I grew up in a brethren church in the 70’s and whilst I knew that God loved me unconditionally, I also felt that God was someone who needed to be kept on-side and pleasing him was paramount. When my parents divorced, and my dad subsequently left the church, I realised for the first time in my life that despite their promises, people who once loved you would reject you if you didn’t meet their expectations. I made the assumption that it was the same for God. I became a Christian at age 11, however throughout my teenage years I frequently and anxiously prayed ‘the prayer’ to become a Christian, over and over, for fear that God would reject me. I was terrified of hell and the church did nothing to make me believe I should think differently. Despite my best attempts to be a rebellious teenager I failed miserably, mostly because I feared being anything other than the good Christian girl, and I didn’t want to risk being rejected by God.  

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I married at 20 and returned to the brethren church which my then husband attended, after spending a few years attending a livelier evangelical church, and my rebellious spirit returned. As a feisty feminist, I began to ask questions about faith, mostly their insistence that women could play no part in the services. The eldership told me firmly to stop asking questions. I did not. I realised by the end of my 20s that, despite being a stay-at-home mum at the time, God was calling me into leadership and so I began to push some more. I was rejected, politely, and told that God did not call women into church leadership and to think about helping with the youth work in church, as that was probably what God intended. It wasn’t, and I knew that.  

I began work as a youth worker outside of the church, got myself a diploma and worked in the local community and local school. I was called to the edges, to people I knew my church would not welcome and I began to push more, ask more questions, and was again rejected and told to stop. I began to explore more options and went to Christian youth events, Soul Survivor and the like; this was where I felt more at home. I also met a Christian friend who had the same passion for working with youth outside of the church and we decided to set up a charity together. My church did not support this, and frequently questioned my choices. I kept going, spurred on by a few friends who supported me, although I frequently felt like I did not fit. 

My marriage ended in my late 30’s and I became a single parent and, after falling out with my church because of their lack of support to my two teenage boys, I finally left. I began attending an Anglican church of Wales, and found it to be a safe place, I even began to explore the possibility of ordination. It was during this time that I experienced several years of what can only be described as spiritual and emotional abuse from my friend and work colleague which traumatised me to the point of breakdown. The friendship ended, and I was subsequently rejected from the ordination process. I left the Anglican church to attend an AOG church which I left after two years because of the spiritually abusive nature of the leadership. 

I went nowhere for 3 years, I remarried and was happy not attending church, until my new husband felt God telling him to go to church. I reluctantly went with him, and we began attending a charismatic evangelical church where a friend of mine was the pastor and knew my history. He was supportive and sympathetic and allowed me to question and for the first time in a long time I felt real freedom in church. He offered me a job with the church, and despite all my questions and doubts I took it. 

During this time, I began listening to the Nomad Podcast. I realised that my questions were not unusual, and I was not alone. I began to unpick a lot of the stuff I had learned to be true to that point. I knew the church was wrong on the issue of women, but I had no idea of all the other ways the church had controlled my behaviour through poor theology. I no longer fear hell, as for me it does not exist, I now think of myself as a universalist, I also no longer fear disappointing an angry God who has only shown me love through the work and life of Jesus. 

I have now left that church to move to a new area and currently I am not attending a church regularly. I now work as a pioneer for the Anglican church setting up fresh expressions of church within the local community. I believe these are more relevant to the local context than the traditional church is, and I want to make sure that people I meet know that they are loved and accepted by a divine creator God who will never reject them, and who will always love them, whoever they are. 

The jury is out as to whether I will find myself belonging to a traditional church full time again. I miss the friendships that belonging to a church brings, but I do not miss the misogyny, the dodgy theology or the unrealistic expectations that so often comes along with it. I still have lots of questions and I don’t fully understand how to describe my own deconstruction. There are so many differing aspects of theology that I haven’t fully grasped. I am however thankful that Nomad is helping me gain more knowledge and understanding in how to get to know the Divine, and myself, better. 

– Lisa Andradez

I think a lot of my life has been about searching for a sense of belonging. In most communities I think to myself, “I kind of fit here, but not quite”. I feel this about the Nomad community too. I feel I have a lot in common with the people I’ve encountered, virtually and in real life, but also that I’m different in at least two ways –  firstly that I’m not, and never have been, an Evangelical, and secondly that I kind of “deconstructed” pretty early on in life, and since about seventeen, I have been “reconstructing”.

Image used with permission

I grew up in a deprived neighbourhood in the Blackcountry and was raised in the “catholic” side of the Church of England – lots of bells and smells. My dad was a vicar and we went to church and Sunday school every week. But probably about age ten I began to have serious doubts. What does “Christ died for our sins” actually mean? Does Jesus saying “no one comes to the Father except by me” mean that my Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and atheist friends from school are going to hell? If Jesus was God, who was he praying to when he prayed? Though I struggled with these questions I still experienced God, especially in the quiet moments after communion when I could rest my head on the wooden pew and listen to the soft music.

Once a year my parents would ask me if I wanted to join the confirmation class, and once a year I squirmed and made up some excuse as to why I didn’t. The last thing I was feeling was “confirmed” in my faith, I was questioning everything. I was also discovering as a teenager, in the secret shame of my heart, that I was attracted to boys.

When I was seventeen I went on a school trip to the Taizé community in France, and one night in that massive church, immersed in the deep chanting, I had a deep experience of the love of God. That experience was both a calling and a healing. God outed me. God allowed me to say in my own mind “I am bisexual” (it would be another year before I would say it out loud). And since that moment I can honestly say I have known deep down that God loves me and God loves my queerness. And that God, in their own beautiful playful way, is queer too.

I still felt religiously homeless though. I fell in and out of Anglicanism, but eventually could not live with the institutional homophobia. I explored Quakerism, and indeed even dated a guy I met at the Quaker Meeting. But I eventually settled on the Unitarian church, a liberal church that was welcoming to the LGBT+ community and where Jesus was a human, not a God. I remember the first time I attended being enthralled by hearing the service leader read scriptures from the Baha’i faith, “The earth is one country, and humanity its citizens.” One God. One Earth. One Love. Simples!

At this point I went to Boston in the States to get a master’s degree in theology. In many ways I think this experience “radicalised” me as I was exposed to feminist and queer perspectives, liberation theology, eco-theology and the thought of the African American church. I began, slowly, to see that my liberal intellectual journey was really rooted in my white western privilege. And I began, slowly, to see faith not as an intellectual exercise, but as a tool for liberation of the self and of society.

When I returned to the UK I began to train as a minister in the Unitarian church, and then I spent nine happy years as minister of a church in Bolton. They were a small friendly church, and outward looking enough to open up the church in the middle of the night as a base for Street Angels to help out the drunk people falling out of the nightclubs on our street. My proudest moment was performing our first same sex marriage, after I had spent years campaigning for this. But I eventually felt the call to move on.

I moved to Cardiff in 2017 to pastor a tiny Unitarian congregation and work as a pioneer minister in the city. I soon connected with a local community arts project run by a Buddhist and have been working with them ever since. We share many values and approaches.

In recent years I have also become more and more aware of the climate crisis. A lot of my thinking now is framed by the context of this crisis. I’m not interested in getting “bums on seats” in churches – I’m interested in spiritual revolution. I’m interested in what spiritual practices will transform us and enable us to dismantle the capitalism and colonialism that are the root causes of this crisis. I have been involved in Extinction Rebellion but I’ve become more disillusioned with how white and privileged that crowd is. The mantra of “doing it for our grandchildren” betrays a blindness towards the fact that people in the global south are already dealing with this crisis, and the fact that the climate crisis is just another aspect of capitalistic colonialism that has been exploiting them for centuries.

Prayer is more important to me than ever. I believe in the power of (contemplative) prayer to displace the ego, and recentre us towards radical values, and a radical God. I often pray simultaneously with my Buddhist colleague and neighbour, and we mentally hold each other, and others in deep spiritual solidarity. As I work in more and more interfaith ways every day I also feel more deeply committed to a radical Christian faith.

Right now in some ways I feel life is more uncertain than ever and yet I feel deeply committed to some things. I feel committed to my inner city multicultural Cardiff neighbourhood, and I assume I’m going to live here for the rest of my life. I am a born-again Welsh nationalist as I see the radical potential for small countries to create a different sort of society. I am committed to acting like we are in a climate crisis, because we are, though I have no idea what that is going to mean. I am committed to daily contemplative prayer.

Today I identify most strongly as a Universalist Christian, not just because I disbelieve in hell (I never believed in it, and I’m pretty agnostic about the afterlife in any case) but because I do believe in a universal and all-encompassing Love that holds it all together, and I believe it is possible to connect with this Love through the practice of prayer. I am also very inspired by the historic American Universalist movement (as well as all kinds of other influences – radical Welsh Unitarianism, Polish Anabaptists, Ignatian spirituality, Franciscans, Quakers, Sufis, and Buddhists).

I do not have a certain dogmatic faith. But I also see revelling in my uncertainty as a privilege. We live in critical times and I know I need the kind of spirituality that will feed me in a time of crisis and power me for radical action. It’s that kind of spirituality that I’m, imperfectly, trying to practice.

– Stephen Lingwood

I was brought up in the Anglican church tradition and as a child, I understood God to be a loving, ever-present father figure. God wasn’t particularly threatening to me as a child and God was just always ‘there’ and wanted me to be good or ‘live well’.

Christian faith continued to be important to me but during my teen and 20s, there were experiences and some religious teaching that planted seeds of doubt and fear which haunted me into adulthood.

In my early teens, I became involved in charismatic, evangelical youth groups through a boyfriend. These groups were really exciting and eye-opening: a whole new culture! I felt a sense of belonging and I had deep, committed friendships. I liked how God seemed to talk directly to us in words and pictures and how Bible verses seemed to have direct relevance to our own situations.

There were things that happened that frightened me as well. At 14 years old, I was given a book by a youth leader about blaspheming against the Holy Spirit being the ‘unforgiveable sin’ and being damned to hell for eternity. Around about the same time, I watched a graphic theatre production called ‘Heaven’s Gate, Hell’s Flames’ which had depictions of the ‘unsaved’ dying in untimely accidents and being dragged off to hell by demons. In my late teens, a different youth camp leader gave me a book called ‘The Path to Hell’ which cemented my fear and overwhelming responsibility to try to share the (fundamentalist/conservative) gospel and endeavour to convince whoever would listen. Being embarrassed and overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, I have always felt guilty about never leading anyone to ‘giving their life to Jesus’. Nearly 30 years later, I can remember the bleak terror that often gripped me. I could not tell anyone such was the fear of it being true and irrevocable.

After completing a music degree and teacher training, I worked for an evangelical Christian charity. We performed in a Christian band and taught RE lessons around schools in tough areas. Despite actually doing some very worthwhile work in challenging communities, behind the scenes, it was really important that our behaviour would not cause a ‘stumbling block’ to unbelievers because we were personally accountable if we were to dissuade them from the faith. Acting on a frantic sense of ‘time running out’, I allowed myself to be placed in numerous dangerous situations in the name of saving souls. I used to worry morbidly about random strangers that I should be preaching to. What if I was their only chance for salvation?

I was also required to sign a contract forbidding any physical relationship or even being alone in the same room as my boyfriend. We were basically being groomed for marriage but didn’t get to know each other properly. (Having already been asked to make a vow of chastity at the age of about 15 at a youth event, I didn’t really need to sign anything!) The marriage failed in a very traumatic divorce and I have since found out that we were not the only young Christian couple to have encountered marital problems.

Despite the fear and doubts, faith and the quiet presence of the Divine (the universal Christ) has been a strength to me and given me hope in the hard times although I am still working out what faith now means to me. I still think of myself as a Christian but my understanding of faith and God has been blown apart in recent years and I want to distance myself from exclusionist views and be free from fear and prejudice.

I have several vivid mental images about being taken into a green space of freedom, seeds being planted, moving through seasons and Spring approaching and being released from a cage. I believe these are all gifts of Love to me from God.

Learning about the Enneagram has been a very helpful tool for me to make sense of the past. What if I had known about my type-tendency towards fear, loyalty and self-doubt? Could I have loosened those patterns and found my inner wisdom at a younger age? What if I had also been aware of the growth possible through my Enneagram type: courage and faith, accepting and making peace with mystery and living with difficult questions? Would it have changed the path I followed? This is another unknown but narrative Enneagram work has helped me to accept and tell my story with curiosity and self-compassion. This is the crux of what I wish to offer others through my Enneagram teaching, coaching and writing.

The same Father-God who was present in childhood, still walks alongside me today – although I often relate to Her as Mother-God. I still want to follow The Way of Jesus but without being ‘religious’ or afraid.

Recently, I have rekindled my violin solo performing – just for fun. I have found huge meaning, emotional expression and connection through my music in a way that I didn’t when I was younger.

By joining the ‘Nomads’ tribe, I have realised that there are many of us walking this path although we do not always see each other.

Shalom friends.

– Helen Calder

We can get quite far through a story thinking one thing, to then find out something significant which reinterprets and makes sense of everything that has gone before.

I came to an evangelical expression of faith in 1986 aged 13. Full of zeal, I’d avidly read scripture daily, pray, and be prepared to use Scripture with force in discussion with anyone who needed a dose of Biblical literalism.

In 1992 I began an honours degree in theology, leaving after the first year due to crippling depression and suicidal ideation. I count that year in an evangelical college as the most soul crushing time of my life.

Image used with permission

In 1996 I picked up my degree in theology. I did really well in some areas. Wanting to be relevant with my faith, and plumb an interest in others’ belief in extra-terrestrial life and associated phenomena, with The X-Files at peak interest, and as the year 2000 approached, I wrote my final dissertation concerning a spectrum of Christian faith responses.

During a placement to a large Pentecostal church, I’d happily talk about that dissertation. Most Christian faith responses to the possibility of extra-terrestrial life feel threatened by it. Phenomena are because of demons. They’ve become technologically savvy to lead people away from Jesus. Maybe demons are creating a hybrid race with humans – like the Nephilim before Noah’s Flood (in their thinking). Other Christians take a social science, or astronomically informed response to these phenomena and ruminations.

It ought not have been a surprise then, that my report from the placement had the phrase “I am very concerned with Tim’s interest in Aliens”. My supervisor for the thesis tried to throw me off that line of study, but I appealed and went on to get different supervisors. I received a top mark for the dissertation, some speaking invites, and an afternoon phone-in discussion on UK Christian radio.

I find it hard to deliberately alienate people from me. During that placement I gave the sermon one Sunday morning. I preached on the letter to Philemon and encouragement. The minister picked me up on “not being challenging enough” – that is, not making people feel bad about the sin in their lives and where they needed to repent.

During that final year of college, there had been a marked shift in worship and theology. The services became noisier. “Name it and claim it”, “believe it and receive it” prosperity doctrine became much more central. And I found myself slipping out of services most weeks, soon after they began, feeling estranged.

While a farcical and unsuccessful interview for ministry left me distressed, I’d begun to appreciate a more mellow expression of faith, finding strong resonance in the Celtic Christian approach. After the degree I went to an Anglican Church, having had placements there, and applied for ministry.

To prepare for my possible acceptance for ministerial training, I had an interview at another college. When asked what my gifts were, I floored the gentle older faculty member, when I replied “I don’t have any”.

September 1999 I attended a selection conference. It felt very intense, spending a lot of time with others, having to be on my very best behaviour, unless alone. A range of interviews, some feeling adversarial. Psychometric tests left me strangely distressed. Mealtimes in which I was the only one who dined with my fork not being upside down. When the debrief came in via the bishop, it gave a tsunami of self loathing, a feeling of rejection on an ontological level that washed away any perceived sense of vocation. “What a fraud”. I couldn’t go to church and ceased expression of faith for about six years.

Eventually I came to a place of being prepared to go to church again. Eventually applying for non-stipendiary ministry, I went before a selection panel. I remember my long awkward silences. A sense of fraud overwhelmed me, that if I were to push my conviction of a ministerial vocation, that it would constitute manipulation. At that point, I had over 10 years of placements, a practice-based degree and completed the Foundations for Ministry Course.  Again unsuccessful, any expression of faith imploded. The church couldn’t accommodate me anywhere. Anything and everything was not good enough.

In terms of faith, since then, I’ve stumbled like, well, a Nomad, in the post-Christendom wilderness, with some resonance to the Person and Teachings of Jesus, looking for signs of hope, but incredibly wary of getting involved following further trauma and trolling in what I’d believed to be a safe online space for Christians who had a hunger for a different approach.

In that time, the blessing of having three autistic children eventually pointed the finger to me considering, and then knowing, that I am also autistic.

I’ve had struggles with relationships and employment, all consistent with the not-so-good aspects of being autistic. After nearly four years on a waiting list for assessment, it came in February 2022. With a six hour session and nearly two hours for my mother about my early years, I received a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Condition (not Disorder, not Asperger’s, not High-Functioning). I don’t have autism, I am autistic. It defines everything I am. It is a completely different operating system.

What is Autism? The medical literature describes it as difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination. What does that actually mean?

Autism seems to be popularly (mis)understood as being about deficits. It’s actually more about difference. It might be a deficit, or it might be a surplus, on a wide range of sensory, social and communication factors, with strengths, and also challenges. Autism accounts for my strengths (I am aware of them, now, thankfully), and challenges.

I can have a sense of being a fraud, never good enough, not deserving of things – which leads to self-sabotage. A hint or possibility of being rejected (relationships, work, social situations) gives a tsunami of self loathing and desire to be alone. How much more so when it actually happens. All these inform my struggles with faith and vocation.

A common incorrect assumption about autistics is that we have no or little empathy. When you get to know most autistics, the fader-volume for empathy is actually turned up louder than most people. The best way to deal with too loud an input is to turn down the master output and act as if there isn’t an issue. But something will give at some point, somewhere.

I am very empathetic. As a result, I give customer service second-to-none in employment. I’ve taken some family funerals which have been appreciated for their sensitivity and consideration.

I am very good at organising and presenting information and content. I’ve won awards as a tour guide. I’ve done well in my degrees (honours in Theology, masters in TV Documentary Production). I’ve written a book. I’ve done local community radio which was well received.

I am only just scratching the surface here about faith and autism. We are not “all a bit autistic”. If you think someone “doesn’t look autistic”, well, what might you expect an autistic person to look like? No two are exactly the same.

We might have sung the line in church,  ”I’d just like to thank you for making me ME”. Lady Gaga brings that to a much wider application,

Whether life’s disabilities left you outcast, bullied, or teased

Rejoice and love yourself today

‘Cause, baby, you were born this way

Scripture points us to each of us being shaped from birth

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (New International Version) Psalm 139:14

Finally, a helpful quote from a politician advocating for better prospects for Autistics,

Autism isn’t a disease, shouldn’t be seen as a problem, in many cases it’s a gift; the human brain in it’s different permutations is an extraordinary thing, and people with autism have so much to offer.”

Robert Buckland MP, BBC News Podcast 9th December 2021.

– Tim Prevett

I grew up in the North-Eastern Industrial town of Hartlepool, I was a child of the 50s, just about at the end of food rationing after the War.

The early years were tumultuous, suffering three near-death experiences by the time I was Eight years of age. I think because of this I was very reclusive. I hated school, but loved the Summer Holidays, when I’d hide away and read Secret Seven books. I had a couple of friends who I’d see intermittently during the holidays, but really it was my own company that I desired.

In those early years, my Dad would tell me stories about his Army days, during WW2. When I look back, I see his influence on me now, as a writer. (He was in the 6th Airborne Division, 1st Battalion, The Royal Ulster Rifles and at aged Eighteen, he was catapulted into the War in March 1945, for Operation Varsity).

In my early teens I attended Confirmation Classes and was Confirmed into the Anglican Church, I think at the age of 14. I remember the Bishop praying for me and my body shaking. From this came a prayer, that if god existed and wasn’t just an inanimate object, but one I may be able to connect with and have a relationship with, then I was in!

Yes, desperately naïve, but I was in search of something deeper and more intimate. It’s interesting that ‘intimacy’ has always been my lodestar.

And then it came to pass, that at aged 17, my sister nagged me to go to church and ‘hear the gospel’. I resisted for a while, but then relented, hoping it would get her off my back. Yes, my second naivety!

I became a Christian and went to a Mission Hall church, which was very fundamentalist. It wasn’t long before I came into conflict with the church leadership and not because of any theological disagreement or sexual impropriety with the young girls at the church, but because I wanted to go to Greenbelt.

Let’s simplify this next bit otherwise I will give Tolstoy a run for his money, as far as number of words go.

I went to Greenbelt. Loved it. It sparked a love of the Arts in me and it was from that point on that my life’s direction was set. However, when I got back to my fundamentalist brothers and sisters, I was the target of their shenanigans. Secretly they had set up a church business meeting and when I got there, I found that I was the only item on the agenda.

Geoff was informed that he would be watched, to see if his life exhibited any signs of ‘satanic influences’. Eventually, I left, but it was very traumatic.

I moved on to various churches, unperturbed and feeling I was actually finding out more about god through the trouble and strife of it all and was determined to continue this journey.

I then, whilst still in Hartlepool, came across a Curate who was new to the town. I was just amazed that someone of this calibre was in my home town and was a Reformational Philosopher. (Funny how these things work, isn’t it?!)

And so, it’s here that the next shift occurs and I leave behind the barbs of fundamentalism, finding the fences way too narrowly placed and embraced what I perceived to be a more expansive worldview.

Richard Russell was his name. He started giving me books to read. No not American stuff like The Late Great Planet Earth, but Kant and Hegel. I would read this stuff and then ask a thousand questions about them. He then gave me a copy of Calvin Seerveld’s ‘Rainbows for the Fallen World’, HR Rookmaaker’s ‘Modern Art and the Death of a Culture’ along with a book by Herman Dooyeweerd called ‘Roots of Western Culture’.

Richard said to me, “You have a brain. Why don’t you use it?” It was a little after this that I left Hartlepool, with my wife Jeanette and a little bundle of joy, aged 15 months old, called Mark. I had applied to attend Bristol Polytechnic and was successful, I think due to a great reference from Richard.

I studied Art History, toured lots of Galleries in Europe and my heart was set on fire for the arts.

In Bristol we attended an Anglican Church with a very strong missionary outlook, save for, you guessed it, the Arts. When I spoke to the leaders about my calling, I was met with both doubt and suspicion, as well as the usual ‘give it up and find a proper job’, ‘if god was truly in it, you’d have been successful by now’ and lastly ‘it’s unbiblical for a man not to be the leader of his family and the main wage-earner’.

Gradually it wore me down, but not before I had started an Arts Mentoring Group in the City. This occurred after the leadership approached me as ‘the arts guy’, to help with an art student who was having problems at UWE, (Bower Ashton) who had been told that her ‘faith was inappropriate for a student at that college’. Yeah, Liberal Arts!

Through all of this, I had learnt the value of resilience and would not give up my work in the Arts. And so, after speaking at the Christian Union, the Mentoring Group started in earnest. In the end we had about 70 artists on the mailing list, of which 40 would turn up for a quarterly meeting we called the ‘Tree House’. Here, artists presented their work, including performance poetry, dance, live music and film.

It was during this period that I wrote four books about the arts and mentoring, along with three short films, one of which saw me and my DP go to Glendale, California, for a film festival.

The Mentoring lasted for 15 years. In the latter stages I was also an Arts Coordinator at another City Centre Church, but was sacked for not bringing enough money into the coffers. There’s that money thing again!

This led me to working as a writer full-time, thanks to Jeanette’s kindness and support. But I left the Anglican Church, pretty sick of having to defend myself against all sorts of negativity. I am now happy and churchless.

