A story from Tina, looking back on 2020 so far:
But 9 months ago, just after Christmas and as the New Year 2020 was starting, I found myself having big, life changing talks with my husband Steve about what we really wanted out of life and how we wanted to live. This revolved a lot around how we wanted to be spending our days, months and years and how much we missed praying and connecting with Jesus.
Steve’s job was taking over his life, my life, our family’s life. The world seemed to be breaking down, climate change and shocking politics and some virus thing in china which seemed to be spreading? I felt far from God. Far from the things that had brought me and my husband together, far from the values that had carried me from America to England 11 years ago, far from being true to myself.
Over a decade ago, faith got real for me. I was and am crap at praying and honestly crap at being a good Christian. But as a 20 something university student, driving a lime green Ford Bronco II, I found myself shouting out at a God I had decided didn’t, couldn’t possibly, was no way able to be THERE… and even less likely to care or be engaging or even good. I don’t remember what exactly brought on this shouting fit… but it went kinds like “IF you are really real God, you better show up because by the time I get back to my university campus. If you haven’t shown up, I will know for sure Christianity is just a big FAT lie.” I was 20 min away from campus.
And Oh my God! Did Jesus showed up right there and then in my lime green Ford Bronco II and it changed me. I didn’t know about Christianity or theology or the best or right rules to worship God, but I knew I NEEDED to spend more time with this Jesus and find out everything I could about him. It took me from the Midwest of America to the heart of Essex in England and this weird, and I mean WEIRD group of people, who called themselves a prayer community (actually they called themselves a Boiler Room and were attempting to pray 24/7, I mean true freaks!). But it was in this prayer community where I found my world literally turned upside down and shaken. I learned some crazy good things about what prayer really is and what it is about and how the only way to get good at it (if that even is a thing, which it isn’t but that’s another story) is to just do it.… and it hooked me on this things called prayer… not just as a hobbie or a good thing or a tally system to win God points but as this beautiful, genuine, messy, creative, honest, hard, scary, relationship with Jesus where we got to meet and talk and be real with each other FACE TO FACE. And this was not the boring old white, pretty, wholesome looking Jesus. But that in your face, off putting, heart twisting, soul churning, face slapping, table turning, passion burning Jesus. The creator of it all, the prince of lasting peace, my friend, my helper, my heart, my wings. Haha… ok you get it, I like Jesus… like a lot.
And I wish living was just that simple.
But it’s not. Or I don’t let it be. Because things get in the way. Breastfeeding my baby 3x a night, supporting a hurting friends, paying bills, fixing things that break (again), trying to stay positive, holding the pain and stress and hurt of my husband’s job and his heart, worrying about the environment, praying for a friend to be healed of cancer, burying that friend and distancing myself from what I think of prayer and God, teaching my daughter to ride her bike, trying to find clothes that fit after a 3rd baby, resisting the urge to hate myself for not being more on top of my career. God, even having the motivation to get dress, then holding another baby while she has nightmares after starting school or the other baby when she has nightmares about a spiders, praying for loved ones marriages to make it and then holding their hands as they submit divorce papers, signing petitions for better and equal pay for women, hoping the prayer community we spent years investing in would live on, but then having to burying our hopes and expectations of what WE tried to build spiritually and also taking just a few more steps away from my cheap spiritual self serving religion, then teaching my kids about racism and dreaming with my friends that they will get pregnant (while unfairly I bounce a 3rd baby on my knee), trying to write another two week shopping list that doesn’t crush my soul... you get the picture… busy, crazy LIFE!
I kept trying to find Jesus, but really I wasn’t because I had no time, no heart and no space to be with Him. The closeness I had found with him when I was younger seemed to be stolen away by all these grown up and disappointing life experiences that kept coming for me.
I just wanted my hit. My good old Jesus hit, feel good, believe there is better and then roll into the next day… But I felt more like Jesus was just this random after thought, after life smacked me around.
I was on empty. Steve and I decided we needed a change and that change needed to come with us getting new jobs and sharing the work load between the both of us. We talked about how we could use the time to pray more and do poetry and make cheese and start a podcast and move on with our careers and be there for our little family. It was a great plan. I had been on maternity leave for the last year, he had worked full-time plus for the last 3 years…
IF we both found some part time jobs, we could make it work.
Then COVID-19 hit England. Everything. Everyone. Every Plan. Every HOPE came to a screeching halt.
I can’t even explain in words the heaviness of my soul. We would have to wait. We would have to endure.
In those early days of COVID I felt so alone. Deep things were happening in my family and marriage that wasn’t so easy to just share and hand over to people. We have only lived in Exeter 3 years and none of my friendships at the time felt sturdy enough to hold what I wanted and needed to deal with. Plus we weren’t the only ones hurting or in pain, the whole world was literally suffering and our discomfort and pain seemed small in comparison but it was crushing us, it was crushing me.
