A testimony from a while ago

I am writing my reflection on my church placement which lasted about six months from April 2010 to December 2010. I had to share testimonies of God's work in my life and as I select 14 diary entries to be read by my tutor, a rather strange and personal thing to have to do, I share these two experiences with you that I shared on placement.

The first was this shared at the beginning of placement in a morning service:

I will tell you briefly about my journey with God. I was brought up in a Christian home and I was aware of God and Jesus. I had no understanding of the Holy Spirit. I know this because I was quite a cute and sappy child and when I went to sleep at night, I would squash up next to the wall to leave room in my bed for Jesus and God. But I never left any room for the Holy Spirit.

We were a church-going family but the Bible had not really become a living word for me. I think most of my understanding about Jesus came through the hymns I sang. I am the Lord of the Dance said he was my only indication that there might possibly be something good about following Jesus but I never really understood what it might be. Instead I imagined my own unworthiness because fourth Sunday each month, I was separated from my parents who sat in pews behind me as I kneeled in a brown uniform to hear how I was not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under his table so that the Lord who had welcomed me to the dance in the school assembly suddenly became this far away person in church. My gospel was all the wrong way around and I was convinced I had to earn my salvation. No one really explained properly what it was Jesus had done for me. At eleven and my confirmation, I learnt that Jesus died in a horrible way and this made me even more worried by the whole thing.

I grew up pretty regular with my highs and lows, teenage rebellions, at one point too many boyfriends and I think my self-worth revolved around doing well in school or trying to fit in.

I met my husband at 16 and I remember it being important to me that he believed in God. Until my twenties, I had faith in God but I did not know how I could come into his presence. My faith was pretty binitarian really. But then I was invited to Alpha. At the same time I began to teach Bible stories to the under fives and because of Alpha it was like I was reading the stories for the first time, and in the case of some of them I was, it was like I needed the milk before the solid food.

When I heard Nicky Gumbel open up the scriptures at Alpha and explain who Jesus was, it was like the road to Emmaus was happening in my life, I could feel my heart burning within me, or as Wesley described it felt strangely warmed. This was great but then even more powerfully I came into relationship with Jesus through the power of his Holy Spirit on the Alpha weekend. That weekend changed my life. I started to knock on some doors and they began to open. I was slowly letting God take centre stage in my life. I got involved in holiday clubs, and youth work because I now understood how great it felt to be in the presence of God and I just wanted more and more of Him. I sensed that God wanted to get to know me or I wanted to get to know him and it was so overwhelming, sometimes it positively frightened me. I started to wonder whether I might even be dying and God was preparing me. That sounds really dramatic. I now know that he was preparing me for that 'dying to self' stuff because I had built up layers and layers of self-reliance which he was slowly going to ask me to let go. My husband and I had just about every policy under the sun: life insurance, critical illness cover, private health cover, a nice house, good jobs, private education for the children. We were doing it all, protecting ourselves against every conceivable difficulty by any means we could – we were insecure and frightened people. Slowly we have given our lives to God, he has been patient. The job went, the books were studied, after vowing I would never become a student again. The house sold, the education for the children changed. The private heath care ceased...

We have a confidence and an assurance now that we never had before, a joy now that we did not know was possible. Everything now feels like an adventure. We seek out God and he never lets us down. I kneel now, knowing I am worthy, not because of anything I have done but because of what Jesus has done for me.

On another occasion I shared this, after being asked when God had met me in a difficult time in my life. This was really difficult and challenging to share: 

My name is Rachel. I am training to be a vicar at St John's theological college in Nottingham and I am here on placement – thank you for having me.

I am an ex-secondary school teacher. I have lived in various villages in and around this area since the late 90s. I am married and I have two girls.

Hobbies – no time but they will return I am promised.

My tough time, both in terms of my faith, and life in general, was about three years ago. I was working for my local church doing some kids and youth work and bringing up my pre-school children and we lived three doors down from the church where we were serving. My faith was in quite a good place and I was enjoying what I was doing but all the time I was wondering how big a place I was giving God in my life. In some ways it all seemed too easy. The church was only three doors down from where we lived, the work I was doing created for me a lot of friends in similar positions to me because they all had children and I felt like I was being really blessed by all the work I was doing but I wondered where the challenge was. I wondered if I would be serving so enthusiastically if the church was not next door and I did not have friends involved.

At this point I felt an overwhelming desire to move on and out, which was quite strange, we had a nice house in a nice village. The church had really encouraging leaders who were helping me with my journey and encouraging me to bring people to Alpha and run holiday clubs and such things. But I felt really called to move on to another village and so we moved. It was like I was asking God to shake my faith up and challenge it. I knew the new house was the right one to live in because even when I was in my old house, I would wake up feeling disorientated because in my head, I was already in the new house.

In our new village, we wanted to worship with our new church just once a month so we could get to know people, we still had work to do in our old church but we would study in local house groups. And it was at this point that God took me to a place of serious challenge, way bigger than I had ever expected, way bigger than I had ever asked for.

First of all, he was opening up his Word to me like never before so that I began to sense the living Word through the written word in a way that I had not experienced. And at first everything was brilliant. My faith was growing, we would travel back to serve in our old church with a new energy. We had not just served there because it was easy, because it was convenient, because it was three doors down, we really had a heart for serving and my love of the Bible was really growing in studies with my new house group locally.