It was then that I began, what for me was another conversion into a more mystical faith, urged on by the likes of Rob Bell, Alexander Shaia, Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault. My worldview expanded again and this time I’m happy to say that I now have a greater sense of intimacy with the Divine and feel content in that, as I launch my first novel into the world, “0w1:believe”.

It turns out that politically I am now an Anarchist, for which thanks also goes to my study of Daoism and my understanding of Apocalyptic literature. I don’t see this as in opposition to the Scriptures, whatever that now means, but more of a complimentary development, which is probably the focus for another time.  

I’m of course open to your questions and have to say that I have found resilience and persistence to be the best gifts for an artist to have. Anyway, this is only half of the story…    

– Geoff Hall

I was raised a nominal Catholic in Texas, the ultra conservative Bible Belt of the U.S. I thought all I got from Catholicism was guilt and the legalism that I learned from things like needing to go to confession after sinning to avoid hell. Dipping a finger in the holy water and doing the sign of the cross at mass was a ritual that just seemed like simple unconsidered superstition. I learned that God was everywhere, though as a kid that just meant He was watching me from afar and saw when I sinned.

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I was always searching, pouring over the lyrics of my favourite music and flipping through novels seeking true meaning and real purpose of life. I hoped the military would send me to Japan where I had a vague curiosity and keenness about spirituality and eastern mysticism. I studied world religions, my favourite university course, but it didn’t connect with my heart or stir anything deep. I met an older colleague who was passionate about his Christian faith and the way he handled conflict with his young children spoke to me deeply and made an impression that I remember to this day. I don’t remember what he said about God or the Bible or salvation, but I wanted what I saw that he had in his family life. Sent to the Gulf with Desert Storm, I remember imagining myself coming to the end of myself and praying to become a Christian. I didn’t, but the stars in the desert night sky were unbelievable. I found a second hand book and thought I noticed a famous name on the cover so I gave it a read. I thought it was T. S. Elliot (poet, I couldn’t remember?) but the title also got my attention: ‘Mere Christianity’. C. S. Lewis’ passion and obvious intelligence gave me hope that giving my life to the Lord didn’t mean I had to turn off my brain. All I needed was a bold evangelistic colleague to challenge me as to why I wasn’t a Christian (and if I died today, was I sure I’d go to heaven?). I prayed the prayer and I knew my life would never be the same.

About then I was reassigned to England so I looked for my first church to really join properly. I found one that was charismatic, evangelistic, Bible based and had a love for the prophetic, equipping leaders, believing in people and planting churches. But what spoke to me the most was the first time I visited on a Sunday I saw some ‘dodgy looking youth’ sitting near the back with piercings and tattoos even though there were many ‘boring’ and ‘old middle class’ folks’ making up most of the congregation. I noticed they did a lot of singing at the start of every meeting so I came late to be in time for the preach but soon learned in the sermons about worship and its importance. I consumed everything that was being taught. I served enthusiastically and learned from as many people as I could. I wasn’t yet thirty and I loved that there were so many answers and so much confidence to be had in the black and white Bible interpretations for so many things in life. We had an evangelistic crusade in our area where a sermon touted the Bible as a handbook for life. It was so comforting to have so many answers but to this day I am glad that I was learning that the most important things were that God loves me (and everyone) and that grace is this mysterious and seemingly illogical and even unfair force of how God relates to us and how we can be with each other. As I participated in leadership training and absorbed as much as I could I tried to grasp forgiveness and servanthood and generosity, the concept of paradoxes appealed to me somewhere in the back of my mind. Verses mentioning that ‘the first shall be last’ and that we have to ‘lose our lives to find it’ appealed to me in ways that I didn’t hear about in sermons or read about in my Christian self help books. These were the seeds of mysticism that were always there but didn’t get cultivated. With hindsight I see the ‘move of the Holy Spirit’ and the ‘Toronto Blessing’ were mystical in their own way. We had leaders who were wise and not naive; they were hungry to meet God. They practised what they preached when it came to being open to meet God and follow and obey even beyond what we can understand. The vocabulary was His Spirit calling out to ours and the ‘Holy Spirit’s leading’ and ‘being still and knowing He is God’. My doubts and suspicion kept me from falling over when prayed for, but now I can see times like this, as well as closing our eyes and raising our hands in worship, as embodied ways of reaching to connect with the Divine in ways that surpassed understanding. These were my foundations and precursors to mysticism. Later practising experiencing God beyond my enlightenment influenced western brain became my practice, though it is still awkward and fumbly.

Helping start a church plant was the centre of my life (although my ever-loving wife kept me from being completely obsessed). We became a student church and I loved the experimentation, challenging the status quo, lack of hierarchy, openness, community and attempt to be authentic. The beginning of my deconstruction was Halloween. Growing up in the U.S.A it was a favourite holiday for kids that involved creativity (my parents made us some awesome costumes!) and community (kids excitedly walked ’round the neighbourhood that one evening of the year) and friendliness (neighbours asking who you are dressed up to be, complimenting you on your costume, sharing treats and enjoying the excitement that kids showed). I didn’t make waves, but I quietly allowed my kids to participate in this ‘evil Satanic ritual’ and I loved carving pumpkins and handing out sweets to neighbour kids and waving to their parents who stood at a distance as their little cuties chose their treats and answered my questions about who they were dressed up as.

For a while our church held together a community of people with vastly different beliefs, but we eventually were pulled apart by our differences, not quite able to find purpose that we could agree on or our identity in anything greater than how we expressed our beliefs. Another thing that bothered me when I wasn’t too busy to think about it was the concept of hell and the violence in the old testament. How could a God of all creation prefer the Israelites over other people who She created and loved equally?

The turning point of my spiritual evolution was through a dear friend of mine embracing her homosexuality. She was a gifted leader and I’ve always loved her humour and authentic vulnerable heart. This issue became personal. Our wise church family leader encouraged us to pray and study and reflect on where we stood on this challenging issue of sexuality in our culture and how our church would choose to respond and take a stand. One leader said he had to put aside his feelings to make the decision he thought was right, but another said he thinks his feelings are a part of how God speaks and leads. I agree and although I don’t have an airtight theology about sexuality and the church, I firmly believe that my role is to love and I will aim to welcome and challenge barriers that I believed were Biblical not that many years ago. I started seeing for the first time how simplistic and narrow some Bible verses had been applied without question to justify what didn’t seem loving to me at all.

The Catholicism I thought I had rejected completely was where I’d find some helpful meditation and my first mystical hero: Father Richard Rohr! Now the same omnipresent God who has been with me all my life, counted the hairs on my head, is near and cares so deeply, is even present in every person I meet, (even the cute cheeky robin in my garden and to some degree the blades of grass and weeds growing through the cracks in the path in our neighbourhood and the beautiful pattern of wood grain seen in our table where we eat). I feel inadequate in taking action, but I am convinced God has a special passion for the poor and our planet.

I now can again jog listening to my worship playlists from a few years ago without wincing when I hear lyrics about perfection, narrow views of the cross and salvation, and what seems a shallow tribalism that I embraced wholeheartedly a few decades ago. I am now a member of a church that has some similarities to the one I joined right after becoming a Christian. It’s impossible to compete with ‘the good old days’ but I am proud that we are a fellowship that isn’t just white and somehow we aren’t all middle class. I’m learning (slowly) to emphasise what I agree with in people and smile and not obsess about our differences. My passion that used to be for church has shifted away and into addiction recovery where I’ve learned from atheists and buddhist and gay members of my recovery community more about love and not ‘othering’. The evangelical church, still my family in a way, seems to be more focused on striving: the earnest and faithful becoming better Christians, serving God more, learning more about God, always working so others can join the hard work than I want to do. I sure did strive for more than 25 years but now I’m older and I am drawn more to try to abide in peace and enjoy rather than strive for unquestioned love. My faith grew in a great family of churches but I had no idea that Christianity was so diverse and contained so many traditions, practises and beliefs (even beyond substitutionary atonement!). Buddhism and addiction recovery has taught me to practice acceptance but I still find myself joining others praying when I am moved with compassion in our church small group or old friends from my first family of churches. So much of what I learned in church helps me with what feels like a calling in my recovery community. I am grateful that my experiences of God through the church help me to keep practising loving others (difficult) as I keep trying to love myself (even harder).

Being part of a nomad group that we started during lockdown is a very important community for me. I know I can believe anything, doubt anything, be honest and air my musings with a dear group of friends who have different but similar experiences of passionately loving God from the edges of the established church. It seems we share an experience of finding church not what it used to be and not quite what we need these days. I feel a less strong sense of belonging to the Christian community, but I feel a much larger sense of belonging to the human race. I’m not expecting mountaintop experiences with God like I used to but I’m finding Her in quiet moments in maybe a richer way: the swaying of branches in a tree viewed outside my window, the ever changing masterpiece which is a blue sky of clouds scrolling in front of me when I stop to notice, the lovely, goofy and magical lens through which children see the world. Almost thirty years after becoming a Christian I embrace what I still believe, and I love hearing anyone share about spirituality, the eternal, the mystical. But I have no desire to change anyone’s mind. I hope my map of the universe keeps changing for the better. If my sons (and other people I mentor) find that they can embrace a little bit more love, then I feel I am participating in the great commission.

– KC

One of my biggest regrets took place when I was 16, sitting in an all-boys tent at a Christian youth summer camp. It was one of those late-night deep chats with the camp leaders, where they coax out your angsty teenage struggles so that they can smooth them over with a healthy dose of conservative theology. Somehow, the discussion made its way to marriage roles (heterosexual marriage roles, that is) and the question of male headship. I say question; it was barely asked before almost everyone in the tent resoundingly answered in the affirmative. ‘I used to struggle with the idea,’ one of the older boys said. ‘But then I read a book about it and it makes sense to me now.’ The usual mental gymnastics ensued – ‘the husband is head of the wife, but Christ is head of the man, so really Christ is the head of the wife, just via the husband. Which is fine because, er… well it says so in the Bible’ – and I just sat there in awkward silence. I don’t believe for a second that if I had said something it would’ve made a great deal of difference. The power in that tent was very much on the side of male headship and a little protest from one of the youngest boys there wouldn’t have started a feminist revolution. But I still wish I’d made my values known regardless, to have not been complicit in my silence.

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Experiences like this were not uncommon at that time in my life. We had left the church I grew up in when I was 13, and a tentative deconstruction was beginning thanks to that experience and a growing exposure to progressive politics on the internet (I’m one of those rare young white men who has been made more left wing by the internet rather than the other way around). Most of the fundamentals of my charismatic evangelical faith were yet to be taken apart, but I was pretty sure women were equal to men and that affirming LGBTQ+ people was a good idea. This was enough to put me wildly out of step with the Christian communities I’d grown up in, and I hadn’t even began questioning hell or penal substitution yet. But I kept going to many Friday evening youth groups and summer camps with my old church because, well, many of my oldest friends were there. And frequently I’d find myself sitting uncomfortably through another ‘deep chat’ about how we have to love our gay friends but maintain that being gay wasn’t ‘God’s best for them’ (these youth leaders all claimed to have gay friends that they told this to; I’d be interested to hear the alleged friends’ sides of the story). The most I ever pushed back was the one time I asked if it was possible to be Christian and LGBTQ+ affirming. I received an emphatic ‘no’ and kept quiet for the rest of the evening.

I spent a surprisingly long time in this limbo state, continuing to go to charismatic evangelical church events as my own faith became less and less in line with what was preached at them. And I’m not convinced this was good for me. Although in my head I was picking apart the flaws of the theology – rejecting their bigoted social conservatism, their cruel and stressful model of salvation, their unaccountable power structures rife with abuse – I was still immersed in the environments where all of this was being enforced. And they are strange environments. The aforementioned late-night-deep-chats are the apotheoses of the irresponsible intimacy fostered in these places. They draw out your vulnerability in front of all your peers in order to decree the ‘Godly’ solution to your struggles, implicitly recruiting those peers you’ve just exposed your soul in front of as enforcers. The fear of communal shame, under the guise of ‘loving accountability’, is harnessed to keep you on the straight and narrow. In these spaces you are discouraged from trusting your own feelings – from listening to your own body’s attempts to communicate with you – and encouraged instead to surrender yourself to the judgement of the conservative evangelical social order, as enforced by your best friends.

I am white, male, straight and cisgender. I am exactly the kind of person the evangelical church is designed to benefit. I am hyper-aware of the fact that the kind of oppressive environments I’ve experienced are nothing compared to those whose identities the church privileges less, if not downright discriminates against. But there is also a particular insidiousness to growing up as a straight cisgender man in these environments: the offer of power. There’s an implicit bargain that, if you repeat what we want you to repeat – if you fit yourself into our patriarchal mould – you too can be like the youth pastors and worship leaders you idolise. And if you read one of our approved books and suppress your discomfort with male headship, then you get to be the most powerful person in your family simply because of your maleness. The great irony of evangelical Christianity is that for all its warnings against the temptations of ‘the world’, it maintains its patriarchal dominance through the constant temptation of power.

I have finally left these kind of church spaces for good. It took me too long and I am still working out the full extent of the impact they’ve had on me. Certainly, it has made me more suspicious of myself than I would like to be, more excessively self-conscious of my own faults while simultaneously less capable of doing anything about them; more likely to suppress those faults out of fear than to work through them honestly. When I was in the limbo state, I theoretically maintained an ardent opposition to the church as an institution while struggling to resist the pull of it. I believe this is because what the community churches claim to provide is actually – when done right – deeply important to me; when it isn’t a community shaped by abusive power structures to keep everybody in line but a space that truly expresses the all-embracing love of Jesus. And since leaving those old churches behind for ever, I have been extremely fortunate in finding new communities that are far closer to that ideal. Nomad is one of them. The beautiful chapel at my college is another. And the vibrantly inclusive church in the centre of my home city is the most recent space I’ve entered and felt the unconditional welcome I – and others who wouldn’t fit the evangelical mould – could never get in those old spaces. My hope is that everyone longing for the kind of community previous church experiences have failed to live up to can find it.

– Nathan Brooks

***Trigger warning. I discuss child sexual abuse in this post.

How could I suffer from writer’s block when I’m simply trying to share my own journey? I’ve started this post several times and have struggled with it. Here’s part of what I’ve figured out: the journey has been extremely difficult and long, it’s quite negative at times (and don’t we all want to make people smile and feel good?), and writing it out, though therapeutic, takes me back to all that has been – all that “was.” I think it is this word “was” that is the hope of all that is to come for so many of us. So here is what “was” along with the awesomeness of what “is.”

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I was born and raised in the home of an Independent Baptist Minister, who was so conservative, he was booted from the Southern Baptist Convention, here in the US. This was in the 1960’s, so the religious atmosphere was ripe for rebels for “God.” My father was one of these, and the authoritarian beliefs and dictates of the Independent Baptist Movement suited him well. I was raised to believe that the “man of God,” had the authority to tell us all how to live. He told us how to read and interpret the bible, which bible to read, how to dress, where to seek and not seek entertainment, where to seek work, etc. He also made sure to instruct women that their place was secondary. Women were created to support men and have their children. (Cult beliefs and practices, imo)

These beliefs were engrained. This false teaching also laid smooth groundwork for abusive behaviors from those in authority. At the age of 14, my youth pastor (I use that term sickeningly) began abusing me sexually. We would later uncover at least 10 other children he abused. This was deeply traumatic, as you can imagine.

Please let me note here that I was interviewed for an article on sexual abuse in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram News in 2018. The article is titled Spirit of Fear. It focuses on many women and men who were abused in the IFB – Independent Fundamental Baptists. I mention this because I am passionate about helping anyone – child or adult – who is or was suffering from any kind of abuse and I understand its lasting impact.

After college, my husband and I returned – yes returned – to work for my father. We worked there for 17 years before somehow beginning to realize the darkness and lies we had believed for such a long time. We began our journey out. Leaving meant losing everything we had known. It meant the loss of family, the loss of most friends, the loss of our livelihood, the loss of our children’s friends and support systems. It meant leaving everything behind and literally starting over in our 40’s.

This was a strange and wonderful time. Was it difficult? Absolutely! Did we struggle every day? Yes! Did I long for the familiar security I had known? Yes. I know that doesn’t sound wonderful, but…. We were finally free to explore who we really were. We were able to experience facets of the world that had been off limits our entire lives. We were able to gift our children with the freedom to be who they wanted to be. We were able to embrace and love people we had been taught to hate. The freedom that continues to emanate from all of this has been nothing short of amazing.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid 40’s that I realized my desperate need for therapy and was able to fully reject the belief that counseling was for the spiritually weak and that prayer and bible reading could “heal me.” Through eight years of therapy, I’ve found and continue to find peace with my past. I am figuring out how not to pass the trauma induced behaviors on to my children and grandchildren. I’m learning the safety of strong boundaries. I’m learning that I have the ability to make clear and beneficial decisions. It’s hard work, yes, but I can’t imagine the alternative. I was stagnant long enough!

My relationship to God and church is quite interesting. Honestly, at 59, I’m still figuring it out. And that’s okay! I have replaced Beth Moore with Barbara Brown Taylor and Kristin Kobes Du Mez. I’ve replaced Rick Warren with Richard Rohr. I meditate daily and do all I can to save this awesome planet.

My world view has broadened extensively. My acceptance of all religions, theologies, and philosophies, has moved me into a place of respect and legitimate inquiry. My motives for giving to and loving my neighbor has shifted. I’m kind because to me, it’s right to be kind, not because I need to wriggle my way into their lives to help save them from hell.

 As convoluted and excruciating as this process has been, I must say that it has been strengthening and endearing. I would never wish it on anyone, yet, I’d never want to “not” learn and grow through it, as I have.

In this paradox, I’ve found a beautiful peace. I don’t have to have everything figured out. I don’t have to have all of the answers to all of the questions. I don’t have to have a skewed motive in reaching out in kindness to my neighbor, and showing love to all – regardless of who they are and what they believe. Tolerance has become a friend instead of an enemy. I don’t have to fit into someone’s label of who or what I am. I don’t understand “God” and that’s okay. This is where I am in the journey; it is fulfilling; it is often mind-boggling, and it continues…

I am so grateful to those involved in the Nomad Podcast! You have been the gateway to my exposure in much of this new way of “being.” You have provided a wide spectrum of incredible people, beliefs and views. You have introduced me to those I would never have found on my own. These souls are helping to shape who I am becoming and are assisting in my shedding of the “me” I am leaving behind.  For that, I’m forever grateful! Deep love and well wishes to all who are on this journey.

– Mindy Woosley

Although I would date the beginning of my deconstruction from around 5 years ago, in reality it probably began over a decade before. 

I didn’t grow up in a Christian home as such but had a Christian Granny who was definitely an influence. My teenage years were far from happy ones but involvement in Christian camps and events gave me a sense of belonging that I struggled to find elsewhere and the desire to fit into their worldview fuelled what I believed (I realised this on reflection, but then it was just life to me). I continued in the same vain for some years. 

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In my mid 20s I committed the cardinal sin of falling in love with a someone who wasn’t a Christian and although many were supportive some saw my boyfriend less as a person and more as a conversation project. The actions of some really put him off and also really hurt me, but I clung on. I discovered the likes of Rob Bell and Brian McLaren around this time and spent many years doing the whole both/and rather than either/or. 

The relationship ended and I doubled down on my faith again. I reengaged with Purity Culture, as it is in the UK, but chose to sit under a lot of more extreme teaching from the States. As a result I spent most of my 30s miserable and full of shame over my past choices. I was single and longing to not only be married but be a mum. It was made more painful by the fact I am a midwife, so I spent my life watching others get my dream. I kept being told to wait for the one and that it would come from where I couldn’t see. 

During this time I also burnt myself out serving in my Church and battled what I now realise was high functioning depression, but I kept hearing the message that I’d feel better when I’d sorted “my stuff”. Being caught up in a fairly Charismatic church meant I sat under a culture that enabled people I trusted to pray things over me that were deeply harmful and too often I felt like I was totally exposed to those who were seen to be highly prophetic. 

I pursued experiences and the Charismatic in the hope to have a moment where in a flash everything would change, but I became more and more weary as it didn’t. I did in those times discover the teachings of the Fatherheart movement and this still brings comfort now. 

5 years ago I was burnt out and I took myself off to Mozambique to attend IRIS ministries Harvest School. This was where the wheels quite unexpectedly started to come off. 

I could write so much about that summer but in short I sat listening to teaching about the overwhelming love of God but also about the eternal conscious torment of hell that left me fundamentally questioning God’s Character, even though I had for years not even held that view of Hell. But I felt it was under this theology that I had seen the most moves of God, as I recognised them. And again some of the things said there were incredibly damaging to me. 

I came home with no answers as to what to do next (I had spent the summer asking, but God although seemingly saying a lot, never said anything I needed). 

That Autumn the Trump election campaign was in full swing and seeing Christians sing his praises and support him left me feeling embarrassed to even call myself a Christian. 

With the wheels coming off my faith and going back to a job I hated left me hopeless and depressed. It was the closest to wanting my life to end I’ve ever been. I would say that if this is my life, I don’t want it. 

Going to church was painful and I opted out more and more and since I worked a lot of weekends my not going wasn’t noticed. I felt I couldn’t discuss where I was theologically as I didn’t want to be fixed or misunderstood or rejected for my beliefs. I was scared I would be lonely as all my friends were in church and I had no energy to really get involved in anything else. I felt pretty trapped in my life. 

I eventually gathered the courage to see both my doctor and seek counselling. For me I sought out a Christian counsellor (although properly accredited) as I felt so much of my struggle was wrapped up in my faith I needed them to understand that bit of my life without me having to explain it. I lucked out with a hugely empathetic counsellor who was also in a similar place theologically.  

I was able to throw off the shame and embrace who I was, not who people wanted me to be and not care so much what others thought. At this time I transitioned to a different job that was hugely rewarding. 

I continued to go to church but entirely disengaged from the teaching and only craving the community. 

Lockdown forced me to face the fact it was time to move on from the Church I went to as taking the social aspect away left nothing there anymore. Released from the need to be someone I wasn’t I more and more embraced who I was becoming and accepted that I didn’t have and didn’t need to have all the answers. The friends that were true friends have stuck around and those that were just church pals have drifted away. 

I still call myself a Christian but one in a very different theological place that feels more akin to the character of God I encountered in the years where I was unhindered by the myriad of questions that come with that now. I still feel in transition and still not sure where I will land, if I will ever land, but I am ok with that. I find myself lately feeling the grief of things I have lost. I was a worshipper and heavily involved in worship but so many songs now are laced with the church from which they originated and I can’t sing them without getting angry or sad. I think the loss of this is the most grief I feel as it was the way I connected with God and the way I expressed how I felt about him. I stumbled upon the UK Blessing from lockdown last year and found myself weeping over something I missed so dearly but not sure how I would ever find a way to engage with. 

The happy place I am in now is with someone I love and can share life with, and with the current tatters of a faith I no longer understand but patiently try to explain and work out. We have moved to a lovely area with loads to do and I definitely feel I don’t need church to fill a void that was there before. I plan to use the extra time to be more healthy in my lifestyle both physically, emotionally and spiritually and don’t plan to burn myself out serving again. 

As restrictions ease we plan to try and find a church and that currently is causing me some anxiety that I will either not fit theologically or am not accepted for what I currently believe. It’s as uncomfortable as all the questions but I’m learning to accept the discomfort and embrace where it takes me. I no longer care what other Christians think about what I believe, but at the same time find great comfort when I find I am not alone in my thinking. 

I’m still a work in progress and probably will be for the rest of my life, but that’s ok. 