Our brains can be funny like that. The one message that Jesus tries to constantly speak over us is YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Yet often the go to emotion and cage I find myself in is one that believes that lie.
UNTIL, I remembered someone… someone who had been through far more and far deeper pain and who has journeyed with me from the very start, even before I could see or hear Him… My Jesus. It was intimidating and hard setting aside space for this Jesus who I had known so well just a few short years ago, but who wasn’t as deeply involved now in my every day. But we did it. We started spending time together. Not big, but intentional (I still had 3 kids home from school over lockdown so you know none of my prayers were long, but they were straight from my heart).
I was used to praying in a community where if you really loved Jesus you signed up to go in silence to this prayer room (if you were really hard core at 2 or 3am) and then would sing loud or paint messy or journal hard about where life was at… I had to re-learn what meeting Jesus was like for me as a woman, mom and lockdowner- it was notice God in the noise, it was pausing and taking a deep breath of Jesus as I sipped my morning coffee, it was saying prayers over seeds we planted in the garden, it was doing 5 min prayer apps, it was organizing with my husband to take the kids for an hour so I could pray in silence (ok that happened once!)… It was being intentional about what I had and what I could work with.
I found myself cracking back into some old habits, fasting and setting alarms on my phone to pray and using the things around me to inspire my prayers. Steve didn’t have the words to pray, for himself or work or relief so I became his words and his payers and his relief, not because of who I am but because of who Jesus was in me. When we had dark days (and there was a lot of them) I learned to not run, to not panic, to not crumble, but when I didn’t understand or couldn’t explain why pain was closing in, I chose to just fix my eyes and my heart on Jesus and His promises of hope…. I re-learned that Jesus promises aren’t a happy life. A good life is not about pursing or finding happiness, it’s about accepting what is before us, holding the experience we live through both the painful and joyful and seeing how they can be used for good, it about knowing and being known. It realizing that every day we can choose, we can choose Jesus or not, but being able to handle all the fullness of life (and a full life is one that has full joy and full pain and full happiness and full sadness) comes from knowing the creator of life, Jesus.
So what about the pumpkins eh?
Like many of you COVID gave us this opportunity to be out in our garden a lot more and we did some digging and building and planting. I didn’t think we would get any space this year to grow anything, but really quickly we found ourselves creating an odd shaped little patch and the girls and I rummaged through our very disorganized shed to see if we had any leftover seeds. We found a handful of left over seeds from seasons past and in and amongst them was a small handful of pumpkin seeds. (ooo you just can tell some Jesus stuff is about to happen!).
Mostly, to kill time and having something to do, we planted enough seeds to fill our little bay window sill. We watched them grow and there is just somethings so magical about a seed opening up and a seedling popping out of the dirt for the first time. One weekend in May the seedlings were finally big enough to plant and we took them out to our little patch and pop them in the ground. We were still in lockdown and the world was going from ok to crazy bad, but from out back garden with these little plants I almost could forget that. At this point I hadn’t had loads of the experience I’ve described above and honestly my heart was scared and a bit broken and unsure.
I turned to Steve and I said, “Now if only we could get 5 pumpkins… “ I didn’t even finish the sentence, I’m not even sure it was a prayer or anything, because honestly we didn’t have enough room for one pumpkin to grown, let along 5. I also knew with everything that life was throwing at us, I wasn’t going to get time to come out to the garden and care for these plants the way I should. I mean the chances we would get 5 pumpkins are low, very low. But I said it, out loud, in our garden, over our simple little patch.
We went back inside the house and the weeks and months just ticked on. Some were good weeks, where we felt strong and had energy and even excitement for the days ahead. Others were dark where life disappointments hit us in the gut and we doubted, we doubted our dreams and our survival and if we mattered to God and if He could and would really be there for us. We were strong and we were weak.
But I dug in. Not like a monk or a nun or anything because I couldn’t just give up on the normal life to sit in the presence of Jesus, but I stopped listening to the lies in my head, the doubts circling around me and the distance I had created from my creator. I realized I had amazing friendships that God had ordained and purposed for my life right here and right now in Exeter and I started to trust those friends with my worries and flaws and insecurities and I asked them to pray for me, for Steve and I and for our little family or just listen (if they weren’t the praying type) and then I would pray in my mind and heart. I took seriously having micro moments with God, where when something brought a smile to my face or caught my breath or lifted my spirit, I didn’t just let it give me the warm fuzzies and move on, but like an anchor I threw that experience into the centre of Jesus and who he is and anchored myself right to him. When life got scary and things happened that I didn’t know how to handle, that shook me, that seemed consuming and deadly and unstoppable, I pulled on those anchors and when I tugged I felt Jesus tug me nearer and I knew I was not alone. No letting go. All of me holding fast to all of Him. All of Him holding fast to me.
