparency.

Vicky’s faith was strong and had been part of her life for many years before her loss, and what her testimony demonstrates is the help and comfort knowing God gave them all during the most difficult time of their lives, something I wish I had at that the time I lost my own daughter.

Vicky’s testimony features some of the many Bible passages that helped them. What struck me, reading this, was when she said this:

I really appreciate this Bible passage (Isaiah 43:1-2) about walking through the fire, as some Christians seem to have this erroneous idea that if you have enough faith that you will live a long and happy life – that you can just command your troubles in Jesus name to disappear and they will go. I have read the Bible from Genesis through to Revelation and that’s not what I have read.

This is an important part of our faith which is very difficult to understand. We can live the most holy life dedicated to God yet still suffer and die, yet some who never bother with God can live long, healthy lives. It doesn’t always make sense. God never said we would not suffer and lose, but He promised He would love us through it all – that life is far more than just our mortal lives here on earth.

As times of sorrow, it’s so important to hear the words of mothers like Vicky, who share their stories so that others can feel perhaps a little less alone.

Please read My Journey here.

 

 

‘Be now my vision’ – an unexpected experience with the Holy Spirit on the Alpha course

As part of my series about sharing my faith testimony, this post is about my experience of attending an Alpha course. I’ve tried to keep it as brief as possible but also wanted to capture the main aspects for readers to appreciate what and why I saw what I did.

Parts of my experience are deeply personal to me, but in many ways that makes it even more worthy of sharing. In fact, I’ve delayed sharing it for five months because it is so special to me, but I know I must (I would also like to do this before my baby arrives as my blogging will likely take a back seat for a while).

Last September, I attended an Alpha course run by my church. I felt confident in my faith, having had the experiences I had with God, like this one, since my daughter’s death in 2013. I felt I had a strong spiritual side, but I wanted to learn more about the factual side of Christianity… the questions we all ask ‘Who is God? Who was Jesus? Why do we suffer? etc.’

A shaky start!
Entering the first session, I thought that there wasn’t too much the course could add to my faith. I was also a little sceptical about a course which I believed, in essence, converts unbelieving people into believing Christians. To me, belief was personal and couldn’t be ‘taught’, but I was open to learning more and hearing others’ experiences, as after all, Alpha has been hugely successful in bringing people from all walks of life to and encouraging them to think about faith.

One of the first questions that people asked of the hosts running the course was ‘Why do you believe?’ ‘What was it, exactly, that made you decide that God, Jesus and the Bible were all true?’ There was a mixed response from the leaders, but each was based on a profound experience or a moment when the truth was simply ‘revealed’ to them, an awakening if you like. For some this happened in their youth, for others much later in life.

While people do come to faith through apologetics and analysis of the facts, it seems that having an encounter or awakening is the point when they really know Christ.

The Alpha course was spread over 12 weekly 2-hour sessions. For the first half of the course I found, rather than deepening my faith, I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the assumptive and the somewhat lack of an impartial approach by both the Alpha materials and the leaders. Even though I understood the course to be an open forum for us to ask whatever questions we wanted, the scope to ask those challenging questions seemed to close up as we got further in.

Despite this, I found that I spent the week following a session reflecting on the key aspect of discussion, which was hugely beneficial. I also started to read the Gospels from start to finish. So I was learning something, just not in the way I expected… but that’s how God works!

Yet, still, I felt my frustration increase with each session. Some of the others who attended were heavily sceptical. They wanted facts and hard evidence and were not convinced by the rather weak ‘it’s just true so you should believe it’ approach of Nicky Gumbel et al. This was understandable initially, but I could see that their views were not changing as the sessions went on. If anything, they were becoming more sceptical, hostile and confused by the faith experiences of others, because they were so far apart with the ‘nothing’ that they had experienced.

I was a quiet observer during the first few weeks, taking my time to get to know the others and whether I felt safe. I had a difficult story to tell about my grief and faith, and I didn’t want to reveal that until I felt it appropriate. I didn’t want people to judge my faith because of my loss. However, it was quite fascinating listening to the others and hearing their good and bad experiences of religion. It was clear some had got wrapped up in the hearsay and speculation of the media and negative history rather than the core elements of what Christianity is and is not. They couldn’t separate the sinful human from the loving God.

I couldn’t help becoming irritated by the sceptics’ desire for hard fact alone, and actually found it quite upsetting. Like ‘doubting Thomas’ they wanted to see the body of Jesus, they wanted to look at a library of books and photos documenting his every move, they could not see evidence of a loving God anywhere in this world. It reached a point where we were debating a minor point for so long that I almost snapped. I shared with them my encounter with God. I shared my daughter’s passing to Him. I wanted them to know that if they were seeking faith in apologetics alone, they weren’t going to find it.