– Gillian Crossley

In 2006, when I was in my middle-20s, I wrote a short article for RELEVANT magazine titled “Why I am not an Emergent Christian.” In retrospect, I don’t think I understood much about the Emergent Church movement that was rushing through my Evangelical communities. What I did know was that most of my friends in the Seattle area were abandoning their smaller local churches in favor of the cooler, edgier, and supposedly “more authentic” Mars Hill church, pastored by Mark Driscoll. I felt the allure of Mars Hill, too, but I was also keenly aware of the way that my multigenerational, family church was being hollowed out as most of my peers left.

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In the article, I made the case for seeing the church as a dysfunctional family (my analogy was the family from Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums). Even though we had problems, I argued, people should remain committed to small, local, multigenerational churches instead of moving to more attractive, trendier churches. I suggested that a church family, like a biological family, was never meant to be “perfect,” but that it was held together by the willingness of imperfect people to remain together, through good and bad. I’m still glad that I never went to Mars Hill—now more than ever—but my thoughts on church, family, and community have become much more complicated.

My homespun apologetics for sticking with a church no matter what were just one small part of my larger embrace of Christian apologetics. As a lifelong pastor’s kid and missionary kid, I was prepared from an early age to know the Bible inside and out, to understand not just key themes of the Christian narrative but niche trivia (e.g., “Who is the left-handed judge in Judges 3? Ehud, of course!”) and the intricacies of a distinctively dispensational theology. Sure, I had questions or doubts; and whenever I did, I just studied more and more in order to shore up a rational defense of what I had been taught and what I believed.

As I moved through university and then through graduate school, in pursuit of a PhD in early-nineteenth century English literature, I embraced philosophy, history, and poststructural linguistics. At the same time, I remained committed to my small local church, teaching Sunday school classes on the literary elements of the Bible, regularly helping lead in music ministry, and serving for six years as an elder. During this time, my commitment to intellectual rigor in my academic work made it increasingly difficult for me to ignore the fissures that were opening up in my belief structures, and this sense of cognitive dissonance made me feel like I was living two lives at once. One felt intellectually honest, while the other was driven by “faith” and “trust” and cautioned me against “leaning on my own understanding.”

The first real crack opened up shortly after I finished my doctorate when, all of a sudden, I could no longer read the first three chapters of Genesis. I could not maintain the cognitive dissonance any longer. The framework I had been given told me that if I couldn’t read Genesis literally, then the whole Bible was drawn into question. If I dismissed the “first Adam,” then I might as well dismiss Jesus as the “new Adam,” and so on. I have heard others describe similar efforts to grapple with Genesis specifically, and the Bible more broadly, as extremely lonely. I felt that loneliness, too. Suddenly, the church that had felt like a family to me felt like a place of isolation, like I was carrying a secret that I couldn’t talk to anyone about. I imagined that letting people know about the conflict churning inside of me would (at best) raise eyebrows or (at worst) ostracize me as someone who had capitulated to “the secular culture.”

The story feels so familiar, especially in deconstructive circles, that it almost sounds cliché when I look back over it. What I do not hear people talk about as much is the deep feeling of shame that came along with this process. The part of myself that valued intellectual honesty criticized the part of me that was trying to hold on to a rigid belief structure grounded in certainty. The part of myself that valued belief and a deep commitment to my faith community criticized the part of me that would dare question those beliefs and jeopardize my place in that community. In light of my earlier apologetic efforts, I felt like a hypocrite and a failure. Both sides of myself would tell the other side that it was worthless, the source of my own problems. A lot of the time, I just wished that I could disappear—from my church, from my friends, and from myself. At the same time, I longed to be seen, to feel like I wasn’t alone, but I just didn’t know how or where to find that anymore.

It would be misleading to say that those feelings have gone away. Sometimes they are with me more strongly than others. The isolation of lockdowns mixed with the apocalyptic nature of American politics over the past five-plus years has been as disorienting as it has been reorienting. It has not been easy reconciling the divisions within me, and I have a hard time knowing how to trust myself anymore. Those who know me see me as a thoughtful and engaging conversationalist on all kinds of subjects. My students see me as a caring, enthusiastic, and energetic professor who can make early-nineteenth-century poetry come alive (no easy task). But it is difficult for me to see myself as any of those things, to trust myself to be myself.

So, while I used to put my effort into defending systems and tracing grand narratives, I’ve learned to find hope in places that don’t fit into the boxes that I’ve built and that have been built for me—places that I feel allow me to exist as I am. For the past year, the practice of centering prayer has given me permission to sit in mindful silence without worrying about having the right language for prayer or intellectualizing my way through things. The concept of David Benjamin Blower’s “nah-box” has given me permission to hold on to beliefs that bring life while freely discarding ideas that don’t work any longer. Therapy has been hard but helpful for unravelling those narratives that have told me that I am worthless unless I do or believe x, y, or z properly. Perhaps most surprisingly, I’ve found an odd sense of community teaching at an ecumenical Christian university that has given me an academic home while allowing me to move between many different streams of Christianity. I have found refreshment through engaging with diverse theologies that decenter me and my own need to provide answers.

Self-acceptance has always been difficult for me. I used to think the best solution was to find better answers so I could be sure that I was doing things the “right” way. Now I’m practicing being more generous, towards others and towards myself, as I learn to not know.

– Traynor Hansen

“So, Nikki – tell us something of the faith you inherited”. I can hear the Nomad question. Well, values, not faith. That’s what I inherited. My parents were fairly politically orientated. Our family of four would have mealtimes where everyone talked at once and we put the world to rights. I knew my parents loved me unconditionally. Always. Still do. I grew up with a distinct sense that not everyone has an equal start in life, we should help the disadvantaged and generally be kind and compassionate. My parents are the kind of people that others are drawn to and I always wanted to be like my Mum when I grew up – genuine, always herself, in no way false, generous and warm. After ‘O’ Levels, a move to another area sent me sideways emotionally, and when I suffered a severe depressive episode, this seemed unattainable.

Image used with permission

Depression can make you fairly self-absorbed. But it is part of the illness. Long story short……I was invited to a small Methodist church by a girl I met at my new school (lots of old ladies singing out of tune is what I remember!) and when I came out of my depression I had no clue what these church going folk believed. I ‘researched it’ and ‘prayed the prayer’, and felt overwhelmed by the freedom that I was loved unconditionally by God, but also explaining my perceived ‘selfishness’ and lack of ability to be as giving as my parents to be as a result of my ‘sin’ and hence requiring the Holy Spirit to be ‘better’. I was 17.

Fast forward through University, I met my now husband of 25 years through the Christian Union and embraced evangelical Christianity in a way that will be familiar and fairly unremarkable to many in this Nomad community. I maintained a good relationship with my parents, though there was sometimes a nagging feeling that they needed ‘saving’, and I honestly believed that would never happen. They became humanists, my Dad an atheist, and continued to maintain excellent values that I shared on so many levels.

My work professionally in the mental health field over many years, I think is key to a gradual feeling as I went along on a Sunday that so many of the Christian clichés seemed hollow, and I struggled more and more to reconcile the simplistic and ‘neat’ answers to everything, with the pain, brokenness and general struggles of real life, that I encountered in peoples’ lives on a daily basis. I felt embarrassed by the evangelical message and could never imagine ‘selling’ it to any of these ‘real people’, just as I never believed my parents would ever ‘buy it’. About 8 years ago, I was struck by the strong and intrusive thought regularly “What if my parents have been right all along?” I framed it as ‘doubt’, read a book on doubt, talked about doubt and tried to get rid of it and fit back into the evangelical mould. And never quite managed it fully. Moving from adult mental health services, to work with young people in mental health crisis, just made me feel more disillusioned with church, as I was exposed to so many situations in which children and young people were in non-validating environments. As I began to understand more about attachment difficulties it became implausible to me that they should have to jump through theological hoops to be safe in the arms of God, when the very concept of trusting anyone would be so challenging for them. They just needed loving. I was also deeply troubled by the notion that only those who had “prayed the prayer” were destined for eternal joy, and the rest of humankind doomed, when I saw so much good in my family, colleagues and other people I met who were supposedly not in the club.

During the autumn of 2018, through connections with a couple of friends who I felt able to spiritually question things with, in a way that challenged the evangelical mindset, I was thankfully introduced to a whole world of different reading and podcast ‘material’ and online community. A blessed relief, I can tell you! Looking back on something I wrote during 2019, this experience in the clinic where I worked at the time, was a profound and significant experience that I think sums up from where things have continued to flow in a hopeful and positive way:

“I’m sat in the group room with four colleagues on a conference call to the Tavistock Gender Identity Development Service. We talk about chest bindings and whether there are risks to physical health and development; factors to be considered in deciding if and when a young person should take hormone suppressors.  I am struck by the sensitivity to the unique experience of each young person, as well the complexities of family life when a young person is considering transitioning to the opposite gender. The compassion in the room, and in London, is almost palpable: a deep desire to connect with these beautiful people, surely made in God’s image and wholly and unconditionally loved.  I am aware that my colleagues have no notion of a Christian approach to spirituality, and in fact I have no idea what their take is on spirituality and faith in general. Certainly evangelistic judgements, from certain circles of organised religion, have condemned and alienated these beautiful young people who we are here to support and care for. And yet, at this moment, I see clearly that no one group has a monopoly on compassion. If God is good and loving, I sense He is filling the room, because the goodness and love is almost oozing out of the door. Whether they recognise it or not, He has to be found in every monumental effort of theirs to understand the experience of each  young person and reach out to guide and support them, and their families, through the myriad of questions, uncertainties and anxiety. This is a manifestation of a God of diversity at its best, and I feel more at peace and at one with my environment than I have in a long time.”

So, where am I now and what have a I learned? I feel like I have almost come full circle and returned to my solid roots and what was modelled to me in terms of open-heartedness and a passion for equality, with a deep desire to connect in a real and genuine way with the uniqueness of another person, without agenda. Of course, this Jesus stuff got thrown in along the way, and in many ways over-complicated the simple call to love people. But it does mean there is a rich spiritual thread running through my life, though it is more about values and relationships these days. There has perhaps been a synthesis of the best bits of the different worlds I have inhabited, both personally and professionally. And today, through feeling more able than ever before to question everything, spot an assumption a mile off and challenge it in a curious, non-confrontational kind of way (well, I try!) I am trying to walk a path that sees people in a holistic and complete way. There is no sense of superiority: it’s important that “the least shall be first”, as we try to see the good in others, and mutually support and build each other up. In reaching a place where I am totally at peace with a values-based way of relating that puts loving, affirming relationships and connection before theological tick boxes, my marriage is also spiritually more freeing. It is no longer threatened by differences of opinion or the unique and distinct spiritual paths that my husband and I find ourselves on. There is always growth for both of us, and mutual respect.

Where I see compassion, I celebrate it – for no-one has a monopoly on that. Let us love in unity with all of society. And let me give my parents long, lingering hugs when this darn pandemic subsides. They have done me so much good!

– Nikki Vesey

I grew up in a working-class household on an estate in Essex and spirituality and faith were just not part of my general thoughts or experience. This was mostly because my childhood was traumatic and at times emotionally abusive and neglectful and this led to me having a severe eating disorder from the age of 12. By 17 my Bulimia was out of control and my mental health was failing and I began to have thoughts about ending my life. It was in this backdrop that I began calling out to God for help.   

One night in particular, I prayed in desperation to be given a sign that God was real to give me hope and a reason to carry on. I asked for a cross to be put in a patch of light coming from the street lights outside. I prayed with everything I had but nothing happened and I sobbed myself to sleep.

The next day my eye caught something on the wardrobe door. I got up to see what it was. There, under the veneer as a natural part of the wood but going against the grain, there was a distinct cross. The position of this cross would have been in a patch of light the night before. I remember thinking, SHIT…….what the fuck do I do now?

I decided to go to my nearest church on the next Sunday. I then had what I can only describe as a mystical encounter with God. I had an experience of being completely enveloped in love. Love like a tsunami washing over and through me until I was drenched. I thought, if this is God, then I want to be part of it and I fully opened myself to that love.

At the end of the service I was so shocked by what happened that I turned to the person next to me and (unfamiliar with how you speak in church) said, “You are never going to believe what just fucking happened to me.” What I did not know then but came to realise in the coming days was that this love had set me free from my eating disorder. It had just gone. I cannot explain how incomprehensible this was to me because Bulimia utterly ruled my life and eating disorders are complex compulsive mental health conditions that you cannot just snap out of.

I threw myself into being a Christian, but right from the get-go I struggled with church. I was thrown into purity culture, feeling guilty and shameful about sin and encouraged to evangelise. I was told anyone who did not accept Jesus was going to hell and would suffer eternal torment. I simply could not believe that the love I encountered would ever let that happen. The church did not like my love of fantasy and science fiction and said it was evil and harmful and encouraged me to give up this part of myself. I saw intense prejudice towards people not of faith, different religions and sexual orientation, and anyone deemed sinful. The church was also deeply patriarchal and controlling. Yet at the same time I was told I was free of sin, had been forgiven and the Jesus I read about seemed to embody the love I had encountered despite the church not seeming to do so. It was very confusing but I was discouraged from questioning anything.

Over the next four years I became increasingly upset by the Christian Churches I attended. I witnessed and suffered, in my opinion, huge spiritual abuse in that time.  For a while I allowed this trauma to overshadow the amazing experience of love I had in the beginning. I increasingly rejected church and God and eventually stopped attending or being a practicing Christian.

However, the encounter with God’s love never left me. So slowly, I separated church from that experience and used it like a compass to look for love with that essence in the world. It was a painful, lonely path but gradually I began seeing this love in nature and in people and in creativity and realised it did not have to be connected to Christianity. At first it seemed like a trickle of things, but over the years this grew until it seemed like this love was everywhere, underpinning and threading through everything.  Over time my faith honed itself down to being very simple- God is love.

Free from church I could practice my faith any way I wanted and I began enjoying that freedom. A walk in the woods, paddling in the sea, being creative, singing and silence became regular spiritual practices.

I yearned however to find connection with others on a spiritual level to the point it became an ache. There had been times in church, despite all that troubled me there, when I had felt so connected with others and God’s love. It was a feeling of ‘oneness’ and I found myself increasingly missing this. Sometimes this would lead me back to Christian churches to try again but the experience was always eventually traumatic. I also tried Quaker services but found I needed more than silence.

Over time however, I began encountering some places of spiritual belonging especially, NOMAD, its Book Club, the Beloved Listener Lounge, The Clearing in the Forest, and the Evolving Faith Community. I also found a Spiritual Soul Friend to discuss things with. I came to realise many other people had issues with aspects of the Christian church and its doctrine. I realised that what I had been going through was a deconstruction and reconstructing of my faith. Then in around October 2020, I came to know about and began attending, a Unitarian Church online.

Most Unitarian churches in the UK are not affiliated to any religion and members can follow their own spiritual path. The community gathers to connect spiritually around central themes like love, and unity but there are no doctrines to follow. I had never heard of Unitarianism but many of the churches are hundreds of years old. There do appoint ministers which concerned me as I remain very sceptical of hierarchy in faith settings and I personally believe that we do not need spiritual leaders.

However, the minister there reassured me that his role was only to facilitate others to find their own spiritual path as a role of service. Each individual church and its members decide what happens in their services. At the church I attend, readings, poems, music and personal contributions can come from many different sources and religions. The congregation are actively included in services and our members are multi-generational and come from a variety of religions or none and have varied backgrounds. People of all genders, races and sexual orientation are made equally welcome. God is referred to with both male, female and gender neutral pronouns or simply as being love and I find all of this less triggering. At the first service I attended they played a song from the Lord of the Rings films and it made me cry to hear it because I realised that I would not need to reject parts of myself and the things I loved to be part of this community and that I had found a spiritual home.

I have had some profound moments of connecting with people spiritually in community now and it has made me realise that church does not have to be harmful or controlling and can take many forms and that we can come together spiritually in unity with God’s love with compassion for one another. I still have questions that I do not know the answers to spiritually yet, particularly why there is so much suffering and what Jesus is to me in my faith. But today, as I write to you, I feel at peace. I am content with where I am spiritually and with who I am right now.

This is What I Have Come to Know.

When doubt explodes through our chambers

Detonating foundations that were integral stones

Blasting us till we loose ourselves

And the shrapnel embeds in our soul

I have come to know

Only loves hands can find the wreckage

It is the only balm for wounds

Too deep for stitches

And the amputation of faith

Only love

When the wilderness echo’s with isolation

Aching with loneliness as you resound alone

And scorched sun evaporates hope

Till you thirst to dry bone

I have come to know

Only love can line the marrow

Or pull rain from empty skies

Making an oasis of your quarantine

And rivers to belonging

Only love

When death defies this truth

Bringing grief to hollow you to husk

And your walls fall in the crush of that pain

And even love lies with the loss in the rubble

I have come to know

Only further love can find the crawl space.

and dig the desperate debris with you

or lie in the dark long side you

Till the tomb opens

Only love

And I no longer care

If Jesus was born of a virgin

Or was God made man

Or lived without sin

Or died for us

Or rose again

Or if this was just a story

I have come to know

It does not matter

It only matters if love was there

Because this is the way

Only love

And when this does not seem enough

To cover the suffering despite this truth

Despite knowing there is nothing else

I am coming to know

Still, even here it remains all there can be

In answer

So, this is all I will hold the face of

And somehow, I will keep seeking it

Till it is enough

Till I know,

Only love.

– Susan Carleton

It was a beautiful fall day, and I was riding passenger seat in my new friend’s car. We had been spending the day getting to know each other and it seemed extra special, for making new friends as an adult doesn’t seem to happen that often, at least not in my life. A couple of months previous, I was speaking at the women’s retreat she was attending and we were lunching at the same table. The conversation found us sharing ministry stories and exchanging phone numbers for we realized we only lived a short 45 min drive from one another and had determined that this first conversation would not be our last.

Image used with permission

But on this day, as we were driving, still in the early stages of our friendship, she asked me a question that would ultimately help redirect my current course. Perhaps put a different way, this question would shape the next leg of my journey.  I didn’t know it at the time, even as I felt the shift inside me, but it would be instrumental in starting the reconstruction of my personal deconstruction of faith.

She was a pastor’s wife and worship leader on her own journey, asking her own questions, and trying to maintain all the expectations and equilibrium that her roles conferred upon her with grace. But we had gone deep, fast; bypassing all the regular get-to-know-you chit chat that usually accompanies budding relationships. Instead we had spent our hours talking about the nitty-gritty of ministry—the hurts, pains, and disappointments over the years; the internal changes we were experiencing and the questions we wanted to ask but felt we couldn’t, especially because we were in ministry; the struggles as women in the male dominated world of church leadership; and the cruelty of people that compounds pain when following God is hard enough on its own. Sure, we had moments of levity and shared some gut busting laughter, but we were two women that needed someone who could identify with life in ministry and with whom we could unload it all and we found that in each other. That deep-dive solidified our friendship.

The question came not as an indictment or inquisition of judgment but as a sincere quest for understanding. It came from an interest in trying to better understand this stranger in her car. It came in response to her own processing, thinking maybe I could help her answer a bit of the question for herself. It came as a nudge from the Divine asking me to take stock.

I had spent a good portion of that day expressing my disdain for things about faith, church, and Christian leadership I could no longer stomach. I had talked about the conflation of nationalism and evangelicalism and how parts of it reminded me of Nazi Germany. I talked about the ease of attending seeker sensitive churches, but how it was so exhausting to keep it all going from the inside. I questioned the on-going decline of church membership in the global west and the majority of church leaders to double-down on what was obviously not working already. And on and on it had gone until, she asked me, “So, what are you for?”

You can be sure I was quick with a response even if it was pithy and lacked sincerity. I had learned well the verse, “be prepared, in season and out, to always give an answer for the hope that you have,” and from all my talking earlier, I was not about to fall silent on this question. However, this question was different. This question had hooks, and it was lodged inside me; it wouldn’t let me go. I had been in a major deconstruction period for a number of years, even though I wouldn’t know that was happening or have language to describe it for another year or so. I was seriously dissecting my faith and my on-going role in religious life. I questioned my theological training, the role of Scripture, the reality of God, the activity of prayer, the Christian narrative I inherited, heaven and hell, the historicity of Christ, and whatever else struck this Enneagram 5 brain of mine. I not only took it all apart, but I inspected every piece, turning each one over and over again, looking for flaws, seeking understanding, and coming up with alternatives and/or solutions to the things that didn’t fit. My desire for authenticity, honesty, and continuity between thought and expression is what made me a good minister, but it would’ve made me a good lawyer, too, because that’s what I had been doing. I had been holding cultural Christianity up to the light and asking it to account for itself—it wasn’t faring well.

And now, here I was, being asked to give account by a friend who was, just hours earlier, a near stranger. I had spent so much time expressing what I was against; now I was being charged to say what I was for. What was I for? Why did I still care? Why not just throw in the towel and walk away? What kept me believing? Why was I still preaching even in the midst of my doubt and uncertainty? What was I for?

That was years ago, now, and I’ve thought about that question many times since then. It has become a sort of litmus for where I am in co-creating with God a world that looks more like heaven than hell. This is because there is a real danger in getting stuck in a cycle of negativity, a cycle that is focused on the failures of the system and what it isn’t rather than the possibilities of a better way forward and what could be. Having experienced my own deconstruction and in talking with others about their deconstruction journeys, while also seeing the cultural shift taking place at this unique time in history, I have no doubt that identifying and naming and speaking out about what a person is against is a normal part of the deconstruction process. But, I will not pretend that it concerns me, as someone who is for Christianity (as it can/could be), that many are stuck deconstructing and when they are finished, with nothing left to take apart, they will have no one to ask them, “What are you for?” It is in focusing on what is redemptive and good and noble and kind and beautiful and honest and better that we turn the corner from deconstructing to reconstructing. It is, perhaps, when we make peace with the past, being able to find the treasures among the trash that we find ourselves closer to the promised land rather than the place that at one time we felt constrained. The wilderness of the process becomes a place of seeing more clearly what is worth hanging onto, even if the treasures are a bit battered and marred from the journey.

So today, here are some things I’m for that give me hope and motivate me to keep moving forward. I’m for:

Jesus

Holding things and people and ideas loosely

Prayer, the silent, abiding kind

Embracing the many names and ways people refer to the Divine Mystery that I happen to most often refer to as God

A non-literal, historical, literary reading of Scripture

Midrash

Finding Church outside of the church

Grace

The with-ness of God

How to think, not necessarily what to think

Embracing the wisdom and practices of other faith traditions that bring us into contact with God and others

Asking better questions

Honoring all the emotions that come with being human

Seeing God in the dark and the light

Mystery

Doubt, uncertainty, and not knowing

By no means is this a comprehensive list, but these are things that shape my days in the present. I expect that this list will be written and rewritten many times over, and I’m here for it. Many of these things are a departure from my Christian upbringing and stand in contrast to my theological training, but I am thankful for those things that gave me a context from which to grow and change and evolve. And, I’m so very thankful for a friend that asked me a simple question, not knowing the profound impact it would have on me.

Wherever you’ve been? Wherever you are? Wherever you might find yourself in the future: What are you for?

– Amanda Oster

This morning I experienced a moment of pure joy. Stepping outside I spotted a sparrowhawk perched atop a tall tree. I watched her for several minutes, marvelling at the barred markings on her chest and reflecting on the privilege of seeing this elusive bird just metres from my front door. Suddenly she launched herself off the tree and swooped down in pursuit of a blackbird into a thicket. The scene erupted with avian alarm calls and about a dozen small birds shot out of the thicket as fast as their tiny wings could carry them.