As time went on I began to sense that I should not return to English teaching, God was calling me to teach and preach the Bible, rather than use my energies on Shakespeare's Macbeth and whatever else. I felt this more and more strongly and so I began to share this with my new congregation leaders. But the problem was that I began to sense over time that their theological point of view did not support women in leadership positions in churches and they were not happy about my sense of calling to ordained ministry.

I got stuck in a strange place for about 18 months, not knowing whether I was being obedient to God or not. I could not reconcile this strong urge to preach and teach the gospel with my community teaching me that this couldn't be for me because I am a woman. When I looked at the bible it didn't seem to say that to me or any of the members of my old church. I just wanted to be obedient to God and I was finding it hard to work that out now. I almost forgot that the church had ordained women since 1992. I almost forgot that my old church was run by a woman as well as a man. My church world just completely shrank.

The bible verse that kept coming up for me over this time period was 1 Peter 5 verse 7.

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

I was very challenged by this verse. I knew that these fellow Christians were not my enemies. They were godly and good people who wanted the best for me. It was up to me to be self-controlled and that was the bit of the verse that challenged me most. I even had a time when I wondered if I was the one looking for someone to devour and when the vicar of the church asked me to pray protection on him for his first ever preach in eight years in which he was going to declare his stance against the ordination of women and encourage his congregation to repent that the church had ever ordained women in the the early nineties, I prayed that God might protect him from me. I was really ready to challenge him.

Now unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, and in some ways I still feel ambivalent about it, my challenge did came. I exercised some self-control but probably not enough. And what I want to say to you is God will fulfil his promises even when you go through serious pain. And when as a consequence of that pain you lose your self-control. I also want to say be careful what you pray for. I had asked God to challenge my faith and my sense of calling had been seriously challenged by the sermon this vicar would preach against the ordination of women which I listened to on podcast. I knew enough to not test my sense of self-control by actually going and parking myself in a pew to listen!

My moment of weakness came when I listened to that sermon, and lacking the confidence to speak to the vicar personally about it, I ran down to the church the following Sunday in dark glasses to post my reply to it on the windscreens of all the cars in his church carpark. I was caught on CCTV camera so they knew it was me. Obviously, I had done nothing illegal, people put pizza flyers under my car window-wipers all the time but theological treatises about 'God's Strong Women of the Bible' is not something you usually return to your car to find.

Anyway, the rest, as they say, is history. 

I had my sense of calling tested further in a community with a mix of theologies as I started to study at St John's. I got to test out whether I really believed the bible presented opportunities for women to lead and preach. My first essay as an independent student was on this very issue so I could put all the research that had gone into my windscreen flyer to good use and after I put the last full stop in place, I had been working up to this essay for two years... As I put the last full stop in place, I grabbed my essay for delivering to college, grabbed my kids from school and we all went off to worship at St John's, where I am now training and I said to God on the A52, 'Okay, I have now understood the Bible on this issue, can you give me one more sign that you really want me to go forward for ordination training?' and at the service that evening, it was the only time in my life I have ever spoken those words that only the priest usually speaks, it was an inclusive Eucharist where all the words said over the bread and wine were spoken by the congregation too and it was God saying 'yes, these words are words you are going to speak, not just now but week in week out. Leave teaching English and come and teach the Bible instead.'

After this God quickly called me forward into the discernment process where you have to test out your sense of calling, your motivations and suitability, in a series of meetings with the big bods of the church.

The tensest moment came for me one or two months before the big Church interview for potential vicars when they asked me if I had anything to confess and after I had gone all around the houses, I eventually told this story I have told you, giving it to God, saying, 'it will either go one way or the other, into your hands I place my life. They will either think I am a trouble maker or just someone who sometimes feels an overwhelming urge to speak out and present a different point of view'. I told my story, there was a pause and then a smile from the person sitting opposite me who understood exactly what I had gone through and handed me the rest of my papers to prepare for the interview - phew!

So here I am – God got hold of a rebel, took me to a place of challenge but was still faithful in what he had promised. Even though I had lacked some self-control, he brought me through and to a place of reconciliation, both in my own mind about this debate and with the people whom I differed. After the event I was actually invited to lunch by the associate vicar and we went through our bibles together for four hours discussing our different viewpoints and even though he suggested I go back to my old church where they could nurture my journey, I think we are still friends and I will ironically end up working in the same diocese. 

God loves all his children and sees not our theological differences and he has given me a real heart for dialogue and unity with those who are different to me. I will always have a passion for seeing women released into ministry and I do not think that that will ever leave me but I now have an objectivity which has enabled me to have some really good friendships with people who do not even believe I should be doing what I am doing. I no longer take any of it personally. It also means that as a vicar myself, I will be open to challenges because if ever I find criticism of any of my sermons challenging, I will just look back on how I ran around a car-park like some strange person on a mission all worked up and desperate to share my point of view. I will become accustomed to checking under my window-wipers!

God is good even to sinners like me. 


Anita Mathias said...

Lol! This was hilarious!

Of course, today you could have emailed the congregation, or addressed them in your blog.
Glad you have come to a place of peace about something which has never even been an issue for me. Of course, God calls both genders to ministry, IMHO.

Rachel Marszalek said...

Ah yes Anita - more peace indeed. And actually that incident is what got the blog launched as I posted a confession and invited other people into dialogue with me as I sought to understand how the Bible could be very good news indeed for women. In those early days I made contacts all over the world and with some very loving people who encouraged me - the blog was such a gift.



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