I’m not sure some of the group even wanted to believe. Devoted Christians can seem strange people. They are so convinced by this thing that is, on the face of it, unbelievable yet the love of Christ radiates from them. I am pretty intuitive to people’s feelings and I sensed they felt uncomfortable around those in the group who were more forceful or stringent in their beliefs. While I felt the hosts could have been a little less domineering in their approach, I also understood that once you have deep faith it really is very difficult to accept any other view (which I suppose is why religion in general has such a poor reputation!).

An unexpected encounter
It was at the half-way point that we were asked to attend an away day together, called the Holy Spirit Day. This day takes the course members away from the endless questioning (which really could go on forever) and offers them the opportunity for a more spiritual experience of the faith and to perhaps encounter the Holy Spirit for themselves.

Despite my prior experiences of hearing and feeling God’s presence, I was particularly – and stubbornly – sceptical about this day. The cynics in the group didn’t want to go at all, they were very uncomfortable about spending a day in worship with ‘fanatics’ when they were not nearly at a stage to believe themselves. I understood this, but as we had become friendly I found I myself encouraging them to go, explaining my own reservations but that I also felt it important to see the entire course through. With Christianity, you can’t pick and choose the bits you like, it is a package. Apparently over 27 million people around the world (including notable celebrities) have attended the Alpha Holy Spirit day, so I felt we really should go, if anything to see what the ‘fuss’ was about. We wouldn’t know if we simply stayed home.

At the same time I felt protective of my previous personal encounters with God. They were special to me and my situation. I didn’t see how the Holy Spirit would suddenly turn up on a prescribed day to convince us of His being, least of all me. It seemed too controlled by us, impersonal and not led by Him at all, almost as though we were testing Him to show Himself. But these were Christian and non-Christian friends of mine, so I knew I would be in very good and safe company.

So it was with some reluctance and curiosity that one Saturday I went to the venue with one of the members of the group who I had become friends with. I went hoping more that she would get something out of it, as I was much further in faith than she was. I so wanted the others to feel what I felt. To soften the hardness in their cynical hearts.

The morning started with an interesting discussion and I learnt a great deal about what the Holy Spirit is, and is not. The others seemed to relax as they clearly enjoyed the safety of the informal debate. After lunch, we reconvened and were led into worship by our vicar. I wasn’t expecting this, not singing! We sang a hymn, which I knew well, but I sensed my friend was becoming more uncomfortable. She wasn’t ready for this at all. It was almost as though if she sang, she was committing to something she wasn’t ready for. As a result, I found it impossible to achieve any depth of mediation seeing as I was so aware of her discomfort.

After the hymn, we had a quiet period of prayer, this was when we invited the Holy Spirit to come. One of the leaders came over and prayed over me. There was nothing strange in her words, she simply stood in front of me and asked the Holy Spirit to fill my life and bless me, or something along those lines. It was an unusual experience. I felt a warmth inside. I felt kind of tired and also like emotions were being pulled to the surface. I suddenly felt quite vulnerable, yet safe.

She moved on to someone else and I found myself sitting down with my eyes closed; my mind felt empty but I tried to use the time to focus. It was then that I saw the most striking vision! It was of Jesus on the cross, at a side angle. The cross was a bright blue and Jesus was dead.

It wasn’t a frightening image at all. In that instant I had an overwhelming sense of comfort.

I felt love like I have never known. Unconditional, constant love.

I felt utterly forgiven – and that I understood what ‘forgiveness’ meant.

I felt a deep and sincere sense of calm and peace. The vision was showing me that Jesus died for me and that no matter how I felt – how I had sinned in the past, how I beat myself up about not being good enough, how I held in my emotions because I was scared, how I tried to fight what I believed in – that Jesus loved me and always, always had. I felt the overwhelming peaceful ‘power of the cross’, of what it meant for Jesus to die. Ultimately, it was not sorrow, it was all love!

(This vision was five months ago, and I finally got round to drawing what I saw. It is just an amateur sketch as I’m no artist, but I always felt I should try to draw it. I still see it vividly today. Jesus was real, with blood and sweat all over his hair and body, the wood of the cross was split and bleached blue… it was a lifelike image rather than an illustration.)

image

I found myself suddenly sobbing, to my great embarrassment! I simply could not stop the tears. Tears of love and release, fear and wonder, thanks and submission. I’m a deeply private person, an introvert, yet despite the room full of people, this still felt like a deeply personal moment. I could just as well been at home in my room.

My poor friend beside me must have wondered what on earth had happened! She and many others knew about my daughter so presumed my tears were for her. I couldn’t speak. I just needed to pour out my heart to Him, to go with this awesome vision.