Image used with permission

For me this was a moment of ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory’ just as much as moments of ecstasy experienced in worship. I say as much, but the reality is moments like this seem to me now more authentic, more physical, more rooted in my body and in the reality of being a flesh-and-blood creature in this world of wind and rain, grass and mud, skin and bones. In contrast, the moments of joy I spent 30 years chasing in charismatic worship and personal prayer times now seem disembodied, shallow, and disconnected from my authentic self.

I was born into evangelical Christianity. My father was a church pastor and life revolved around church meetings at the building and in our home. At university I attended Baptist then charismatic Anglican churches, finally settling in a charismatic ‘house church’ in which I was immersed for the best part of 30 years. I was all in for the vision and the community life, including street evangelism, wild worship meetings, a variety of ministry roles, and some wonderful friendships. My faith began to change shape a few years ago, slowly at first. A rejection of penal substitutionary atonement was followed by embracing of ‘hyper-grace’ and universal reconciliation, along with an egalitarian view of gender roles, and affirmation of LGBTQI+ people in the church.

These and other local issues led my wife and I to leave the charismatic church about 4 years ago which turned out to be more traumatic than we imagined. Realising we would not be happy in most evangelical or charismatic churches we were not sure where to turn and by chance started attending a nearby Greek Orthodox church. The pattern of liturgical worship was a relief after the performance orientated worship of the charismatic church. There is a strong sense of mystery and I found myself strangely at home participating in a liturgy which has been largely unchanged for nearly 1500 years.

However, it doesn’t end there. Through the pandemic my beliefs have continued to unravel. These days when I am pushed to describe my faith I would say something like Christian agnostic – or should that be agnostic Christian? I no longer believe the Bible is inerrant or infallible, rather that it is an ancient text recording the struggle of humans to comprehend the mystery of existence.  I have been immersed in Christianity since the cradle but it’s hard to say what I actually believe about God anymore, or even if I believe in any kind of God. Christianity has given me some of the best and the worst experiences of my life.  I’m currently pretty ambivalent about it but can’t quite bring myself to reject it. I’m stuck with one foot in Christianity and one foot in atheism and don’t quite know what to do with either. I find myself living with a deep sadness as I come to terms with what I have lost. There’s the loss of friendship and companionship of the church community. There’s the loss of the strong sense of an important purpose and working with others to achieve it. Running deeper is the loss of ultimate meaning, and finally there’s the loss or ‘death’ of God themself. The grief is very real and overwhelming at times. However, there’s also the relief of finally being able to be honest with myself, to think the unthinkable, to live in the present, to breath more freely. These days prayer looks like a walk down a muddy path beside a field, watching a family of buzzards soaring in the wind, or sitting quietly in silent meditation. But I still often recite the morning prayers of the orthodox church in front of an icon and sometimes it even brings me comfort.

Two things have been my companions on this journey. A few years ago, I discovered the Enneagram and attended a retreat run by Liz West. Learning about my type (9) I realised that for most of my life I have been suppressing what I really think and feel about things, instead deferring to and even merging with the emotions of those close to me and those in authority. I’m learning to give myself room to think and feel for myself, and to trying to express those things without getting frustrated or angry.

I’ve also started training as a therapeutic counsellor in the person-centred approach, which has given me plenty of opportunities for self-reflection. This has helped me to trust my own inner voice for direction rather than look outside to others or to God. In the past I sometimes found myself conflicted between what my inner voice was telling me and what I thought God was telling me. I am becoming more aware of the things that are most important to me and allowing myself time to enjoy them. I am more in tune with my emotions and my body, more able to recognise what they are trying to tell me. In learning to trust myself I sense I am beginning to live a less conflicted and more authentic life.

As I look for ‘signs of hope’ I am looking not for a better future, but for a better present, to develop the skills and attitudes to live each day more at one with what each moment brings. This unravelling of faith has been very difficult but at the same time feels like a natural progression into becoming more fully me. I am beginning to live more confidently as who I am now rather than trying to cling onto what I used to be or was striving to become. Currently I don’t know how important faith will be to me in the future, but for now I am ok with that.

– Andy Murden

I call myself a transitions nurse. I have been a nurse for many years, I worked labor and delivery for about 15 years, and worked hospice for four. So I do “comings” and “goings”. There are some very real similarities in the journeys that intrigue me. Certainly my outlook on life is affected by these experiences, which for the most part have been the experiences of others…I am involved with these huge moments in people’s lives in a very peripheral way. I like to think that I will be better at dying because of the work I have done with the dying…but I thought the same thing about birthing and I didn’t notice any significant upgrade of my aptitude in labor.

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Most of my wonder at the similarities between dying and birth are more about the course of labor that the mother experiences rather than how the infant experience the same process. The physical process of labor and the physical process of dying are uniquely akin. As an observer in both circumstances – I note that the questions asked are: “Is this going to hurt?” “How long will it take?” The resolutions are: “I am tired, I am done, I cannot do this anymore.” So just as I say I am a transitions nurse; I often feel that in Hospice – I am a midwife for the dying process in the same way that I midwife’d women through the labor process.

Labor and dying are both these huge physical processes. Those of us not doing the birthing or the dying are on the sidelines, watching, trying to help but disconnected, at least physically, from the process. We cannot interfere in the process without damaging it somehow. Because each situation is unique I cannot memorize a path, or way to get through it, that is definitively helpful for everyone. Everyone labors differently and everyone dies singularly. I can help you negotiate through the rocks in the river of your dying but I cannot paddle the boat for you. I can give you the tools you will need to maneuver, but you will have to determine their worth.

However, even though we cannot do the dying and birthing for another, emotional and spiritual support affects people. Support is what I think helps the most and in the end is it all we have to offer. We support the laboring woman by giving her a safe place to labor, by relieving her pain, by teaching her what is happening. We do the same for the dying. The place of safety is often the home, where one still has at least a semblance of control; but it can be in the hospital, depending on the circumstances. It isn’t a question of morality. One can birth “the right way” in the hospital or at home; and one can die “the right way” in either place also. Having a choice, a say in the matter, is hugely important. This is one way that my work has affected more humdrum aspects of my life. I tell my family my detailed plans for my death…even I, to whom birth and death has become an everyday thing, have superstitions surrounding my death that have made me hesitant to commit a plan to writing. However, a plan is imperative. Talking to one’s family makes all the decisions easier. Remember, as difficult as it is to make these decisions for oneself; families are even more conflicted. Giving your family the gift of knowing they are following your wishes may be your last legacy of love.

This brings us to another similarity in the process of birth and death, the plan versus reality. Just as one may not always get the planned for birth experience…one may not get the dying they wanted. There are no guarantees, not in birth, life or even in death with the one exception that we get one. In other words, we get a birth, we get a life and we get a death – but that is all we can count on. Maybe in death (like life) it isn’t what happens to you that matters most, it is how you handle it, how you react. These reactions make us who we are during life and we are who we are as we die.

I always felt that women tend to labor like they get angry; some introspective and quiet, some wildly vocal. People die within their personalities. It is infrequent that families comment that their loved one’s personality had radically changed as they died. The inner spark that makes us who we are doesn’t change much. Difficult people don’t tend to get less difficult, the accommodating are inclined to remain accommodating. An awareness of this may help, not only in dealing with loved ones who are dying, but also in thinking of our own deaths.

So in being a transitions nurse, a midwife of life and death, a travel guide for the dying; what have I learned? I have learned essentially that letting go is not the same as giving up. Committing our spirit to the next adventure is not an abandonment of the current one. Like many adventures, it is often harder on those who are left behind than the voyager himself. I know how I want to die; it isn’t so much that I want to die of this rather than that, it is that I want a smile on my face and love in my heart. I want to die excited about the next step…and that really, is how I want to live also. Maybe, just maybe, by living that way – I am practicing my dying.

– Kari Lane

I always hoped I wouldn’t be asked to ‘share my testimony’ at university Christian Union in the 90s, because I didn’t have an exceptional conversion story. And likewise, I don’t have an exceptional deconstruction story either.  But in nearly half a century on this planet, the truth is there are ten thousand stories I could tell – none spectacular, but stories nonetheless. So today, this is the story I’m telling.

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I grew up as a Christian, but in Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s that is an unremarkable observation to make about your upbringing. It seemed that everyone believed in God, and the only difference I could see was the Catholic or Protestant telling of the same Christian stories. And we were Anglicans, so that was already shady territory in Northern Irish Protestantism, making us as good as Catholic in the eyes of some. My early faith story is easy to tell – Sunday school, church, Bible stories and bedtime prayers. Certainty.

It was when I went to high school, that I first got asked the question that opened up my first existential fear: “Are you born again?” I honestly didn’t know the answer. I asked mum when I went home, and she said it was just the way some people talked about following Jesus, but it opened up a fear for me, that I wasn’t doing it right, that what I believed wasn’t enough, that I’d be found out. This fear would regularly return throughout teenage years, as friends got baptised (I got confirmed), went to beachside missions (I went to the beach, without the mission), ‘saved’ their boyfriend (I didn’t have a boyfriend to save) or berated Catholics (I secretly thought they were much cooler, seemed to have more fun and was pretty convinced they too were Christians).

I moved to Scotland at the age of 18 to go to university, and I suddenly had relative freedom from labels and judgements that I didn’t realise were there. I was involved in the Christian Union and also volunteered with the local Scripture Union doing schools work – in other words, a model Christian young person. But still, I had fear. I didn’t seem to have the evangelising gene, so when there was a ‘mission week’ at CU, I’d studiously avoid bringing any of my non-christian friends and often avoid going myself. If I believed in the Gospel (which I passionately did) why did I not want to actively convert others? I feared that one day I would be found out as a non-evangelising evangelical.

One summer during uni I lived and worked at an ecumenical centre for reconciliation on the border between the north and south of Ireland. That summer mucked up all my neat boxes! The people there were charismatic yet ecumenical, mystical yet deeply grounded and straight-talking. They were Catholic and Protestant and they were deeply connected to the Celtic roots of the land, which was intoxicating for me. And they shared their faith through love and healing, not through evangelising. I felt like here I could be myself and not feel afraid that I wasn’t enough.  When I think of ‘thin places’ in the Celtic tradition, where the divine comes close, I think of that place and that summer in my life.

I said that there are no blinding lights in my story, but in this retelling of my story, there is a pivotal moment that comes to mind.

After university I moved to Glasgow where I was part of an evangelical church.  I was on the organising committee for an arts event we were hosting. We had agreement from the church leadership that, unlike the previous event two years earlier, this one would be more outward reaching, to create opportunities for the church members to meet members of the local community, and vice versa.

I had the idea of running some poetry workshops, in the few weeks leading up to the event, culminating in a poetry reading and exhibition. We were excited that connecting people with their own story through poetry could open their hearts and minds to meaning and purpose. By this stage, I was very open to what that meant, and had long given up on the idea that people would have momentous conversions – certainly not through anything I organised! I had lined up a poet from the local community to run two workshops, and then on the weekend of the event, we would run a third workshop ourselves exploring the Psalms as poetic expression. I was really excited and felt I was being my authentic self in the church I belonged to; so when, one week before the first workshop, I was told that the elders were pulling the pin on the poetry workshops, I was devastated. The reason? The local poet I had enlisted to help wasn’t a Christian. I was livid. How could this church expect to ‘reach’ its local community’s hearts and souls, if they were not prepared to allow people to find their own voice and open up to their own story – without always having to have that with a serve of the gospel on the side? My non-evangelistic faith was suddenly in stark contrast to that of my church, and it felt personal.

Soon afterwards, through a chance encounter, I stumbled across a group of people who, for the past 20 years, had been living as a faith community outside church walls. I fell in love with them and their irreverent yet deeply Christ-filled ways, and I felt almost instantly caught between worlds. I went to my evangelical church on a Sunday and this community on a Monday, and felt like they were worlds apart. Around this time I also fell in love with Paul, my now husband, a man who does not profess to any faith, and yet it felt like I’d met my soulmate. It was he who observed that increasingly I was choosing my Monday nights over my Sunday mornings.

What stopped me making a decision sooner about church, even before I stumbled on this new community or before I met Paul, was my old friend fear. Fear of what my parents would say if I left church, fear that I was ‘falling away’, fear of the anxiety and concern I would cause so many others, fear that, as a (former) youth worker, I would drag others down with me who had seen me as some sort of Christian leader. Yet it became clear what the authentic me had to do, and so I left.

In 2009 Paul and I left Glasgow with our two-year old daughter, and moved to his hometown of Adelaide, in South Australia. I haven’t managed to replace that community on this side of the planet, but I think I always knew I wouldn’t.  But in the last ten years, I increasingly feel I have found genuine and honest spiritual connection in new ways, including within the Nomad community, for which I am hugely grateful.

Sometimes I wonder if I have just run away from the hard stuff. It is definitely easier to be fully myself when I am a long way from the place of my birth, from a culture where I find it hard to

explore faith and alternative forms of spiritual expression. One day I want to feel I can authentically be myself when I go home. But that’s not my story yet, and for today, the story I tell is this unfinished one, where, most days, I don’t fear anymore that I’ve got it wrong.

– Melanie Lambert

Never been married, never had children. The youngest of three, the bottom rank is where the novelty has worn off but the ‘fun’ never ends. I was ‘an excitable child’ so my namesake Roman Catholic Grandmother put it. Born in the latter part of the 70s there was still the unmistakable whiff of sexism not quite shifting under the strain of inequality. Being a sensitive child, both in observation and emotion, I knew there was unfairness, lots of it in the world and not just in my home. “It’s not FAIR!!” was my trademark line, as though this was supposed to demand people to see my point of view. It never worked. 

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I grew up in the countryside, in a small village on the borders of three counties in the Midlands, a quiet, boring village with three pubs and one bus that left at 7am and returned at 6pm. The village teens were to entertain themselves, and I had my best friend and some other school acquaintances living in the village. Luckily, I made friends easily, maybe not so good at keeping them, but I didn’t mind much being on my own. One girl and I went to the village church (Church of England) where my mother played the organ and I sang in the choir. 

I was confirmed at 13yrs, had a delightful vicar, John, with a distinctive shaky voice. He was patient and popular, even with my dad ‘the atheist’. Reverend John tutored me for my confirmation. I cannot forget his face after asking me a question, so gentle and kind. If only I knew what he was talking about. Somehow I made it to that first communion, there was a garden party and relatives, I didn’t know why. I felt better after going to church, lighter and fresher, it felt good just to sit for a while, but I still didn’t understand what for.

Fast forward through my secondary school (with smoking, drinking, detention and teachers with a “we-know-you-know-this” attitude) to my university career. I started university at 21yrs. By that time I had spent a ‘year-out’ in Australia to work and find myself. I wasn’t there. I chose to live in halls of residence. That year many life changing things happened, including becoming acquainted with heroin. University was ok, but the more I worked the less I was able to sleep or function. My head was always too excited, so heroin and I became good friends. A year later I came out of rehab. I tried something else. I attended the Christian club. We went on a weekend retreat where they talked about the bible and prayed, and I kept quiet, smoked outside and wondered why I was there. These Christians seemed so happy but in an unsustainable way, I didn’t get it. Life didn’t feel that easy for me. What didn’t I understand? I got a BSc in ‘science’ and went to France and studied for a masters ignoring this ‘imposter’ feeling. Luckily, I mostly understood my masters, there were no formal exams, just a written thesis. Phew!

With no real idea of what I should do next I just carried on along the academic trail, applying for a PhD at Oxford, went for an interview, and the professor, Tom, offered me the position “against his better judgement”. Are you kidding me? No I am not. We worked well together. Then I got ill and he got ill. He with cancer and me with a breakdown. I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder in February 2011. We both survived.

My research practices took me into worlds I knew precious few would ever experience. Tom loved looking down the microscope too and we used to joke about God as I imagine most atheists do, nothing more than jibing, but it did leave a nasty aftertaste like I’d bad-mouthed an old friend.

Oxford, albeit an impressive intellectual power-house, I found to be an honourable place, one couldn’t get away with being insincere. There was a night at college dinner (name-drop coming) I was seated next to Prof. John Lennox. I hadn’t a clue who he was and after the usual pleasantries he asked, “Do you believe in God?”. I said, “No”, to which he replied, “Perhaps it’s best not to ask ‘why believe’ but ‘why not believe’?” That question has hung around my head since. I laugh at how provincial the concept of God in that conversation is to me now. 

I passed my viva. I lived in Canada for a year doing research, laughed at church billboards, had another breakdown and was diagnosed with ADHD. Finally, I gave up my career in science and moved back to my home village. Had another breakdown and was told I’m ‘on the spectrum’. 

I spend a lot of time on my own, but never feel alone. 

I needed an anchor in my life, something to rely on, because without a job and recovering from PTSD from an abusive relationship, I needed stability and predictability that I knew the C of E could give, so I started going to a new local small church with my mum. The remainder of the week I went on walks and meditated, and tried to keep going. The meditation cleared my mind enough to hear God come through and I suddenly felt interested in life again.

With a new spiritual zeal the vicar suggested I try a ministry course, I did the course and made friends but I decided, even though I was ‘well-up for God’, the C of E really wasn’t my thing. Now, I read a lot of Rohr, to whom I am forever grateful for saying it’s ok to be a different sort of Christian. I laugh a lot more, listen to my own spiritual guides via personal prayer and meditation and look for God in all forms be it through walks, meditation, animals, art… Nomad. 

I always knew I wasn’t on my own but now I am actually conversing with ‘them’, God, and life is starting to make more sense.

– Jojo Scoble

Church on a Sunday morning meant singing, clapping, dancing, and watching the power men on stage fire bolts of spirit at people, knocking them to the floor. The service generally concluded with screaming, writhing exorcisms. It was always a sound that disturbed me, but at least it signaled it would soon be time for refreshments.

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At children’s camp when I was twelve there was an assembly line which manufactured spiritual experiences. As the children stood worshiping, a male church elder went from child to child, laying his hand on their foreheads. I always tried to avoid this kind of thing, but today I realised that I was standing in the line he was currently working on, and it was too late: he was already too close to make an unnoticed escape to the bathroom. When his hand finally made contact with my forehead, I felt only that it was warm. I waited for God to make me fall over backwards, but felt nothing except for increasing emotional pressure, with this man fervently praying in front of me and the pastor’s wife waiting from behind to catch me. After a tense few minutes I finally gave in and voluntarily fell backwards. As she lay me down the pastor’s wife whispered into my ear: “Well done, Kit, well done.”

A year or so later I was visiting an Anglican church with Mum. The service wasn’t charismatic, and so I wasn’t expecting anything dramatic to happen as I stood singing beside a pew during the worship. But suddenly I was regaining consciousness on the floor with no memory of falling, and no sensation of pain from hitting the pew or the ground. I felt only a vivid sense that I was enveloped by love and peace. A small group of adults had formed around me, and I heard one of them say to Mum “It’s reassuring, isn’t it?”

That question frames the struggles I went through as a young evangelical. The message of our church was the love of God and joy of salvation, but the service at the Anglican church was the only time I remember having any sense that this was real. My daily emotional reality was a constant state of anxiety over whether I was definitely still saved, and whether I was doing enough to save the people around me. I tried to suppress my fears of God, Satan, and hell, but they bubbled to the surface in nightmares of being left behind after the rapture, after which I would wake up and sit crying alone in my room.

But something clicked into place when I went to Leeds university, and the moments of reassurance started coming in more frequently. I went to small groups, prayer groups, prophetic sessions, camps and outreaches. I prayed and I fasted until I literally threw up. I would jump up and down, cry out in passion, and fall to my knees. I felt that being evangelical made me part of God’s special people, but I also felt that I was special among God’s people. Every time I did something that was regarded as spiritual, whether that was praying with a stranger, giving or receiving a prophetic word, or leading worship or Bible study, this egotistical belief was strengthened.

But in the final year of my degree in psychology, the tower came tumbling down. Thanks in part to a module on social constructionism, I came to the conclusion that three of the beliefs I had inherited were incorrect. The first was condemnation of homosexuality. I came to realise how sexual identity is a core part of who we are rather than an optional extra that we can choose, like the flavour of an ice cream. The idea of “love the sinner hate the sin” meant trying to eliminate an essential part of a person, and this wasn’t loving. The second was the doctrine of eternal hell as punishment for everyone who hasn’t made the right contract with Jesus. The third was how the Bible could possibly be the inerrant and inspired word of God when it contains so much divinely-sanctioned violence.

During this questioning I felt unsure but hopeful. I read Dave Tomlinson’s The Post-Evangelical and saw that I wasn’t alone, that there was already a path beyond my inherited faith that others had walked before me. And I had overwhelming experiences of joy and love in the Holy Spirit which I felt provided confirmation that this new path was still of God. So one morning while following my usual routine of praying in the morning before getting out of bed, it was sudden and unexpected when I realised that the presence of God had gone away. Until that moment I hadn’t been aware of the presence as I prayed each day, but now it was gone. I waited a week for it to return, after which began a rapid and intense spiral into atheism and rebellious enjoyment of so many things that I had been denied as an evangelical Christian. I dyed my hair red and wore it in spikes, got an eyebrow piercing, and started smoking, swearing, and taking drugs. Everything felt so open and new, and I realised I was now speaking to non-Christians as equals for the first time.

While life free from religion was thrilling and poignant in extremes that I had never before known, it was also dizzying, and I suffered from depression and loneliness. I didn’t feel that I could relate to my evangelical friends or family, which left me with no close relationships in Leeds. During the time when I was madly going about making new friends and trying new experiences, I realised that I needed to take some real time out to process these wild changes, and so made a plan: first graduate, and then fly to India and backpack around the world for a year. But as I was saving money for the trip, I lost the little remaining stability I had left. Psychologically I was under increasing strain, living in a house of evangelicals while my drug-fuelled partying became more frequent. I was also in a complex and emotionally demanding relationship with one of my new drug-taking friends. Finally my body put a stop to things with an intense case of glandular fever, which meant I had to stop working, postpone the trip, and go back to live with Mum and Dad with my tail between my legs while I recovered enough strength to make the flight.

It took three months of rest to get through the acute phase of the illness. I made it to Delhi, but was still highly susceptible to exhaustion and sickness, so during my travels through Asia I thirsted above all for rest. Physically this meant slow travel, moving on to a new location every week or so, and spending my time reading, journaling, enjoying local food, and taking gentle walks. Spiritually this thirst meant exploring the Eastern spiritual practices of Buddhist meditation, soft martial arts, and Taoism.

It was after leaving Asia and while working in a hospital in Wellington, New Zealand that I came across the word Reiki. On seeing it for the first time I clearly sensed that I was going to learn it, despite not knowing what the word meant. I got all of the books from the library that I could, found out that I would need a teacher, and so when my contract was over at the hospital I shouldered my backpack once more to begin the final stage of my year-long journey: walking and hitch-hiking the length of the south island to Dunedin, to find a Reiki teacher called Janine Joyce.

The Reiki course revealed an approach that was so much more gentle than my experiences with charismatic healing. The most powerful moment of the course was during the initiation ceremony. I was sitting with my eyes closed, hands in prayer position, while Janine completed the ritual. The silence was only broken by the gentle chime of a Tibetan singing bowl. At first I felt tense about what might be happening to me spiritually, but let go of that as I began to feel a rushing of heat inside and around me. In that moment came an intuitive knowing: after more than a year since God had withdrawn her presence from me, the energy that was now coursing through the room was my old friend the Holy Spirit.

This moment at the end of 2007 marked the beginning of a new chapter in my spiritual journey. Reiki revealed itself to me not as a replacement for a now invalid conception of God, but as a new manifestation of the same spirit. And this formed a bridge between my former experiences and the mystery that I was now discovering. This moment therefore was a returning as well as a renewing, and it began a process of healing and growing which continues to this day.