May rolled into June, then July and August and before I knew it September 2020 rolled around. So much has changed over these months for me as a woman, a mother, a wife, a worker, a church leader, a friend of Jesus. I got a new part time job, oh and Steve got a new part time job too (not exactly like we planned but in all ways what we prayed for and in just the time we needed). The girls started back to school, both taking it like champs showing there is an internal strength in them that inspires me. I’ve uncovered this whole new secret and undercover way of worshiping Jesus that is stirs my heart again and is moving my soul. I’ve started dreaming again. Dreaming of what I am meant to be about as a person and what I hope for my city here in Exeter. COVID is still bad but unanswered prayers don’t shake me as much anymore (though they still shake me and I’m wrestling that out with Jesus, but I’m not avoiding the journey anymore).
A few weeks ago we went out to our back garden again… the grass was up to our knees, the veg patch we had planted in spring was over grown and uncared for and I could even see some blight had worked its way into our plants. We needed to clean it up. Over the summer, I’d peered time and again through the big and spanning pumpkins leaves but there were never any pumpkins. I didn’t think any had grown. Steve said he’d seen one in the middle so I thought as I was clearing away the dead leaves and over grown vines I’d aim for there. Snipping away some of the bad leaves, my mind honestly wasn’t thinking much. I uncovered one pumpkin, then another, then a 3rd… wow they were pretty good sizes too. I was impressed. At least the girls could each have one for Halloween. Then I kept looking and there was a 4th… at that moment the still small voice that I have come to know as my friend Jesus whisper, “keep looking, I told you I would provide, I won’t let you down.” I smiled, surely not, but there resting to the side of our patch nestled behind our blueberry bush was pumpkin number 5.
I stopped. Looked up at the sunny and cloud spotted sky and thought “really… REALLY?”… then, that still small voice laughed…LAUGHED… and said “of course Tina, what you ask I will provide, what you plant I will grow, what you give I will use and who you are matters. I see you. I know you. You are not forgotten. You are mine.”
Obviously by now I was tearing up because even though I know it and believe it, having my heart hear this while I’m are staring at 5 pumpkins, that I kinda had prayed for back in May, while my 3 beautiful girls are giggling on a trampoline and my husband it red faced working alongside me in the garden, resulted in this cascade of peace and blessing washing over me. Then my brain recounted all the answered prayers we had gotten over the last 6 months; jobs, safety, justice, hope, trampolines, friends, healing, reconciliation… we dared to believe that our God cares, we braved practicing the spiritual discipline of prayer, we had the courage to be honest about how real and hard and joyful and painful and unexpected that journey of prayer is.
And in that moment, I knew that I knew we had been blessed during a time when blessing was and is feeling so far so many. And this blessing is not just for us to hold within ourselves or to make others feel like God doesn’t see them or care just as deeply for them, BUT we are blessed so that we can be a blessing, be the hands and feet and heart of Jesus to all those people around us that God loves so deeply. This isn’t a passive blessing, but an actively blessing calling us to see God in the life around us, name it and then use it to bless and do good in the world around us… and what better time than the world we are all living in now.
I took a deep breath and because it’s Jesus and because He is who He is, He didn’t leave it there but He also said, “Now imagine if you had actually nurtured what you planted and come out to this patch and tending what you sowed and spent time believing that I will do what I say? Imagine how many pumpkins you would have then?” and I laughed then too, because I realized yet again, prayer matters, if you give all of who you are over to prayer, you will start to see all of who Jesus is. But even if you can’t give all of yourself over to prayer. I know at the beginning of lockdown I couldn’t, then just give what you can, hope with all you have and when you know that you know that you know that Jesus showed up and provided, that he made a difference, that he changed you for the better, UNDERLINE IT, add it as a highlight to your story. Don’t “maybe” it or gloss over it or try and reason away why God showed up for you in the way he did and not for others, but be the person that owns when God shows up for you, not to keep it for yourself but to push you to get out there and be more of a blessing and more answered prayers to, with and for others.
I’m not perfect. And just because I survived this first stretch of lockdown and learned a few things about praying and connecting, doesn’t mean I’ve got it all together. I still doubt and still feel the worry and dread rising up… BUT how I react to life as it is happening is more and more coming from a place more firmly anchored in Jesus. I can still flop about quite a bit, but I’m getting less floppy as the days go on and I think that’s all Jesus asks. Not perfection or having it all sorted, but just an intentional effort to keep moving with him and towards him on the journey called life… now let’s see what the next 6 months bring.