My friend was quite glad to comfort me, I think it helped her to find something to do among all these people acting oddly (I wasn’t aware until after but a couple were lying on the floor absorbed in prayer) and there was me sobbing like a child! But I was thankful for her support and knew I couldn’t fight it and pretend I was okay this time. It was nice to have the human and spiritual comfort.

The group were lovely with me afterwards (as I was the only one who had such a dramatic reaction!). I felt quite confused by it; all I could say was that it was most definitely not about Abi. To my surprise, this experience had nothing of my daughter in it, which felt odd to admit to as, if anything, I was expecting that. In the vision, I had the sense that because I was loved, so was she.

After a brief chat, we went home. I was suddenly thrown back into normality, with the chatter of my children and things to be done. I felt what I can only describe as numb. I had cried so much and was utterly humbled by what I saw and felt. I was scared in a way. I now understood what it meant to be fearful of God, I’d always wondered what ‘fear Him’ meant, and it’s a good fear! I was ‘lost for words’ as I was not expecting anything like what I experienced, especially as my cynicism had been growing along with the others.

I felt numb for a few days. I thought I should feel joyful, so this reaction troubled me, but I realised that it’s normal to feel like this after an intense encounter.

I didn’t tell anyone about it for some time, and I’ve only told a few people from church who I feel would understand. What could I say? I would be seen as totally bonkers! Brainwashed even! As time passed, I tried to find reasons for the vision, but couldn’t. I thought perhaps my brain was recalling another image I’d seen, like when you stare at something and close your eyes and it’s still there in your mind. There was some modern abstract Christian art in the room but otherwise it was very neutral. I don’t recall seeing an image of Christ like this, especially not at this unusual side angle. I didn’t feel I was led into this vision by anyone else in the room or by the hymns we sang.

The rest of the course was about living out the faith, presuming that people were convinced by the Holy Spirit day… my friend dropped out.

I felt sad that she didn’t get anything out of it but was more excited by the fact that God was still very much with me! That I did get something from the course, that He is interested in me, that it is all true and He really wanted me to know that. Perhaps it was more useful to Him that I have an experience rather than my cynical friend, because I am now glad to share it with others through my writing? Who knows?

I don’t know why not everyone gets a direct Holy Spirit encounter… perhaps they do, but they miss seeing it? There was a faithful woman in my group who had never heard or seen God, despite praying for it all her life. She so longed to see him. She didn’t go on the Holy Spirit day so I’ll never know if she would have received something then. But then it’s not my concern. I remember being struck by this quote when reading The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis: “Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.” It made me aware that I shouldn’t worry about what God is doing for other people, he’s got it covered!

It took me a few weeks after to feel the joy of my experience. I wasn’t sure if what I encountered was correct. Of course it was, but I wasn’t sure what I was feeling – my practical mind tried to convince me I’d made it up. But I just knew what I felt and importantly what I saw. Again, as in other my encounters, my mind was ‘closed’ and distracted when I had the experience. I wasn’t seeking an encounter, in fact I was rather afraid of it in a room full of people and was more aware of making my sceptical friend feel comfortable. I felt I had become the sceptic again, yet God came and literally showed me the cross. My eyes were opened. I finally understood the cross, what it really means to give your life to Christ (up to then it seemed like nothing but a phrase).

Since then, I felt it important I document my faith journey. I’m not expecting my experience to convert anybody to Christianity. It will be interesting to some but a relationship with God is personal so, if you have one, it will be very different to mine. Most importantly, I cannot – and should not – forget these encounters and also how God is working in my life.

I don’t have all the answers – far from it! I still have much I want to understand, but now I do less doubting and questioning and instead seek answers in faith.

I’m probably the most surprised by what Alpha gave me in the end, having had such a shaky start, but I will always be glad that I bothered!

When I consider my journey to and in faith thus far, I can see that I don’t have just one testimony, I have a few of them – from my youth, my early married life, my eldest daughter’s death, and now this. That’s quite something and shows me that God is constant and always will be. I wonder what’s next?

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
be all else but naught to me, save that thou art;
be thou my best thought in the day and the night,
both waking and sleeping, thy presence my light.

Be thou my wisdom, be thou my true word,
be thou ever with me, and I with thee Lord;
be thou my great Father, and I thy true son;
be thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.

Be thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight;
be thou my whole armor, be thou my true might;
be thou my soul’s shelter, be thou my strong tower:
O raise thou me heavenward, great Power of my power.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise:
be thou mine inheritance now and always;
be thou and thou only the first in my heart;
O Sovereign of heaven, my treasure thou art.

High King of heaven, thou heaven’s bright sun,
O grant me its joys after victory is won;
great Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
still be thou my vision, O Ruler of all.

Irish, ca. 8th century; trans. Mary Byrne (1880-1931) versified, Eleanor Hull (1860-1935)