– Kit Johnson

The tranquillity of the park where I sat in my favourite coffee shop with my two-year-old, did not reflect how I was feeling. As I gathered our things together, after a failed attempt for a moment of peace over my coffee, I heard it clearly. “Slow down.” The words came from deep inside. They stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t know then how life changing those words would become.

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I was struggling in my career, exhausted with young children, and living on edge at home. I felt that if I could just try harder I would make it through and my hard work would begin to pay off.

I had grown up in an evangelical church setting. I remember being baptised when I was 12 and being more excited about the scriptures that would be written in my baptism card by the pastors, than by the submersion itself. I was hoping to hear something special, to feel some connection with this God I was being told loved me. I was disappointed that both the chosen bible verses were about being humble instead of proud. I grew up around a strong ethos of needing to be better for God.

My parents used to take my brother and sister and I to a family summer camp – a Christian week like Spring Harvest. I remember an experience I had there when I was 7 that deeply impacted me and has stayed with me. During one of the children’s meetings, I think in a worship time, I felt an overwhelming sense of love being near me, like I was being held. And I cried deep tears. I knew at that point that there was something beyond me, that God was real. We returned year after year and I often revisited that sense of God at that camp. I cherished those experiences and as I grew older began to search for a tangible grasp of this God. I wanted to hear him, to live a life like those in the books I’d read, like Brother Andrew and Jackie Pullinger, in which there were miracles, in which God was actually involved. I pledged my life to this God and to live a life that would please him, and to have the kind of passion that seemed to be echoed in the youth events I loved so much.

Fast forward twenty years, juggling my work as a junior doctor, and being a mum of two, I was struggling. My career had slowed and the thoughts of being something useful in the world seemed out of reach. I had lost confidence and couldn’t seem to find myself. My life certainly didn’t feel like one that would make a difference to anyone in the way I’d hoped when I set out. I was trying to pull my life together, to be better, and when those words came to me in the coffee shop, slowing down seemed the exact opposite of what I was trying to do.  And then it came, almost out of the blue, but really I just hadn’t noticed it creeping up on me. The sharp reality that I was caught in an emotionally destructive relationship. Slowly its black ink was seeping over every part of me. The years I had invested, the love I’d tried to give, had led me down a dead end. I realised that if I didn’t do something, I would be swallowed up in darkness forever.

Leaving was frightening. Knowing that escaping would be dismantling everything I was trying to build, to face divorce and attempt to bring up my children as a single mum.

I was afraid to let go of what I knew and had built my life upon. The ideas I’d once held with such certainty seemed irrelevant to my situation at this point. I had to face myself and the reality that God was not, in fact, ultimately in control.  I had been emerging out of evangelical Christianity slowly, questioning it  for a while, but had been trying to keep hold of the good I knew of it. However, at this point I desperately needed something solid and church and religion, definitely was not it. If I was going to come through this, I needed to take some control and find help.

As I embarked on my new circumstances, my mental health fell to pieces around me. I had always been strong, reliable, and now I was desperate. Desperate to form some sort of stability for my children that I was not able to find in myself.

I lost sight of how to get through. In the depths of darkness, I felt angry. Angry that the sacrifices I had made to live a life for God were not being met in the way I imagined. I felt grief. Amongst everything else, I was also grieving the loss of the model Christian life I’d so zealously promised God in my youth.

But it was there, in my powerless state, that I found Hope. She came to me. I began a journey in which my imagination played a key role. I held back initially, it felt erroneous when I had been taught to be wary of my imagination, that inherently I was sinful and shouldn’t trust what came out of the deep places in me. But it’s where I slowly began to feel life come back to me and warm me. In the middle of my loneliness I began to see her waiting for me as I came back to my empty house, the children at their Dad’s house. She could ask me how my day was. She was always interested. There was always kindness and care.

I think that experience began to lead me out. It has been a long process of healing and courage and knock backs. It led me into possibility, into creative approaches to spiritual meaning, and ultimately to finding kindness.

In some ways it is like I’ve scrapped all that has gone before and started with a blank sheet. I am open to ideas about God, or whatever you call it, him, her. I love to see how others approach faith. I love to be able to listen to friends from other stand points, and take something from that conversation, free from having to hold an agenda to ultimately convert them.

But in some ways, it is like I have been released to return home, to that simple love that came to me as a child, in which I was held and accepted just as I am.

– Mary Bronwen

It took me a long time to get into a frame of mind to write this. Like many of you, there have been few people in my life who I could tell my faith story to with any expectation that they’d understand. Some would understand the being a Christian part, but not the deconstruction part. Others would appreciate the deconstruction but not my continued pursuit of Jesus. After spending years sitting in a church pew hiding my heretical thoughts and trying to fit in, it’s been a great relief to find the Nomad community.

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I was raised in the United Methodist Church in Alabama, which is situated right in the middle of the Bible Belt. My teen years were spent attending multiple church events every week from youth group to Wednesday night supper to Sunday school and service. We didn’t live close to extended family, so church community became my family. My dad died when I was 9, and the patriarchal structure suited my needs at the time too. To me, God was a father figure and an escape. The Holy Spirit was something magical that gave me goosebumps and told me to do random stuff for strangers. Jesus was this guy I knew was important, but I was too afraid to admit that I didn’t really understand why.

My young beliefs held pretty firm during this time, though I always felt different from other kids. Losing a parent at a young age was part of it. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to have experienced something so life-changing decades before any of my peers. I was so lonely inside. On top of that, I had a severe stutter that I hadn’t learned to accept yet. I found refuge in the church, but neither I nor the pastors really knew how to help me in my pain. I thought church was the one place I could “come as I am” and receive healing and hope. I thought that if I followed all the rules and claimed to believe, that I would find freedom from my suffering. This disconnect between what I was told and what I actually experienced gradually became more confusing and enraging.

There was one point during my freshman year of college when I looked at all the questions swirling in my head and made a decision. If doubting and pursuing all these questions meant I might be going to hell, then I was willing to risk it. I think this might have been the first real pivotal moment when I chose my own life and healing over the prescribed Christian path. For the next ten years, I would bounce back and forth between the two, simultaneously knowing that my life depended on finding my own way, while being terrified of losing the only community I’d ever known.

In college, I ministry-hopped between the Methodists, Church of Christ, and Assembly of God to try to meet all my spiritual needs. Among the three congregations, I’d been rebaptised by immersion, been prophesied over, and been told that I wasn’t allowed to dance in public, serve communion, or teach men. In response to this, I started a covert ballroom dance class for my peers at one campus ministry and led a co-ed Bible study at another. In the end, it was the concept of people being “lost” and “found” that left me stumped. I barely knew any nonbelievers. How could I be sure they were all lost? I was 22, had been a Christian for ten years, had read the entire Bible, and I felt like the lost one. Something wasn’t right. This was the first of several times in my life when I would decide to take a break from church.

My journey unfolded from there, leading to more questions and experiences I didn’t share in my church communities for fear of being kicked out, or worse, losing my status as a Christian. Even as I pleaded with God to make me a good Christian woman who could attract a good Christian husband, I kept having more diverse experiences that fueled my doubt. However, even in my frustration and disagreement with God, I knew God was present. I never doubted this. I knew God was leading me. I knew this was part of my journey, even if I wouldn’t have chosen it myself.

During my post-college unchurched years, I decided that I didn’t want to believe in a God who only existed within the walls of a church. That an omnipotent, omniscient God would choose to only inhabit one religion didn’t make sense to me anymore. From here, God and I started our own version of Where’s Waldo. Only instead of looking for one figure of God in a sea of strangers, I found God in all the strangers.

During a summer abroad, I roomed with a Muslim woman who described her love for God exactly as I described mine. So why was I going to heaven and she wasn’t? In my mid-twenties, I did two years of Americorps at a Camphill community. Here I learned about anthroposophy and esoteric Christianity. I met other big-hearted volunteers from different cultures and beliefs, including a woman who was clairvoyant. I worked and lived with people with special needs, who might not profess a faith but who embodied the Spirit of Christ better than anyone I’d ever met.

After Americorps, I went to graduate school at a Buddhist-inspired university in Boulder, Colorado. Here I learned about transpersonal psychology, world wisdom traditions, and how to meditate. My cohort was entirely non- or ex-Christians who passionately pursued their own personal spiritual lives. I wrestled with my identity as a Christian and the overlap between the teachings of the Buddha and the teachings of Jesus.

While in Boulder I re-engaged with church. Even as I surrounded myself with genuinely good Christian people, I still didn’t feel like I belonged there. I knew too much. The more I learned about the world and allowed myself to grow, the angrier I felt with the church and the less I felt at home in the pews. Though I did finally begin to understand Jesus one evening in those pews, at the age of 28, in the darkness of a Good Friday service.

Fast forward to today and I am taking another break from church, maybe for good this time, who knows. I’m almost tired of fighting and being angry, and I’m beginning to surrender to the reality that the healing I need takes time and work. At 34, I feel more grounded and secure in my decision to stay true to my own path of deconstruction and hope. I know there is more to come. Thank God for that.

– Jessica Sabo

If I can pinpoint a time when I started to have deep questions around faith, I think it would be when I worked in student ministry in Italy seventeen years or so ago. Coming from a deeply evangelical tradition and being part of an evangelical protestant mission organisation, I become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of converting Catholics to Protestantism by the end of my time there. I couldn’t define it at that time, but it just didn’t sit well with me. I look back now, and I can see it was the beginning of questioning the “us versus them”, defensive basis of sharing what was supposed to be good news. I had begun to want to listen to others of different backgrounds from me, to listen, to learn, rather than have all the right answers to theological arguments. I wanted to see their point of view and I was starting to feel uncomfortable with the assumption that I thought (and I had been taught) that I knew the only way to God and that I had all the answers.

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Fast forward ten years or so, years of different evangelical, charismatic denominations seeking always to do the right thing, regularly going to church, always wanting some experience of God in order to know how to live my life. I sought and tried different ways of prayer, of reading the bible, I wanted to “hear” from God directly for guidance in making decisions and, most of all, answers to prayer as to why I was single and lonely. That perhaps sounds more negative than it was, I did experience what I would say was a sense of being loved by God during this time and I truly wanted to dedicate all aspects of my life to God.

At this time, I had a dream of running a retreat centre as I deeply appreciated the retreat spaces I had experienced and wanted to cultivate some kind of space for people to get away and rest. I started training as a spiritual director and suddenly a year into the course God seemed…silent. Very silent. A blank, brick wall of silence. That’s what it felt like. I couldn’t even hope in particular dark moments, certainly not hope that there were answers and where was God in this. Did God care? Was God even listening?

There was no major drama, just a gradual disappearance of the God I thought I had dedicated my life to. He just didn’t seem to be there anymore.  

Alongside this I was finding church hard, partly because I wasn’t seemingly hearing from God but also, I no longer felt I fitted in a particular church. I felt more at home in the ecumenical group at the spiritual direction course. This group was a small eclectic group of multi-ethnic Catholics, charismatics, Anglicans, Quakers, non-denominational, gay and straight, all gathered to be taught how to listen well to people and develop and carry this skill into different spheres. Here was a group where I didn’t have to define myself by a denomination or a statement of faith, I could simply be a friend to these fellow travellers on the journey of faith. I could listen and could be listened to and that became a special place.

I think it’s the desire to continue to be part of a community where all are welcome that drew me to a community such as Nomad and appreciate the podcast so much. I’m not writing this to disparage church community in any way, but my personal experience is that I have found it the loneliest place when you have questions that there are no easy answers to.

I am longing to see more communities of hope and unity where all are accepted and listened to well. The existence of groups such as I found and podcasts such as Nomad is where I find hope right now. We are not in an easy year or an easy time, but I want more and more to be one who listens to understand rather than to respond, to quote Stephen R Covey*.  That type of listening is hard and is a practice. A daily, hourly, minute-by-minute practice in my experience, and I’ve only recently begun.

Being present in listening to my own questions and the questions of others gives me hope. It also somehow gives me the sense of a loving presence in all of this, which I would like to call God.

To end I want to quote the writings of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, which I keep coming back to:

I want to beg you..

to be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart

and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms

and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.

Do not now seek the answers,

that cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.

And the point is, to live everything.

Live the questions now.

Perhaps you will then gradually,

without noticing it,

live along some distant day into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Delyth Johnson

*Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

My older sisters ended up getting us all kicked out of Sunday school. I’m not sure why, and I was definitely too young to remember it happening, but my parents tell me this was one of the reasons they didn’t bother with church anymore. We didn’t seem all that interested.

Image used with permission.

I wouldn’t return to church again until my teenage years when I picked up a bass guitar and joined a band. It turned out they practiced in a church, and one of their parents was the vicar. They’d snagged me. I turned up most Sundays, not entirely interested in the content of each service but happy to be in the company of friends. Coming together as a community around the communion table resonated with me and nurtured a sense of inclusion. Here I was being welcomed to partake in something that was clearly so special to everyone involved.

Later at university I ended up following a series of rather unfortunate events; being terrified by preachers who had this incredible gift of condemning everyone other than themselves, being silenced in a Bible study because it wasn’t a place for questions, and being completely ignored while my partner, Holly, was quizzed on the perils of dating someone they saw as a non-believer. The more I became involved in the Church, the quicker I realised that it isn’t always the welcoming place we hope it to be. Where I’d previously felt included, I now felt pushed to the fringes as a young adult finding my own voice, and apparently asking all the wrong questions.

After a night out with friends I ended up in the back of a police van, and the next day I was off to a Christian conference with Holly’s family. Nothing serious had happened, but it wasn’t the best start to the week ahead. Thankfully, I was believed when I used car sickness as an excuse for my rather pasty complexion. Little did I know then, but I was about to discover Pentecostalism in full force. The main conference tent was filled with people speaking in strange languages, others occasionally dropping to the floor and not one person whose energy levels hadn’t been turned up to 11. I was truly bewildered, out of my depth, and vowed to myself not to let go of my seat for the duration of the week.

Despite this promise to myself, I ended up responding to an alter call and was baptised when returning to university. We were still in the same church where the merits of my relationship had been questioned – they were happy about the baptism.

Suddenly I was included again and began playing in the worship group. However, university is a great place to learn critical thinking and many of my political and social views soon came into conflict with my local church’s teaching. Thankfully, getting married involved a house move during which we took the opportunity to look for a different church.

We found ourselves in a worshiping community filled with people who had found themselves on the fringes elsewhere for various reasons. It was a mixed bag of life experiences and theological thinking. It took me a while to feel comfortable because I’d retained a rather strict conservative evangelical theology and almost instinctively felt suspicious of different approaches to faith. I’m glad we were in this new place, however, because the proverbial shit would soon hit the fan.

After the birth of our first child my wife experienced postpartum psychosis.* It was truly awful, and I dread to think what the reaction of our previous church would have been. Thankfully, our current church community gave us the distance we needed while a few close friends offered their support. In the pit of this trauma my whole world felt as though it had caved in and God had performed the greatest of all vanishing acts. If I could have looked into the neat and tidy boxes into which I had placed God I would have discovered that they were empty. Everything was in flux, and to make things more complicated I was in the process of being accepted to train for ordained ministry.

Despite everything, I was given the support and encouragement to continue onto training. Relocating to theology college offered some physical distance from what was still a painful experience, but time proved to be a great healer and hindsight a real blessing. I was able to see how the powerful and victorious image of God I had learned to grasp hold of found no place in my vulnerability.

I had to read Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God when applying for ministerial training and I found myself challenged by a different image of God, one which finds God becoming vulnerable in the midst of suffering. Slowly I began to make sense of faith again, and studying theology only helped to broaden my view of Christianity, learning to appreciate differences I had previously distrusted.

My faith is no longer neatly packaged, and I believe I’m all the better for it. I’ve also taken solace in the belief that God’s greatest strength is empathy. This has given me a lot of breathing space and enabled me to involve myself in work with people from other faith traditions in whom I occasionally see Christ most clearly (but don’t tell my younger self this).

Discovering Nomad Podcast, and The Beloved Listener Lounge, has introduced me to valuable companionship and has provided a constant reminder that deconstruction can be an enriching and shared experience.

– Liam Dacre-Davis

*I won’t go into detail as this is mostly Holly’s story to tell, but search for the charity Action for Postpartum Psychosis if you feel you need to know a little more.

I’ve been struggling with how to tell this story. My attempts to craft a chronological timeline of events feel like they leave too much out, too many words feel like they’re not the right words to transition one moment into the next. And then I realized, this is not a story. This is a tapestry. A collection of vibrantly coloured threads spanning generations, geographies and worldviews that weave together to make a life. Or maybe not one life, but many, because this tapestry is bigger than me. It was started by my ancestors going back further than I can see, and its pieces don’t move neatly from A to B to C. They overlap and intertwine. They coil and collide. They dance. 

Image used with permission.

From my French Catholic grandmother I inherited threads of generational trauma from a childhood of control and abuse. But also threads of love. A love of Jesus and of family. And threads of growing into a woman who knew her own mind and easily wove her faith and her questioning together into something that she could comfortably live in.

From my neo-pagan mom, threads of rejecting the traditions she grew up with that left her shamed and voiceless. But also threads of seeking the divine in other ways and with other faces. I grew up in a house with pictures of Artemis on the wall, Women Who Run with the Wolves on the bookshelf, and these too were threads in my tapestry.

And between the three of us the thread of a shared name. For my mom and me our middle name, for my grandma her first: Marie.

My dad contributed threads when he took me to a visiting transcendental meditation guru when I was 9 years old to receive a mantra. I laid my orange and my carnation in front a picture of the guru’s guru and placed the word I was given into my heart like a precious gem where it still lives nearly 30 years later. As instructed, I’ve never told anyone what it was, even the disillusioned ex-TM teacher I met years later who tried to guess. My inner 9 year old knew a sacred vow when she wove one.

My mom’s family added threads to my tapestry a few years ago at a big family reunion where after one of her cousins said grace, my grandma, her siblings, and one table out of all of us gathered made the sign of the cross in breathtaking near-unison like a flock of birds rising as one from a lake. I longed to feel in my bones that pull to connect god to my body, and connect my body to the bodies of my ancestors. I longed for that thread of belonging.

There had been threads woven into my understanding in my youth of what it meant to be religious. It was small, it was constricted, it was constricting. And there was the knowledge of real and untenable atrocities carried out in the name of those institutions. And so I didn’t know how to reconcile the faith of my grandma, of my family, with the other threads that were forming me. What about feminism? What about justice? What about queerness and socialism and love? Nothing I’d been told about at church reflected those values.

But slowly over the years as I started to dig a little deeper, was offered names and resources by friends walking similar paths, and a different kind of church was revealed to me. The teachings of Anthony DeMello offered me a thread. And Pádraig Ó Tuama. And Cynthia Bourgeault. Then I found Nomad and dozens of beautiful threads wove into my tapestry. Threads of hope.

I began to see that I hadn’t been given the full picture about church, about god, about Jesus. If these radical, loving mystics and activists could find such awe in this tradition, what had I been missing?

I saw progressive women coming into awareness of their appropriation of eastern religions and turning to figures like Mary Magdalene to see themselves reflected in the traditions of their ancestors. But to my surprise, it was not Mary Magdalene, but the Mary from whom I got my middle name, Marie, Mere de Dieu, (Mary, Mother of God) who captivated me. I googled her prayer and wove its thread into my heart. In a dream she invited me up from darkness to be enfolded in her arms.

I read the gospels for the first time at age 35 and was astounded. I did not expect an anti-capitalist, feminist, champion of the marginalized. And I did not expect to feel myself wrapped in the loving arms of a long lost brother as I sat in centering prayer one morning. Jesus was a thread I added to my tapestry and I wrapped myself in the warmth of it, more loved than I thought possible.

My grandma died the day before my birthday this year. I wasn’t able to be there when they cleaned out her apartment, but my mom claimed for me a holy water container shaped like Mary that my grandma got on pilgrimage years ago and a beautiful rosary with green beads that look like pomegranate seeds. The cross is missing from the rosary, but I like it that way. It reminds me that I can weave the traditions of the past into my life now, but they don’t have to be what they have always been.

I pass the beads of the rosary between my fingers and recite prayers that connect me to my family across generations and continents and languages. But deeper than that, the language beyond the prayer is a thread that connects me to anyone who is praying anywhere to anything. And together all of us are weaving and being woven by god.

– Jenn Johnson

I was a child of the Charismatic Movement, in quite a literal way. Two years after my Anglican-Presbyterian mother got born again and Spirit filled, God told her to have another child. She stopped taking the pill, and I was born about a year later.

Image used with permission.

I grew up Charismatic Presbyterian in 1980s New Zealand and attended two Reformed Christian secondary schools in the 1990s. When I was 13, there was a stint living with my parents on campus at a Pentecostal Bible College.

These were the days of tearing down strongholds with shouted prayers and loud worship music, back-masking, demon deliverance and stories about the Russians digging a hole so deep that when they dangled a microphone down there, they could hear the screams of the souls in hell. These were the days of the inevitable immanent return of Jesus as the year 2000 approached. I wish we’d all been ready.

There were all kinds of adventures and good friends. I experienced the stark difference of Reformed Christianity on the one hand and Pentecostalism on the other, with Charismatic Presbyterianism somewhere in-between, but I was an introvert imaginative kid always looking for home – some kind of space where I felt I could belong, somewhere safe from guilt and fear.

I stayed Charismatic Presbyterian for over 20 years. During that time I finished a master’s degree in English at university, got a job at a Christian publishing company (where I still work, 20 years later) and met Anna, my wife, at a Christian music festival after one of my poetry performances.

Anna had chronic fatigue (ME/CFS). She had it when we met, but we both knew she was going to get better soon. We were both God-honouring young people, so we knew that God wouldn’t want us to have our dreams derailed by illness. That’s how it works, right? And anyway, I was a perfectionist and an idealist – so that’s how it had to work.

A few months into our marriage, the illness worsened. Anna ran out of sick days in her first job as a Spanish and English teacher and had to resign. Her feelings of isolation deepened, so we moved to her hometown to be closer to family.

Over the course of the next decade or so, Anna’s health continued to fluctuate. At one point she felt well enough to step out and take on another teaching job. ‘Step-out in faith’ is how we framed it. She made it through one term then, during the two-week school holidays, she started having non-epileptic seizures.

The scans were clear, but the seizures continued to occur unpredictably – sometimes in a cluster, sometimes months apart. Anxiety became a feature of my life alongside a growing sense of disenchantment with the way things had turned out.

By now, I was attending a Pentecostal church and was actually quite involved – mainly as a worship leader – despite the awkwardness an introvert can feel in what is essentially an extrovert style of Christianity. I had wonderful friends there and had no particular beef with the place. But my faith was slipping and, ironically, it was partly due to the positivity preached from the stage. It was intended to boost our faith so that healing and joy would come. But healing wasn’t coming, and there was no official space for sorrow and lament. There was plenty about the faith it takes to be physically healed, and nothing about the faith it takes to live unhealed.

With perfectionism as grist to the mill, disenchantment was turning into a generalised sense of resentment, and resentment is very tiring.

Without any unpleasant rupture with the church I’d been attending, I gravitated towards a newly established local church where people wanted to explore faith in a deeper, more intellectually engaged way. The informal term that I latched onto there was ‘post-Pentecostal’. In effect, aspects of the deconstruction process were taking place within the context of church community.

There was more existentially honest theology taking place – space for ambiguity and mystery – but my expectations about how life should be, and God’s role in that, ran very deep… the resentment and tiredness, alongside caregiver fatigue and trauma, continued to gather.

Age 39, anxiety was increasingly popping up at unexpected times and it didn’t seem to be directly linked to specific triggers. I was starting to experience weird physiological symptoms, and my body wasn’t healing itself properly. Then, after an unfortunate experience with an antidepressant, my system collapsed. I was experiencing burnout… maybe even, dare I say it in the old language, a nervous breakdown. 

The process of making sense of my life, and recovery, began. There were medical tests, including an MRI for MS-like symptoms, and an ultrasound for sharp pains in my abdomen. The results, from a pathological point of view, were always those of a healthy individual. So the real, and perhaps most important, work came to the fore – that long internal journey – deconstruction or dissembling via falling apart – a journey which I hoped, to use Richard Rohr’s term, would prove to be a falling upward.

By and by I discovered a wide river. I first caught the sound of it during one of those moments of desperate internet searching, which turned up a thing called mindfulness. Walking in that direction, I found myself ankle-deep in something called contemplative spirituality. I don’t think I found it by accident. There was a familiarity to it and a strange newness.

Mysticism had always been my thing, truth be told. I’d flirted with it in every church context I’d been in. I had a strong longing for a connection to something that extended all the way back – something ancient. Something deep. If nothing else, my burnout made me feel like I needed to plunge head-first into cool, clear water, and so I dove in and entered the flow.

It transpires that contemplative spirituality isn’t just about practices, but a whole way of being in the world. Bigger than congregations or denominations, or even my own existential expectations. A gathering sense of home. For me, it’s the most hopeful possibility for Christianity.

Questions about theology and the presence and intention of God seem to be increasingly filled with wonder, rather than angst or frustration. Nearly five years on, the burnout recovery continues. This morning I experienced the confusion of a sudden onset of brain-fog, anxiety and tiredness. But there’s something different now. Open-handedness and gratitude are friends. Little by little, guilt is becoming less of a feature in my belief dynamic. Love and Presence. Restedness is a core value. ‘Accept and float’ is the mantra I got from one of the many books I’ve read. I don’t want to over-romanticise this, and wax too lyrical; but then again, I did ask for a sense of wonder.

There’s a place on the spiritual journey described by French philosopher Paul Riceour called ‘the second naïveté’. It’s a post-critical mindset – a possible way of being beyond the deconstruction/dissembling process – and I find it very inviting. In essence, it’s a journey from disenchantment to re-enchantment – not an arrival but an ongoing process. It contains all the gifts and wisdom of the critical phase, but it rests easier. It’s a more nuanced interaction with the old words, the symbol and metaphor, returning to them in their richness with the embodied engagement of the sacramental.

About 15 months ago, Anna and I moved north, closer to the equator, to the outskirts of a small town, near the rugged west coast. Northland is the least wealthy region of New Zealand. We set out on an adventure – a place in the country, and a place where Anna has been able to engage in coalface youth work. She still has to carefully manage her health, but it’s been over three years since she had a seizure – so who knows…

On Wednesday morning I sat in church for Eucharist – just the six of us – me and five older women, including the vicar. Holy Trinity, a nearly 150-year-old structure, an Anglican church, built in what was then a colonial outpost, from Kauri timber that took from hundreds to thousands of years to grow. (The area was once clothed with these giant sacred trees – the legs of Tāne Mahuta as he held earth and sky apart to let in the light – until they were clear-felled as a resource for empire.) We say liturgy that, via a series of fairly minor revisions, dates at least as far back as 1549. The timber and the liturgy have that in common.

We entered via the vestry door because the main door is exposed to wind and rain – the church is built on a high point above the town. The rain is a gentle white noise to our prayer, and the structure creaks just a little in a gust. The squall passes and now the beautiful stain-glass behind the altar (donated by the widow of the colonial entrepreneur for whom the town is named) is illuminated.

The wide brown heft of the Northern Wairoa River flows on by downstream, then back again as the tidal force of the Kaipara Harbour’s 947 square kilometres of water pushes inland. So many metaphors, so much ambiguity, so much poetry, so much to admire and regret. Disconnects, breaking, burning and reassembling. So much beauty and… sin. And yet, and yet… this age-old hum of potentiality, dissembling and remaking… perhaps – in the richest, ever-new sense of the old language – the possibility of redemption, of coming home.

– Andrew Killick

My earliest memory of faith is lying in my bottom bunk each night, repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over, in the hope that, if I died in my sleep, God would let me into heaven*.

Image used with permission

I became a “born again” Christian when I was 13, after my family started attending a local evangelical/brethren church. We had attended another (less intense) church prior to this and my immediate family were all Christians. As a passionate and impressionable teenager (with a side dose of baseline anxiety, see bunk bed prayer*) I quickly internalised what I was hearing. The result was a life focused on daily quiet times, fervent evangelising and high-octane church involvement (the majority of time at this church, then later one closer to my university). Over the next 7 years I devoted most of my time to camps and mission weeks, prayer triplets, bible studies and prayer rooms. I had a poem stuck on my bedroom wall entitled “Letter from Hell”; written from the perspective of a friend in hell, asking why I hadn’t done more to bring them to Jesus.

My deconstruction started relatively innocuously in my early 20’s. There was no one defining moment, instead it was an accumulation of many smaller doubts and wrestles. A medical elective in India made me question my theology on hell. The over-spiritualisation of a break-up made me doubt how I interpreted God’s will. I became increasingly uncomfortable evangelising my friends and the line between evangelism and manipulation became increasingly blurry (think curry night that is 10% curry and 90% testimony from a prison convert). As I began working as a doctor, I got a privileged insight into the complexities of people’s lives and the categories of Christian and non-Christian now felt like a cruel over simplification. Doubts and questions around the role of woman in the church, and teaching on sexuality (including homosexuality) and relationships made it increasingly difficult for me to tow the party line. I ruined more than one dinner party with my issues surrounding penal substitution and Calvinism. Steadily everything felt like a struggle.  

As difficult as these issues were to wrestle, the breaking point, the true unravelling, came when I realised there was no space to air my doubts and questions in the various Christian communities I was part of. In the few settings they could be aired, I still needed to eventually conclude with the view held by the church/organisation. I started to feel like I was suffocating.

As a generally anxious person (*see bunk bed prayer), the ‘micro manager’, black and white God who had a plan for every minute of my life was initially quite comforting. But it had now become the source of much of my anxiety, especially in regards to petitionary prayer. It felt like my linear, formulaic, two-dimensional faith was crumbling under the pressure of a multi-dimensional, complicated lived experience. I poked at a few more pieces and then the whole thing crumbled.

It took me a few years to truly face and accept what was happening. People would ask what church my husband and I were attending and I’d blame having a new baby. Or working. Or moving house. I felt terrified of my bible, unable to read it in case it pulled me back to who I had been before. I found prayer overwhelming as it had became more about ruminating over my fears than a spiritual practice that brought peace and direction. I felt a sense of grief as I left these communities and mourned the loss of a role that I had felt so certain of. But if I’m really honest, I mostly just felt angry.

I felt angry at the power and the patriarchy within the evangelical church. Angry at the legalism, angry at the uniformity of biblical interpretation we all had to adhere to. I felt angry at how much honesty was suppressed in the name of ‘godliness’. Angry at how repressed I was as a female and how much shame came with the purity culture teachings. I also felt ashamed and angry with myself for feeling angry and it’s taken many years to begin untangling all of that. 

The first signs of hope came in the form of a Brian McLaren book (given to me many years earlier by a wise and kind friend) and then another book, Doug Frank’s A Gentler God and then I discovered Rachel Held Evans. I read Evolving in Monkey Town in one evening with tears streaming down my face. I remember the overwhelming relief that I wasn’t alone. It felt wonderful to know this was a path that others had taken and not only survived, but had re-emerged with something new. I found reading Fowler’s work on Stages of Faith helpful and also Scott Peck’s work on faith psychology. I also began reading and listening to Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist who has helped me reach a much more positive view on sexuality than I inherited from the evangelical ‘purity culture’ teaching. My husband, who became a Christian in his early 20’s, has always held a much lighter, more open faith where questions have always been as welcome as answers, so we’ve been able to do much of this journey together, which I am so grateful for. I am also fortunate to have some very dear friends from my past evangelical life, who are on various paths, without the church.

Other signs of hope have come through running, gardening and becoming a mother. Connecting to my body (often in nature) and learning to trust my instincts as a mum have helped reverse years of thinking my emotions were unreliable and my body a separate/lesser part of me. I’ve also loved being around my children who question and love and integrate all part of themselves in life so freely. Children know how to find and share pleasure. I found the evangelical obsession with abstaining from ‘worldly pleasures’ to be such a damaging, joy stealing theology. Being in such a constant state of vigilance makes it incredibly difficult to experience pleasure, joy and presentness and confounded my general anxiety towards life. Attempting to be rooted in the now, feet on this earth and allowing myself to experience joy and pleasure, might be the biggest sign of hope I’ve had so far.  

The last few years have been defined by a much deeper contentment for where I am. I’ve realised I was trying to package my deconstruction back up into the same neat, little boxes my evangelical faith had just come out of. I’ve given up trying to label where I am and what I am. I’ve been comforted immensely by the fact Jesus answered most questions with riddles, stories or more questions. He also sometimes changed his answer depending who was asking.  And why they were asking. He didn’t make the disciples agree to a 12-point statement of faith. I feel at peace with my “questions that have no right to go away” (from the David Whyte poem Sometimes).

I’ve occasionally felt pangs of guilt and worry that my deconstruction process has involved a lot of navel gazing and self-centredness. I’ve also wrestled with the frustration that to many, it looks like you’ve given up or ‘back-slidden’ when you no longer attend church. Nevertheless, I’ve found despite all my struggles, I am still drawn to Jesus. He still consumes my thoughts, my conversations (and clearly my podcast choices). He’s in the bedtime ponderings I have with my kids where we question things together and I can listen to what they think without jumping in with answers. He’s in my job as I seek to alleviate suffering rather than try to explain it away or spiritualise it. He’s in my friendships that feel so much more human and loving without the evangelical agenda. I’ve started to have honest conversations with the friends that bore the brunt of my super evangelical years and I’ve experienced so much love and grace from them in this. The world doesn’t feel like a “them and us” anymore.

In rejecting a certain type of Christianity, I’ve discovered Jesus in all the places I never looked. The freedom that has come from being ‘outside’ the religious community and their rules and exclusivity has been surprising and life giving in equal measure.

I sometimes wonder if that’s how the disciples might have described their time with Jesus…

– Jenna Gillies

“Getting to where we need to go often means finding a new language for where we’ve been.” Belden C. Lane, Backpacking with the Saints

I woke up to the sounds of the rocky river, crawled out of my sleeping bag, across the tent, quietly unzipped the door flap so as not to wake my brothers. It was the summer before my 10th birthday. I poked my feet out, slid my toes into my damp shoes, and worked my way out of the tent into the cool stillness of the morning. Our campsite sat along the Housatonic River in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. My three brothers and I spent hours walking the river, our sneakers soaked, shins peppered with bruised badges of our adventures. I don’t remember tracking time, other than when our bodies told us it was time to eat and we had to find our way back. We spent two weeks every summer camping in these untamed wild places. I felt at home among the trees, rivers and rocks and trails. My language of God was rooted in these adventures in the woods, getting lost in space and time and finding my way back again.

Image used with permission.

The world beyond the wild was much more complicated to navigate. So I paid close attention and learned how to fit in.

My mom was married at 18. She had my brother, and then me a year later and became a single mom at the age of 23. I don’t remember much about my father as we didn’t see him often after they divorced. (It was not until my twenties that I would see him again, and only two times before he died of a drug overdose.) My mom remarried when I was 8 and I became a sister to two more brothers. My stepfather, a firefighter and electrician was loving, hardworking and strict. I loved him, this guy who had chosen to be my dad. I also feared his anger and disappointment. I learned how to build things and fix things and work with my hands. And I learned to love the outdoors. We spent hours working but mostly playing in the back field and the Town Forest that bordered our yard.

My first formal understanding of God began at Walpole United Methodist Church, the white steepled church in our town center, walking distance from our house. I sang in the choir and attended Sunday School. Every year we had a church fair with ring toss games and strawberry shortcake. I would not have used the word faith to describe my understanding of God in that place. Words like community, picnics, scratchy choir robes, and hard pews come to top of mind. God was more of a distant observer, a fair but strict judge.

By middle school, my mom and I began attending a more evangelical church. Those years were filled with youth retreats, family camp, Bible quiz team, Sunday suppers in the basement. We were immediately welcomed into this community. It was a ‘come as you are’ kind of place. On my first retreat, we piled into an old 10 passenger van and drove to New Hampshire, back to my beloved woods. I gave my life to Christ that weekend. When I returned home, I told my parents I was “born again.” I excelled in church, taught Sunday School and led my youth group. I felt a part of something bigger than myself. Meanwhile, my family struggled. My brother Dan followed my first father’s footsteps using alcohol and drugs to cope with his own wild heart. Things got messier as my step-brothers stopped talking to our dad. All of this reinforced a desire to be the good girl, which came pretty naturally to a pleaser and conflict avoider. But my best efforts couldn’t fix my family. My dad came in from the barn one afternoon with a softness I rarely, if ever, saw on his face. He said, “Keri, I told God I couldn’t do it alone anymore.” That was it. That was his prayer – in the field – by the barn. God was present.

With no real idea where I wanted to go after high school, I found my way to Calvin College, a Christian Reformed school in Michigan. It checked three important boxes for me. I could play Field Hockey. It was a flight’s distance from home. I would meet Christian guys. I took religion class and went to chapel but what really stuck with me through those years was my involvement with an organization called Young Life. I felt like I had found my people – a community of leaders spending time with high school students and a ministry that focused on relationships over rules. It seemed pure in its approach to share the Gospel in a way that was lived out loud. And I chose to go on YL staff out of college as a “church partner”. At a new staff retreat, a guy spilled my milk on my tray and I guess I found middle school humor endearing because I married him.

Relationship and community. Would I call them the fruits of my faith during the early season of my life? Or were they the foundations… I’m not sure which. And I am not sure it matters. Either way, the language felt true.

The transition from youth to adult certainly transitioned my faith as well. From Michigan, we moved to Boston and then to Amsterdam with our two-year- old son, Sam during 9/11. We had our son, Jack the year we returned, and moved shortly after to Connecticut, then New Jersey and finally to Texas where we have been for 8 years. Through those years, we sat side by side with Methodists, Presbyterians, Christian Reformed, Reformed (I discovered there’s a difference:), Catholics, Baptists, Episcopalians… each with their own doctrines, practices, cultural context, rhythms and flow.

Our last move to the Great state of Texas, I could describe in many ways. Great is not one of the words I would use. Moving to Amsterdam was, in many ways, easier than Texas. Our first years were filled with the newness and getting connected and I had become pretty good at it. Finding a church became much more challenging. We had always looked for a community, neighborhood church where we knew other families. Out of curiosity, we tried the Mega church with the amusement theme park for the kids and the prize station. We spent time at two other churches. The Baptist one spoke often of works and felt short on Grace. The Methodist church was grace filled and fun even if a bit shallow, maybe in an attempt to not offend anyone. I didn’t like feeling like a church shopper. And maybe it wasn’t the churches but me, us? Everyone’s first question in Texas, is “Where do you go to church?” It would have been an intrusive question in the Northeast but here it was assumed. When we tried to grow a Young Life program here, we heard whispers of it being “Christian Lite.” It never got off the ground.

I can’t separate my evolving faith from politics as much as I would like to. Maybe it was that it just revealed something I had not seen. I’ve heard the word apocalypse used recently. When I look back at the Greek roots, meaning to “uncover or reveal,” it sounds about right. Even before the 2016 election, I was watching an Us and Them tribalism develop and I did not like what I was seeing, especially from my Christian brothers and sisters. We attended church less and less until I couldn’t see the point in making our teens go. And so, I went on my own journey.

I put down my favorite historical fiction novels, and began to pick up mostly women writers on faith and justice. I devoured their stories and applauded their voices, and began to find my own. I started listening to podcasts, interestingly by mostly men at that time. They introduced me to theologians, & philosophers, thinkers and mystics. I found all of my questions and doubts were echoed and no answers were given, just more questions. And I started to feel like I could breathe again. I was slowly letting go of old rigid certainties and venturing into the divine mystery of God. I found that this journey to the edges of my faith felt more real and intimate than the one I was leaving behind.

Exploring new faith trails and embodied practices has been a renewing and invigorating experience. I have gone back to my wild places, the deep woods of my faith and in some ways returned to the curiosity of my child self. Maybe I am being born again, again? I am untethering weighty beliefs and releasing them downriver. I am wading through thickets and branches, clearing paths. I am exploring dark caverns of doubt and finding gems of hope. I am digging at the roots of teachings, and weeding out language that was choking new growth. I am rediscovering God in God’s playground. The journey has brought me back home to the Wild where wonder and curiosity are my guides.

– Kerin Beauchamp 

When I was a nurse at a hospital, we had a patient who eventually died of his cancer in our ward. Later his husband wrote a death notice in the papers saying: “The journey not the arrival matters”. I have kept the notice ever since – maybe because my journey was long, and I hoped to arrive.

Image used with permission.

These days it is 100 years ago since the border between Denmark and Germany was placed, where it still is today. That is a story worth telling, but in my story it is only the condition I set out from. On a summer day 25 years ago, I left the apartment in Flensburg, where I lived at the time, mounted my bike and drove straight west. When I reached the west coast, I headed north, crossing the border into Denmark. It was a warm and dry summer, so I could sleep on the dyke in my sleeping bag among the sheep. Earlier that year I had returned from Paris, where my dream had shattered. I wanted to live in the city, study at the Sorbonne University and spend my days at the Bibliothèque Saint-Geneviève like Simone de Beauvoir. Loneliness and a sense of detachment drove me back to my hometown, where I started working on a farm, hands in earth growing vegetables and pondering life. 

I grew up in Flensburg as part of the Danish minority in Germany – so crossing borders and shifting between languages and cultures was natural to me from the beginning. I did not grow up in an explicitly Christian family – everyone being baptized and confirmed out of tradition. Putting words around faith was not a thing you did. For many reasons I became a searching and seeking soul, though. I had been on exchange in the south of England, when I was 12, and I spend a year in Japan with a Japanese family when I was 15. It was the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the fall of the Berlin wall. The world opened to me, and I thought it to be a thrilling place. When I could not find people to talk to and share this experience, I turned towards literature, making many good friends: “We read to know we are not alone”, as C.S. Lewis put it. A German author became a kind of stepfather to me, opening wide the doors into realms of thinking and music, art and beauty. He was a believer, and I remember him saying that as Christians we should never be subject to the Zeitgeist, but have access to an immense freedom rooted in the gospel and Christian tradition. But he was also a man traumatized by World War II, a shadow that also lingered over me: How can you live in a world where such atrocities took place in the country, that I was a citizen of?

When I came home from Japan, I became part of a class at school that was dysfunctional with massive problems of bullying, that no adult acted on. I became friends with a girl from another class. She was Christian in a conscious and explicit way. We had long discussions about faith and literature. We both read Sheldon Vanaukens “A Severe Mercy”, and I started reading the Bible and joined her at her Baptist Church, where eventually I was baptized (again), leaving the Danish state church. My family could not meet me in my new faith, and I became more and more isolated from them and other people my age.

In my last year at high school loneliness took hold of my heart driving me into an existential crisis, that almost cost my life: What was I to do with my life? All my relations were troublesome, and I did not feel that I belonged anywhere, feeling a total stranger. I talked five languages fluently, but had nothing to say in any of them. I had experienced so much through books and could quote many wise authors and poets but lacked experience of life and words of my own. Not even my faith could withstand the abyss. A woman from church witnessed my suffering and wanted to exorcize the evil. I never saw her again. I wanted to go home and ended up in a closed psychiatric ward. Strangely that was a relief: people here did not pretend anything. They did not wear masks. Later I came to understand that this is part of the illness: not being able to wear a mask when you need one. But for the time being, I felt part of an authentic fellowship, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and reading Camus. Eventually it was the music of Bach and meeting honest people that started a gradual process of healing.

When in the summer of 1995 I set out on my bike, one of the goals was a summer camp at the Danish west coast arranged by the Danish Christian Student movement (DKG). I did not know anybody there, and I only came because I did not have any other plans for the summer, and the program seemed interesting: About Time. Among the guest speakers where two sisters from the protestant order of The Daughters of Mary (Mariadøtrene). Their being and words impressed me. I learned that they lived a monastic life just north of Flensburg and the border, their family mostly consisting of Swedish women all ages. Their home was open to women who needed rest or comfort, silence or someone to talk to. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. I regularly came to visit and took part in their everyday life of gardening and cooking, praying and singing, teaching them German and sharing some of my struggles. There was a time, when I considered becoming part of the family, but it became clear to me that this step would be out of fear of life, a flight, and not because I was called to live a monastic life. 

So, I continued my confused, bewildered and rootless life, leaving Flensburg to study in Denmark. I considered studying theology, but at the time had lost confidence in words, having experienced too much hypocrisy. After some detours around university and the Pentecostal church, I ended up studying to be a deacon in combination with a health professional training. That was an eyeopener to me: both meeting and living with the people I studied with and the challenge of taking care of people at hospitals and care homes in combination with a theological training – it made so much sense! At the end of these studies, I had to write a deacon treatise that I called “Diaconia viatorum – living in the interim”, where I got to summon up all that I found important to be able to live a fruitful and patient life as Christian in the world. A world where we are both confronted with suffering and need of others and self, a world that is not as it ought or could be, always stretched between the already and not yet, being a citizen of the kingdom of God and at the same time a citizen of a fallible democratic state in a postmodern time characterized by spiritual poverty.

It felt as though I had found my vocation, and I was at the same time miraculously surprised and found by love: I fell in love with the man that I am still married to. Since he studied in Berlin at the time, I continued to study to be a nurse in Copenhagen in order to be able to work in Germany as well, where we chose to live. After some back and forth we ended up living in Copenhagen together, and suddenly it all went so fast: getting married, working as a nurse at hospitals and eventually becoming a mother of three wonderful children. 

In 2011 I grew weary of working at hospitals where I never fully felt that I belonged. I started working at the hospice, where I am still working as a nurse and deacon. So many of my detours and experiences suddenly made sense: meeting people close to dying with all the symptoms that come along, helping patients live as well as possible until the end, helping relatives to be alongside and accepting helplessness and loss of control, spending their time with something meaningful. Holding a space around them requires many different talents. Now at last the professionalism of being deacon came to its own too. 

But being a mother of three and a nurse with changing shifts, working weekends and holidays also wore me out: there were the nights with too little sleep, the endless needs of children, patients and relatives, lunchboxes to be made and a household to tend to with hardly any time left to take care of my own body and soul. When my father got terminally ill in 2013/14, my body collapsed under the weight of too much responsibility and too little rest. 

During that period, I had to learn how to breathe and be inside my body again. Colleagues and friends told me to take care of myself – which was exactly what I could not do. It was a long and painful process during which I also reread my deacon treatise, wondering whether I really wrote it since there were so many helpful insights – how come I had forgotten them along the way?

Since I moved to Copenhagen 20 years ago, I have visited the Cathedral (Church of Our Lady) regularly. Here we married, and here our children were baptized. My family knows of and accepts my need of church, of singing and services, although they do not share it. All through the years I would go to see a pastor now and then, seeking advice and pastoral care (in German we have the beautiful word “Seelsorge”: care for the soul). When once I asked for spiritual guidance, one of them refused. That is also being a protestant: you have to think and find out for yourself. Although it is tough at times, I am grateful that I never experienced abuse in any way!

When it comes to the congregation though, I still feel a stranger and at the edge of it, hardly knowing the name of any of the people that I have seen and attended service with over the years. I think the body of Christ is beautiful in all its diversity, and I like to come in the German church of Saint Peters as well as the more progressive church of Brorson here in Copenhagen. But when it comes to really being a committed part of a fellowship, it feels suffocating to me. When I attend service, when we share the Eucharist, I have a strong sense of being part of the body of Christ that transcendences time and space.

There have been times where I felt it to be wrong somehow – that I needed to be part of a defined congregation. Now I try to accept that it just won’t work for me. The concept of being a pilgrim resonates with me in many ways: A pilgrim is a ‘peregrinus’, a stranger, who is always on his or her way to a goal ahead: “Not all those who wander are lost” (J.R.R. Tolkien).

When I was already an adult I found out that my name means ’someone belonging to Christ’. That is where I find hope: I belong to Christ with all of me – my story, my longing, my vulnerability, my shortcomings, my marks and masks, my stains and fatigue. I am on my way, as best I can. The goal is not to become the best version of myself, a good person, or to perfect anything. If glimpses of the kingdom of God can shimmer through my life from time to time, then I am where I should be. 

For almost 10 years now we have been living in a part of Copenhagen called Nørrebro, which is the most divert and multicultural part of Denmark, and in that sense a parallel to the borderland,that I came from. I never imagined I would live in a city with children, and I often miss the horizon and nature. Still this is where I am, and it does make sense. I try to accept the consequences and gift of our choices and of my work: witnessing so much suffering and loss, pain, anger and death, being reminded of our mortality and powerlessness on a daily basis does not leave you unmarked. Every life has a price. And I like the idea of being poured out, giving it all away in this life, that is so very real and full of beauty and cruelty.

Having been in my own company for more than 46 years, I know that I will stumble and fall again. I know that I will be overwhelmed by the demands of life, others and myself. I continue to struggle with being a woman, mother, daughter, nurse, deacon, Christian, and part of a minority – life simply doesn’t come to me easily. I will disappoint and be disappointed. I will be exhausted, weary and angry, and life East of Eden will seem barren and meaningless from time to time, a wasteland and a provocation, where I will forget insights and what really matters, while trying to navigate in the many seeming contradictions of everyday life. I will sense my poverty and vulnerability that mysteriously turns out to be my strength. 

As a nomad I chose to belong here as best I can. There will always be places of rest that are home to me on the way – goodness, joy and love are also part of life. And I will not be alone: there are people with me on this journey, sisters and brothers in Christ – some are alive and around, some live abroad or have already passed. And the church is there with its reservoir of buildings, traditions, texts, songs and liturgy, that I can lean on when my faith faulters, reminding me of the things I cannot tell myself and the fact that I am not the author of this script. And most importantly I know that I am always already loved, even though I don’t feel it, and that I will always be found again by Him/Her/Them (words fall short) no matter how much I go astray or loose myself. And that He/She/They meet me in the people and events I encounter, as I go along.

– Kirsten Bühler

Tall. Chiseled features. Blue eyes. Flowing brown hair. Kenny Logins 80s-style facial hair (is that a trans-Atlantic reference or just USA? Well, Google it, I guess). Robes. Lamb draped over him like a towel over a beach-goer’s neck on his way to the sea.

Image used with permission.

Growing up, that was my Jesus. Or at least that was how he was depicted in a painting found in the traditionally stain-glassed, steepled church and Christian school where I grew up outside Detroit, Michigan. The painting hung above a side altar reserved for baptisms off to the side of the main sanctuary. The painting stuck with me, maybe because that was where my brother was Christened, and my four-year old self was more interested in pictures than the heady vows and words batted about and above my wee head.

To my head, like for many Midwestern kids, there was just church, where we worshipped God, and the way to God was belief in Jesus (because John 3:16, of course). Every one of my WASPy friends was loved by Jesus just the same. There was no anxiety. It was a simple transaction. It was a non-choice, really. Who would say “no”? Heaven in exchange for belief in Jesus because he loves you this-you-know-for-the-Bible-tells-you-so. Plus, your parents encouraged it. And as a kid, what more than that did you need?

As for the other option: hell. For disbelief. For untrust. For sin. At least, unforgiven sin. Don’t forget to repent, young Matt. Repent, and sin’ll just be washed away. Dirty, wash, rinse, repeat. We are saved… by this vicious cycle. Others outside the circle of faith who didn’t submit to the vicious cycle, however, would be assuredly hell bound. 

Did I say there was no anxiety? Yeah, I lied. (Sin.) There was plenty: anxiety about a judgmental God staring down, seeing my every move. Every. Move. 

Yikes. 

Some years later into my childhood, a teacher during Christmas pageant practice led me and some friends to the side baptism altar with the painting of CrossFit Jesus. I remember being wide-eyed as she gave the altar a tug to swing the whole wooden piece outward, pulled a curtain aside, and revealed a secret of complete and utter… underwhelm. 

Behind the altar was… wait for it… storage. A room maybe 12’ by 8’ held dust, cobwebs, boxes, the wooden manger for Christmas, and the seasonal banners that hung throughout the building. 

How’s that for a metaphor? Behind Captain America Jesus was a room filled with dust and stuff. 

Caveat: the preceding summary of my faith upbringing (with just a pinch – nay, a liberal dash – of snark and bitterness) is a tail of a much larger, more complex elephant. The teachers and faith leaders generally meant well. It was not, by any means, strictly evangelical in the most toxic interpretations of the label. They provided what many would consider a nurturing environment – in the best of times. 

What happens, though, when true existential challenges test our mettle and faith? We all encounter pain to differing degrees, but what happens when those around you in positions of power and authority haven’t been tested – or in quite the same way? Or they lack caring instincts? Or they employ shallow faith slogans to address paradigm-shifting suffering?

My great (not my last, but certainly most profound) unraveling (deconstruction?) began with witnessing the abrupt death of my dad at age 11. That one sentence cannot begin to capture the anguish, journey, and redemption of the 31 years since then that bring me to now. Some in the church thankfully gave some care in the aftermath, but the Church’s care was arm’s-length and mechanical. I still cringe at the Christian and self-help platitudes that pummeled me, my mom, and my brother, and I’ll leave it at that. You all know them, Nomads. I know you do. I feel you do. I’ve read your comments and blog posts to recognize my kindred spirits, and I wouldn’t write this now if I didn’t feel in familiar, empathic company.

I can also say that experiencing sincere love and compassion rescued me, and frankly, it neither mattered from where it came nor did it always come from Christians. I found in bits and pieces, here and there, a few other surrogate father figures and steady friends along the way. Aside from my immediate family, I found the first divine words of acceptance, forgiveness, humanity, and empathy, not from a clergy person, but from a therapist. It was a revelation. 

After many years of experiential journey, I married a wonderful woman who reintroduced me to church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, in an old repurposed shopping mall. The church was called Mars Hill, and it was pastored by some guy named Rob Bell. It was as contemporary as it got, which was a culture shock from my more stylistically-traditional upbringing. But musical choices aside, oh, did I have my eyes opened. I had no idea what the gospel (The Way), the Bible (not a book, but a library of books spanning centuries), Jesus (probably not blue-eyed; chiseled? unknown), God (   ), and first century context (a palm branch was political?!) could mean and not mean. Bell invited speakers like Shane Claiborne and Peter Rollins and referenced the works of Fr. Richard Rohr. A year-long series was built around a Brian McLaren book. It was… Nomadic, which probably groomed me and explains my affinity for this community.

My most powerful take-away from Mars Hill came in a single Greek word: metanoia. In the messy business of translation throughout centuries, that word came to me in English language Bibles as “repent.” Cracking the rigidity of some orthodoxies, Bell pointed to theologians wrestling over a more authentic translation as “fundamental transformation,” as in metamorphosis. Well, that just blows the doors off the box in which so many of our churches put Jesus, doesn’t it? 

Today, I recalibrate repentance away from how I had osmosed it beneath a mythological Norse shepherd Jesus. I hope I am a more fluid thing – a hybrid sheep-shepherd traveling, not over his shoulder, but on the path beside a paradoxical Nazarean rabbi-healer. Ever transforming together. On a teachable path not just of belief but of radically-practiced compassion. 

There is no transaction now, only journey with this sage savior.

“And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.” – Robert Frost

– Matt Jones 

My story is one of becoming 

Unrecognisable.

I was a home schooled child of the 80’s who went to church three times a week and was the star of Sunday School.

I was a teenager of the 90’s who went on an international mission trip every single summer and lived for church and youth group. 

I was a Bible College student/missionary/youth worker in the 00’s who got married for all the wrong reasons and ended up in a very unhealthy marriage but was able to gloss over that, because I was a successful full time church worker with two gorgeous children, a well-loved worship leader, with a passion for women and families and pastoral work. 

My church loved me and the sense of belonging I got from being in that place managed to eclipse what I viewed as temporal earthly problems. 

Image used with permission.

I clutched my ministry career close to my heart and held on to it with all my strength because it was the one thing that made me feel like I wasn’t a failure.  It was a massive validating factor in my life filling it with purpose and providing a portal to joy that I did not have at home. I felt so grateful to God for giving it to me, because it felt like it was saving my life, and for many years it did. So as I worshiped and sang and prayed in the euphorically spiritual environment of a massive well-loved worship event one summer evening, Spirit showed me how hard I was gripping, and told me to open my hands and to let it go. I was scared, but I took a deep breath, and physically opened my hands while on my knees. In that moment I heard a whisper to my spirit. “I want you to catch babies”. Just like that. Out of the blue. I knew I was being called to Midwifery. I was scared. I didn’t want to leave the ministry, but I couldn’t ignore it. 

Two weeks later my marriage imploded for the final time. It took me 9 months of agonisingly processing with friends, a therapist, myself and God to make a decision. Leaving had never been an option before, I had always thought one day God would do a miracle and our marriage would be an amazing testimony. However I came to the realization that God loved me more than He loved my marriage and that it was time to go.

The freedom and experiences I had within the first few months of leaving blew my world wide open and fast tracked my deconstruction journey. I found myself traveling down to London to see Rob Bell speak, not because of what he had to say but because I wanted to see for myself how completely at peace he was with where he was at after leaving the fold of evangelicalism. I started devouring not only his Podcast, but the Liturgists as well and anything else that resonated with where I was at and what I was experiencing.

I continued working for the church while quietly keeping my deconstruction journey to myself, however there were those who had been watching me closely, suspecting, wondering, and waiting to catch me out. All it took was one unguarded Facebook post about an inspirational teacher I’d been following and learning from who was outside the lines, and it triggered the beginning of the end for me and my relationship with the church. I came under intense attack. I was confronted under the guise of a friendly catch up, and told all the work I had been doing for the church was tainted by “new age influences”, that I was clearly “being deceived” and that I was becoming a dangerous influence because I practiced yoga. I had intended to gracefully exit my life as a church leader, but instead it was a messy exit, full of pain, betrayal, and lost friendships. There were still people in the leadership who loved me and wanted me to “just ignore” what was being said, and to carry on being part of the community, and for a season I tried. However I then experienced the second wave of pain which was realising that once I was no longer in leadership or involved in the inner workings of the church, I was invisible. People didn’t seem interested in really knowing me anymore. My midwifery training was full on and I very quickly become ‘out of sight, and out of mind’ and friendships I had counted on to see me through this transitional time seemed to fall away. I felt my worth as a friend had diminished perhaps because I could no longer be who I used to be. This broke my heart. 

Since then, my deconstruction journey has been characterised by the loss of my reputation as a leader, a friend, and a Christian. I’ve felt spiritually lost for a lot of the time and simply taken comfort in the voices of those who were further along like Rob Bell, Science Mike, Michael Gungor, Nomad Podcast etc. 

Recently I have started to rebuild. I’m nearing the end of my University course and will be a qualified midwife soon. I look forward to a new career, but am taking care to not make it my sole identity like I did with my church work. 

My journey has also been characterised by much beauty and new life. I’ve experienced new love, and a deeper connection to nature. A year ago I turned 40 and spent the day on the island of Iona, completely connected to the earth, feeling as though the Island itself was loving me as I laid in the grass and stared up at the sky. I danced on the beach there and prayed over my future. A week later I was in Rome on a Sacred Feminine embodiment retreat when I found the strength to physically turned my back on the Vatican and walk away. I finally felt safe enough to admit to God that I was done. I no longer needed the established Church to give me my identity, to validate me, or as a place to find belonging. I told Jesus that if He wanted me, He’d have to win my heart back. It was a tremendously mystical moment in which I feel the person of Jesus actually appeared to me and sang over me as I walked away to freedom.  

Since then my world has opened up. I am discovering more embodied spiritual practices and exploring other traditions. Jesus makes an appearance in the midst of this, and I feel His presence and His unconditional love. I still feel pain over my loss of the Church community. I still fight bitterness taking root over the people who seem to have forgotten about me. Although I know the divorce was absolutely the right thing, there are inevitably ongoing consequences for my children that I have to face and work through. 

I have a new partner who is amazing, but the relationship is under a lot of scrutiny for many reasons, and I still get paralysed with fear that there is no way this could possibly be “right” and my ego is desperately wanting to retain approval from the outside world in order to feel OK, so I have to fight self-sabotage at every turn. 

I’ve made new friends though through University, and through the local Vegan Café that has a heart for wellness and community. I’ve enjoyed just being April….not “April from the local Church”, who is learning to just be, and experiencing the freedom of loving people without any agenda or judgment. 

I’m incredibly grateful for the chance to have a whole new life. I’m still early on in my journey, but I am become more “unrecognisable” every day. There is a grief to that, but also an incredible peace. 

– April Hunter

In thinking about contributing something of my story here, I’ll admit to flinching a little when ruminating on the final three words of the Nomad catchphrase, “Stumbling through the post-Christendom wilderness, looking for signs of hope.” Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, a few years of faith deconstruction and a glass half-empty modus operandi, I wondered if I’d have anything hopeful to offer. As such, the timing is poignant – it has forced me to pause, reflect and to uncover signs of hope present here and now.

Image used with permission.

I expect my early life will not be unfamiliar to many of the readers here; I grew up in a white middle class home with a reasonably functional family unit attending our local Baptist (and moderately conservative) church. My life as a teenager and young adult revolved around church, youth group and being a good Christian kid – making sure not to (with mixed success) cuss, drink alcohol or look at pornography. During these years, my internal world was full of angst, shame and self-loathing as the consequence of an addiction to the physical objectification of people and the external manifestations of this: pornography and masturbation. Time and again I pleaded for God to take away the thorn from my side and time and again I was disappointed when my prayers were left unanswered. The Original Sin narrative; I am inherently broken and bad and in need of saving, was continuously reinforced by this pattern of addictive behaviour. I never felt sure of my salvation, I was fearful that I would never be free from this and consequently I could not move forward in the life that I thought God had for me. I cannot recall ever hearing a message at church or youth group speaking to any of these issues; there was inexplicable silence on a topic that statistics suggested the majority of people at this age were dealing with in one way or another; however I was in no way aware of this at the time – I felt wholly alone in my struggles. God’s love seemed conditional on whether I did x and not y and I felt utterly stuck in a perpetual cycle oscillating between sin, shame, repentance, and forgiveness – wash, rinse, repeat. Questions circled round and round in my mind as to whether I had not been praying the right prayer, not been genuine enough; could God not hear me because of my sin? Was I too far gone? 

My image of God was not the classic old white guy with a beard, although I did have a sense of God existing as a being in some sense, having consciousness and a will, and of a God who was all powerful, knowing, and present. I didn’t see a God who was angry with me so much as disappointed. Not until much later would I allow the questions simmering below the surface about God’s character and role in the world to burst forth.

Skipping forward a few years, I married Jaime (also a fellow Beloved Listener) and we moved to a new city, away from the comforts of our home church communities, drifting in and out of churches but never finding meaningful connection. Those experiences led us to explore what true Christian community should or could look like and it was then, around 5 years ago, that we happened upon the first Tom Wright Nomad episode – we had found home. Our journey (mercifully, Jaime and I have been in step with each other) of questioning and deconstructing has seemed to uncannily mirror Nomad’s

Last week whilst reminiscing over old photos my 7-year-old son saw a photo of himself asleep in his old cot, exclaiming, “that’s when I dreamed that God was gone.” Queue long pause: God. Was. Gone. I was struck then that God as I had known ‘him’ was also gone. Gone was the concept of God as a being of infinite power who orchestrates all and demands perfection – in its place an imprecise and at times nebulous conception of God as the creative, sustaining, and loving divine mystery for which words and concepts otherwise fail me. Amongst other new ways of seeing the world, gone now are the ‘shoulds and should nots’; gone is the concept that I am inherently evil; gone is the cyclical torment of self-loathing. I have instead found compassion and grace for the times when I fail and am less likely to wallow in self-condemnation despite still not fully having a handle on the way I view and objectify others. In short, I can now accept that I am a work in progress, knowing that I will never achieve perfection – and I am OK with this.

In circling back to hope, I recently read a Center for Action and Contemplation daily meditation in which Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault wrote that hope is vital to stave off our human propensity to despair. They distinguish between ordinary and mystical hope where ordinary hope is tied to outcome, an optimistic sense that things will get better in the future. Mystical hope, in contrast, is not tied to the future or having reference to external circumstances but is rather having to do with “the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand” and its fruit is “strength, joy and satisfaction: an unbearable lightness of being.” Richard writes, “the journey to the wellsprings of hope is really a journey toward the centre, toward the innermost ground of our being where we meet and are met by God.” For me, there is a striving towards this mystical hope, I am not there yet but have placed a foot on the path. Given the chance to stop and take stock, particularly in light of COVID-19, I see hope in a number of places: the new connections made with neighbours and connections re-made with friends and family; I see hope in the resurgence of wildlife and reduction in air pollution; I see hope in the way the vulnerable are being prioritised (at least here in New Zealand). In writing this and with the gift of retrospect, I can see how compassion and grace have been worked out in my own life and I am hopeful that we can emerge post-COVID-19 more aware of our interconnectedness, our need for compassion and grace for one another and the environment we inhabit.        

– Rhys Parry

During a lockdown tidy up, my husband came across some DVDs of old photos. Looking through them was like entering a portal back to the early 2000s: babies, bootcut jeans and, for my husband, a full head of hair. And there on the TV screen were people I hadn’t seen in years – mostly friends from the conservative evangelical church we attended back when we lived in another part of the country, miles away from where we are now. 

Image used with permission.

Watching the slide show of photos stirred up a tangle of emotions which has manifested often in me recently: affection for people with whom I once spent a lot of time mingled with the rawness of the realisation that this evangelical culture in which I was so steeped affected me in some negative ways. The people in those old photos were good, well-meaning folks. They worked hard to put on events, give money and provide support to people who needed it, and the sense of community was strong. When our first baby was born, we were provided with delicious meals and generous gifts. There was always someone to turn to.  

But there was the less than healthy leadership structure I accepted, the pressure to show up to everything and the guilt I felt when I hadn’t managed to engineer a single evangelism opportunity in the week between Sunday services. In spite of this, I was all in, surrounded by people who were similarly convinced. I was careful to do and say what I thought would please God, and I was constantly afraid of being ‘led astray’. I cringe now remembering how I viewed everyone I met outside of church as conversion fodder. I realise that I didn’t listen to those people because I was really interested in their lives, but because I hoped that opportunities might arise to shoehorn Jesus into the conversation – however clumsily.  As I write this, I realise that my church friends were my only friends. In spite of my evangelistic fervour, I had few meaningful relationships with anybody who wasn’t a Christian. I’m sure my conviction that we were the only ones with a valid worldview, and that everyone else was spiritually impoverished was no small hindrance when it came to forging genuine friendships with anyone ‘out there’. 

When we moved elsewhere, we found ourselves at another evangelical church, albeit one with a healthier outlook and a focus on missional communities. Once again, we got involved in church life. Over time, however, the wheels grew wobbly on my theological wagon, and a few years ago they fell off completely. I can’t pinpoint exactly what triggered it, but I wasn’t expecting it. All my life I had been told that we evangelicals had it right: the right doctrines, the right interpretation of the Bible, and the right way to behave. That certainty was what had carried me. Now, through podcasts, blogs and books, I was discovering that not only was it OK to pay attention to that niggling disquiet which dogged me on Sunday mornings, but that I wasn’t alone in feeling it. There were Christians who saw things differently. They didn’t seem afraid to ask what if? and why? They turned my world upside down, which was both shattering and liberating. 

As the dust of deconstruction has begun to settle, and my once unassailable certainty has diminished, so I have found that my openness to others and my willingness to learn from them has grown correspondingly. I no longer feel anxious about entertaining questions; instead, I feel curious. I am beginning to see how changes to my outlook are bringing new benefits. When my faith first began to shift, I started to grieve the opportunities for friendship and learning I had missed over the years because my convictions – and, I realise, fears – wouldn’t allow me to engage. This grief is slowly being healed by the new connections I am making as I unlearn old habits. Since I stopped seeing people as projects, I am seeing them as people. I have learned to appreciate them as beautifully made image-bearers of God. It occurs to me that being less certain means that maybe these days, I am able to perceive people with more Christlike eyes. I have learned that they are not spiritual vacuums. I have seen the beauty and truth in other faith traditions which I wish I had been able to find whilst I was at university, where RE was part of my degree. 

The ongoing impact of this still new, more expansive way of living is simultaneously unsettling and delightful. Loss of certainty has been uncomfortable, yes, but it has also freed me to explore and receive in many ways. This newfound freedom catches me unawares. I might be reading something, watching a film or chatting with a parent or child at work. I find myself fully entering into whatever I am doing, catching glimpses of the Kingdom of God in whatever or whoever it is I am encountering, and then marvelling at this flash of divine beauty I have witnessed, at this holy gift presented to me. I also find myself acknowledging that once, I would probably have thrown that gift  away. 

Looking back at the person I was in those photos, I have a difficult time reconciling who I was then with who I am now. If I had met future me back then, I would have been very concerned about my dodgy ideas! I am growing more comfortable with unanswered questions, with just not knowing.  There is a beautiful song by The Brilliance, called Give Me Doubt. The first line has become a sort of prayer for me of late: give me doubt, so I can see my neighbour as myself. This is so completely the opposite of what I would once have asked of God and yet it seems just the right kind of request now, so I shall keep on asking. I am looking forward to seeing where doubt leads me next. 

– Kim Eames

I feel like my story is very boring. I went to a kid’s club outreach by a local Baptist Church. I grew with them and decided to take my faith seriously when I was a teenager. I left school and spent about 3 years working with a missions organisation overseas and in the UK.

I went to university, began work as a teacher, moved to London, met my husband, had our children and here I am. I am happy, sometimes quite funny (although my teenager might deny this), busy and occasionally creative.

This is what it looks like on paper and to those who know me. I am very content and grateful for everything I have.

While no more or less bereaved than most people my age, this story maps a few deaths that, in their own ways, shaped me.

Image used with permission.

As a teenager I was bullied – much like many teenagers were. One incident took place on a school bus that went from the town to the villages. A boy on the bus thought it would be funny to stop me getting off the bus in my village and keep me on until the next village. I couldn’t be late home and I decided to fight my way off the bus. With the help of my unkempt fingernails I made it off just in time. The next day, the boy came up to me at school and accused me of scratching him. He told me that if I was ever on the same bus as him again, he would make sure I never got off.

For months, I would hang back and make sure he got on a bus first so I could decide to get on a different bus.

One evening, this boy was trying to get high by inhaling the fumes from an aerosol can. He died.  He was fourteen. Our school went into shock. He had been popular. I felt sad because I knew that it was sad  My life would go on and his would not. There were 600 kids from my school at his funeral. I was not one of them. At the age of 14 I knew I was not going to pretend to be someone I was not.  I learned that I couldn’t claim to be the friend of someone that had caused me anxiety but at the same time I did not need to wish them ill or glory in their death. I struggled with the sense of relief I felt at his absence though and never shared that with anyone.

There was a man I had hoped I would marry.  We were together in a long-distance capacity for a couple of years and had decided to finally meet again for a make-or-break trip together. A month before we were to meet up, he took his own life quite violently.

I worked really hard to make Romans 8:28 fit this particular situation but I was fooling myself and everyone else.  Accepting this and not trying to find any holy meaning behind it was very liberating.  My experience of Christianity so far had everything wrapped up into neat little ‘God’s will’ packages and this did not fit any of them.  And I learned that this was okay.

My dad died about 8 years later. It happened fast – he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he had months to live but he spent those months just dying.  He had never fitted into the evangelical mould that I had adopted and watching him die made me rethink what I believed. I knew he had sincerely searched for God, for meaning in life. He hadn’t found it in the ‘evangelical’ way – did this condemn him to hell?  I increasingly began to think not. I wrote him a letter to tell him about all the times he had made me happy. We had not been particularly close but he had been a good dad. This was a cathartic activity for me. I never regretted telling him how much I loved him. No one deserves to die without knowing how much they are loved.

Between the births of my two children were the two I never got a chance to meet. They lived briefly inside me and were clothed in hope. This was the death of my hope, the plans I had for my family and the shape I wanted it to take. This was such a private grief as the friends around me grew their families and I wanted to be happy for them.  Every morning I go into my little garden where there, among clutter are two pots, each planted with a tree to remember them.  The world is cluttered with private grief and unfulfilled hopes.  Mine might look like they are brushed neatly under a rug – I want to be mindful that so do those of many others.

My mum died the day before my family and I were due to go to Greenbelt. We still went. It was a surreal experience walking around this festival where everyone was mixing happily – oblivious to the fact my mum had just died. I remember sitting watching the band ‘Why.’ They sang ‘Old Time Religion’ – a song my parents used to sing together. I dropped my phone on the ground just at that moment. It smashed and I started to cry. My husband put his arm around me and said, “It’s ok, you can get the screen fixed.” I was sobbing too much to explain the real reason for my tears. But the powerful surge of memories at that moment was a gift to me. Now, when I see a sad person in a happy place, I tell myself, “Maybe their mum just died.” 

As a teacher, I now work in a service that provides education for children in hospital and those ill at home. Most of my students do recover. But I have the privilege of drawing alongside families who fear and face the worst. Every day, especially in these strange times, I am acutely aware of the anxiety the parents of these children must be going through.

At work I get the chance to bring a bit of joy, normality and distraction into the lives of children who otherwise get poked and prodded, who feel pain and fear. I get to tell their parents, “Take a break, have a cuppa, have a moment.” Or I get to just sit and let them sound off at me about everything they are going through.

I love life  I love life more for the moments I have shared in death. Knowing that agonising separation cannot be brushed away with a platitude. Grateful for the warmth and support of those who have drawn alongside me and pulled me powerfully through to the next stage. I want to be that for others too.

I love life.

– Ailsa Betts

I grew up in a Christian family. My childhood and early teens experience of the church was of a Pentecostal church until I was 12 and then a small brethren chapel ran by my uncle. Both of these churches were evangelical, they were led by men and believed that women’s role was to be caregivers and homemakers. The awkwardness in both these churches was that my family didn’t neatly fit. My mum had Bipolar and a lot of the time she was unable to care for us. My Dad was a policeman and juggled a stressful job with looking after the home, his wife and two young daughters. From a young age I realised that men were caring, loving, and perfectly capable of running a home. The other challenge for both these churches was they believed my mum’s Bi-Polar was either due to demon-possession (Pentecostal church) or as a result of her sin (both churches) and that she wasn’t healed due to her lack of faith. As a child and young teen, I believed that I needed to pray for mum’s healing every night, and when she became ill again I thought this was due to me not praying enough. 

Image used with permission.

At 17 I went along to a friend’s church called St Matthews in Bath, which was Church of England. The first service I went to, the vicar’s wife was preaching about Christian feminism. She was an artist with dyed hair talking about women in leadership, she discussed how Jesus was radical in the way he treated women with respect, she also challenged the patriarchal sexist church environment. I felt so excited and stunned to hear this. Over the weeks and months of attending the church, I realised the church was full of artists, poets, writers, philosophers, musicians, teachers and social workers. The firm belief was that we all had unique skills and gifts from God and we needed to figure out what they were and get on and use them. Nobody was concerned about your age or gender being a hindrance, the expectation was that you would get on and use your skills in the world. Another view of the church was that the idea of certain jobs being more important (e.g. the preacher or missionary) was total rubbish. All skills and gifts were unique. The underlying theology of the church was a Reformation theology characterised by a belief that the whole of life belongs to God. What this meant in practice was we didn’t have to only do ‘God’ things, ‘God art”, sing ‘God songs’, write about God. God was interested in how we teach, how we sweep the roads, how we make a pot, how we figure science theories, how we are fully creative.

I look back and I am so grateful for this experience at St Matthew’s. I met my husband Iain there, and made many wonderful friends, most of whom we are still in contact with. Of course, there were difficulties along the way in the church, not everything was brilliant. However, the experience at St Matt’s showed me that God was interested in me as a woman, that I have a voice, I am beautifully and wonderfully made and my skills are God-given and I need to nurture them and help them to flourish. It also helped me to understand that my mum’s Bipolar had nothing to do with demons, sin, or lack of faith.

Because creativity and questioning and try things out were big emphases at St Matthews, a few of us wanted to experiment with how we ran services. With the vicar’s blessing, in 1998 Iain and I and two friends started an alternative worship service called Sanctuary  We were interested in stripping back church services, as we felt the common model of worship, preach and prayer didn’t work. We started with a monthly worship service. We wanted to challenge the idea that worship was singing led by a band/worship leader. We wanted to create a worship space that invited reflection, participation, thinking and questioning. Space where people could be curious, engage and discover, rather than space where people were told what to think. Initially the four of us coordinated and curated the services. Three of the team were artists (I was the one who was not!). The services were very experimental and creative but they were always participative, this was key, enabling everyone attending to actively take part. Over time Sanctuary grew to around 40 people of all ages. After a few years others became regularly involved in curating and planning services. We tried to set it up in a way that encouraged and enabled anyone in Sanctuary to be involved in curating and planning the service if they wanted. The other key part to Sanctuary was that it was all age. I strongly felt that church should be a community/family and I wanted children to be fully part of the community. The way we managed this was to mostly have stations in the services, spaces where there were things to do, things to think about. We would organise these so they were layered, like a good Pixar film, things that worked across the ages and abilities. Over time (we ran for 16 years ) Sanctuary services increasingly explored more contemplative spaces in the services and contemplative practice became an increasingly key part of mine and Iain’s practice.

Sanctuary closed around 5 years ago. It came to a natural end. This felt like the right decision. Contemplative practice has became my main way of connecting with God. Along with this I felt increasingly drawn to experiencing God through nature. Two years ago a friend started a forest church, which we supported. She moved away and we ended up curating and coordinating this. It’s a stripped-back experience of church, it is loosely planned, with a simple participative, spacious invitation to try something, for example making prayer out of the things we find in the woods. It is about community, experiencing God whilst being in the woods, sharing food, having a fire, playing, talking, being creative, having times of silence.  It’s a small group, mostly families, a number of the children are on the autistic spectrum and find being inside hard.

I have learned over the last few years that the sensory experiences of being outside are where I encounter God the most. There are certain experiences where I have a deep sense of God, some of these are whilst barefoot walking, being in the woods and cold water swimming. This winter Iain and I have kept up a practice of wild swimming without wet suits. There is something about the shock of the cold that forces you to be totally in the moment, totally aware of how you feel and what is around you. For me, that is where I meet God. 

– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

I threw my Bible away recently. Actually, I threw away six, in three different languages. That’s what a good missionary I used to be. The only ones I kept were the beautiful gold-edged King James version I was given for my christening and the Russian one given to me by a woman whose house I stayed in for a while, shortly after the end of the Soviet Union. It is worn and the marker ribbon is transparent from use, but she’d kept it through years of pressured faith and I couldn’t part with it. But I threw away the others, including the one which was marked up and underlined and colour-coded and annotated and highlighted and everything else you can possibly do to a book. It was crammed with so many notes on loose pieces of paper that a friend once referred to it as the New Exploding Version. And I remember clearly when I bought it and sat in the garden doing a spot of colour coding as the thought went through my head, “Do I really have to do this for the rest of my life? Can’t I ever just arrive?” Of course, I banished the thought immediately, apologised to God and berated myself at length.

Image used with permission.

What strikes me now is the sense of striving that went with all of that – the unease that I would never be good enough, never know enough, never do enough, never keep the rules enough. No wonder I burned out and spent three years with M.E., having spent the previous three years living – sorry, ‘serving’ – in a community thousands of miles from home, with serious issues of poverty, domestic abuse, gang violence, endemic HIV, TB and alcohol and drug abuse, in a culture very different from my own, functioning in a language I hadn’t spoken a word of when I arrived. I often wonder now if I was in the wrong place, despite feeling at the time that I had clearly heard God tell me to go. I’m still not convinced I was wrong, but the way I went about it was problematic. If anyone had suggested a need for some kind of theology of suffering, or of rest, I’m not sure I could have taken those on board at any more than a theoretical level. Either way, I continued to work for mission agencies and/ or a tangled web of mission, law and politics for another 16 years, coming close to burnout a couple more times.

Perhaps part of it was a need for approval. Perhaps it was my inability to fit my blurry-lined, shades-of-grey thinking into a black and white theology (“But why is that a sin?”). Or perhaps it was a genuine sense of anger at injustice and poverty and exploitation. 

There are things I’m still angry about, still make me want to throw something (or someone). I am angry with those who controlled, manipulated and shamed others in the name of God: I remember the public shaming of a friend whose sexuality was forcibly outed. I had trained as a professional dancer, and yet was made to feel ashamed of my (very covered up) female body, lest I cause the poor men to stumble. That body – that ability to move – gave up when I became ill. I was told I had a ‘spirit of rebellion’ (it’s always a ‘spirit’, isn’t it?) because I questioned my leadership and failed to even notice hierarchies, and that I would never find a husband (the ultimate goal) because I was too strong and independent. When I did get married, I went into it not having a clue about myself in relationship, taught only about a form of marriage which simply doesn’t apply to 21st Century UK, yet feminist enough to have solemnly promised my beloved that I would never, ever do his ironing (so far, so good). I am angry with myself, at times, for taking so long to see through the bullshit that had nothing to do with God and for spending decades feeling like a universe trapped in a matchbox.

And yet… how much better off would I have been outside the Church? Aren’t there also unhealthy relationships and warped views of sex; controlling people; chronic striving; sexism; othering and, in this age of identity politics, the terror of breaking the rules of this new sort of purity culture? Maybe not so much justifying it by taking God’s name in vain…

I notice the two Bibles I kept have something in common: I kept them because of the people who gave them to me. And the reason I still don’t think I was in the wrong place was the people who gave to me: those who loved me in deeply sacrificial ways, who exposed me to the richness of other cultures, who sent me to bed when I wasn’t well, who noticed and stood up for women when they were being overlooked or ignored, who introduced me to feminist theology, who I can still turn to. Also the group of friends who went after the man who attacked me, and beat him to a pulp. Don’t we all need those kinds of friends from time to time?

I threw the Bibles away because I needed a fresh start. I needed not to be reminded of the angst every time I looked at them, or to cringe at the certainties I once flung at others. For a long time now, I’ve felt like a snake sloughing off its old, dry, itchy skin. The new skin is sensitive, but it feels fresher, healthier, a relief. There are times when my faith seems like Schrödinger’s cat – can it be alive and dead at the same time? I know there are those who would say it is stone dead: I’ve had the slippery slope, all heart and no head (that one had more than a hint of misogyny about it), woolly liberal, heretic discussions, and I probably would have said the same once upon a time. But I’m not so sure I like the binary nature of that cat any more than the binary nature of the rules, the judgements, the othering. Maybe it’s a whole different kind of cat.

A few years ago, I began to wonder what happened to that dancer, so I re-trained as an actor. These days I’m learning to let go, to love uncertainty. I listen to Russian Orthodox music rather than worship bands and read more Mary Oliver than scripture. The first lines of her Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

…blend into the last lines of The Summer Day:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Does anyone know of a good, modern Bible translation?

– Olivia Jackson

I don’t see myself as particularly special.  I have not been involved in any conspicuously important or miraculous events.  My faith journey has been a gradual one, without significant drama.  Yet in many ways I know I am not your average early-50s white Anglo-Saxon ‘Protestant’ (more or less) cisgender heterosexual bloke who works with computers.

Image used with permission

For starters, I was a missionary kid for the first 12 ½ years of my life, after which I was a pastor’s kid here in Australia until I finished high school.  Six months later I went back overseas for a 2 year ‘short-term’ mission program, most of which was spent in Cairo, Egypt, where I became moderately proficient in Arabic.  But that was way back at the end of the 1980s, almost a lifetime ago.

My ‘MK’ (or to use the more general term, ‘TCK’ – Third Culture Kid) experience was not bad for the most part, I got to travel a lot (my parents had supporters in both Australia and the U.S.A.), I made some great friends at boarding school, I had a much more interesting culinary upbringing than the vast majority of other “Western” kids of my generation. In comparison, my high school experience in Australia was far worse, the saving grace being a strong and supportive youth group at our non-denominational ‘community’ church.  But my mostly positive childhood overseas, combined with the outlook I inherited from my parents that mission is the pinnacle of Christian service, resulted in that being the course I always expected to take as an adult.

By the end of high school, however, there were already a few flies in the ointment of that plan.  Firstly, my personality: it turns out that I’m the kind of person that questions everything I am told, no matter the authority, and I prefer to find my own way instead of following the well-trod path.  And though the latter is a metaphor for my in-built approach to life, it is also quite literal – on the many walks in forests and parks my family went on while I was growing up, I would invariably be the one bashing through the trees or scrub or field or whatever, 5 or 10 metres to the left or right of the path everyone else was using.

A second thing was an experience that has had a fundamental and profound impact on my life in every way.  Not long before my 16th birthday I was going through a period of angst about a girl who had broken up with me, exacerbating my deeper teenage struggles of feeling unlovable and insignificant.  One day I was with a friend from church and I was pouring out all my sadness and pain, and he stopped me and said, “Let me pray for you.”  I don’t remember a word of his prayer, but while I was sitting there with my eyes closed, out of ‘nowhere’ I was enveloped by an overwhelming assurance of the reality of God’s love, for me, that very literally changed my life, and has never left me. Little did I know that the deep and unshakeable certainty of God’s perfect and unconditional love that was planted in my soul in that moment would eventually upend almost all the Christian doctrines I had been taught growing up.

Perhaps the first significant step in that journey of disrupting my childhood faith was something said by an Indian man during a conference at the beginning of the afore-mentioned short-term mission program. While acknowledging the benefits that foreign missionaries can bring, he said that it is actually the Western church that needs the non-Western church far more than the other way around, to help return them to the perspective of the ‘underside’ of power where the Christian faith began.  That simple yet profound assertion changed my perspective on mission in an instant, and though I completed the two year program successfully (whatever that means) and for a long time afterwards still held onto the goal of returning to overseas Christian service, the vitally important goal I had always been taught, to ‘save the nations’, was irreversibly spoiled.

It was in my 20s, though, that I really started questioning the belief system that had been instilled in me. The major problem I encountered was both personal and communal.  I grew increasingly frustrated by my inability to change, in particular to stop doing the things I “knew” I shouldn’t do.  But in church I saw the same thing all around me, people who may have gone through rapid personal growth just after their ‘conversion’ but then stayed pretty much the same for the next 40 or 50 or however many years until they died. I realised that the ‘Christianity’ that I knew was essentially impotent when it came to real and deep change towards maturity. All it offered was ‘more stuff to do’, the ‘path of discipleship’ synonymous with spending more and more time in ‘Christian service’, the pinnacle of which was to be a pastor, or even better a missionary.  But with few exceptions the elders and pastors and missionaries I knew were no more mature at a character level than most of the other people at church.

A large part of the problem, of course, is the belief that all that really matters is getting to heaven when you die, so once you’ve got that ticket there’s not much else to do except hang around and don’t ‘backslide’. But another significant issue is that the only model for change in that system is a sense of guilt (heartily amplified by many church ‘leaders’) and your own willpower. Neither of those things worked for me, or most others I observed, and they didn’t seem right either, being too moralistic and focussed on human effort, and far far too conducive to pretending that you’ve got your life sorted out when you’re around other Christians. If that’s all that was on offer, I really didn’t want to be a part of it.

But yet, I knew my experience of God’s love was real, and continued to be foundational for my life, so I couldn’t abandon everything. I found some wonderful companions to help me along the journey, in the books and authors that challenged and fed me: C.S. Lewis, George Macdonald, G. K. Chesterton and Teilhard de Chardin; smatterings of Eugene Peterson, Philip Yancey and N. T. Wright.  A significant book for me early on was Brennan Manning’s “The Ragamuffin Gospel”. Through it all, my experience and certainty of the unfailing love of God (much reassured and strengthened by Macdonald I must say) has anchored me and given me the freedom to explore and ‘play’ without fear of punishment or retribution.

In the mid-2000s, exploring the new and exciting realm that was the blogosphere, I discovered that there were others like me who were questioning the theologies and doctrines once considered as bedrock fundamentals of Christian faith. One of these bloggers introduced me to the thought and writings of Rene Girard, and soon after that I discovered the great Catholic theologian James Alison.  It is the Girardian analysis of human culture and religion, profoundly worked out in Alison’s books, that I have found to be the most consistent and satisfying framework for understanding the Biblical story and God’s incredible plan to make us one in the freedom of forgiveness and self-giving love, but also and crucially for bringing about true, deep and lasting change to Christlike maturity in community.

There is one further aspect of my journey that I want to mention: since the age of 21, the soundtrack of my life has been the music of Canadian singer/songwriter/master guitarist Bruce Cockburn. His songs cover the full range of life experience, from faith and spirituality to love, politics, economics, justice and environmental concerns, and I wouldn’t want to imagine life without the companionship and beauty of his music and lyrics. One song in particular expresses and has informed my outlook and perspective, the wonder and gift of life and of each other:

Life Will Open

Waves can’t break without rocks that dissolve into sand
We can’t dance without seasons upon which to stand
Eden is a state of rhythm like the sea
Is a timeless change

Turn your eyes to the world where we all sit and dream
Busy dreaming ourselves and each other into being
Dreaming is a state of death, can’t you see?
We must live through who we are

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

We are children of the river we have named “existence”
Undercurrent and surface pass in the same tense
Nothing is confined except what’s in your mind
Every footstep must be true

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

(Lyrics by Bruce Cockburn, Copyright 1971, used by permission.)

–  David Roberts 

The garbled prayer call was barely recognizable in the din of the midweek market crowd. Four years earlier, I would have stopped and marveled at the droning of the “Allahu Akbar,” but now it was just background noise. I pushed an umbrella stroller in front of me, my son lulled to sleep by the motion and white noise. I was happy to be out of the house. I savored the smell of grilled onions and peppers. I watched a young covered woman guide her young child through the maze of people. Our lives were more similar than not. I smiled widely at the colorful stalls of fresh vegetables. I may have stared too long in the direction of one vendor. “Buyurun, efendim,” he called, “Come on in.” Little did he know that, right there in that crowded back street of Istanbul, I was having an existential crisis.

Image used with permission.

I had grown up in a loving but very religious home, the daughter of a Baptist pastor. I learned that to thrive, I must follow all the rules and please those in authority. I read my Bible every morning, went on summer mission trips, earned straight A’s in school, and developed an addiction to my parents’ and teachers’ approval. My external life was managed, but my self-esteem suffered, and I became so disconnected from my own internal compass that I could not smell danger right under my nose.

I moved straight from my dorm room at California Baptist College to the inner city of East Los Angeles, to “do the Lord’s work.” There I met my first husband, a young man who came from parents who were in street gangs, his father in prison for murder. My new boyfriend had struggled with drug addiction and had been arrested for violence just a year before, but Jesus had “saved” him since then, so who was I to doubt the Lord’s transformative power? 

A year into our marriage, we applied to be missionaries. We arrived in Turkey in March of 2002, bright eyed and full of dreams. We ran a small artist’s studio in the center of town and regularly socialized late into the night. There were signs of aggression here and there, but as long as I lived to serve my husband, all went smoothly.  Then I got pregnant.

I was extremely ill all through my first pregnancy. Suddenly, I could no longer use all my energy to care for my husband. I needed to care for myself and my growing baby. My husband resented this change and dealt with his disappointment through violence, frequently describing how he would torture and kill me.

About the same time, someone gave me a copy of Brian McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christian.” I reveled in the character’s ability to question how things had “always been.” When the leaders of our missionary organization found out, they forbid me to read the book. This was the beginning of a long list of things they caboshed – including attending the Turkish church. The only church they recognized as legitimate was the southern Baptist church (founded by American missionaries). When I gained the courage to reach out about the abuse in my marriage, I was told to have “grace” on my husband and to “be a Godly example.”

After three years in Turkey, our missionary organization asked us to resign based on “insubordination.” We decided to stay in Turkey but had to move to a poorer area of town. We lived on the fifth floor with no elevator. By this time, our first child was two and I was pregnant with our second. Life was difficult, but no longer being a “professional Christian” was freeing. I could think for myself.

That day in the midweek bazaar, I looked around and thought, “These people are doing their best, caring for their families, just like me. Yet, if what I believe about God is true, 99.9% of these people are doomed to eternal conscious torment!” This made me sad. I thought, “Eternal torture for one lifetime of ignorance does not seem just at all. I certainly would not condemn them. How could I be more gracious than God?” In that moment, I decided that either I could continue believing in this monster of a God and NOT worship him, or I could change my belief about God.  I decided to believe in a good God. This did not please my Christian tribe.

Soon after that day, my husband nearly suffocated me, and I arranged with my parents to fly home to California. My husband followed. I had no other means of supporting myself, and I had been taught that divorce was never an option. The next several years were a nightmare, a hell on earth. I lost faith in God – at least the one I had inherited.

This, however, freed me up to try on beliefs and practices I never would have allowed myself before. I began practicing mindfulness and self-compassion. I experimented with believing that I was innately lovable, and the fruit was so good, I never looked back. Previously, I decided to believe God was good. Now I was experiencing God as good. I began to grow in stability, health, and clarity, until one day I saw clearly that I needed to care for myself and my children by leaving my marriage.

Without constant abuse, my healing grew exponentially. Unfortunately, my first husband fell deeper into the trance of self-loathing. One year after I left, he took his own life. I was thrown into deep grief, but by this time I had the tools to offer my pain compassionate witness

Eventually, as I grew in self-love, I connected with Brian, a man full of kindness who values both me and himself. We have been very happily married for eight years and enjoy our six kids and two grandkids. One of our favorite activities together is listening to and discussing Nomad episodes. I now work as a mindbody coach for women, helping them heal from trauma (often religious) and (re)connect to their own inner compass. My husband is my greatest supporter and ally. I am now in heaven on earth.

I used to try to argue with and convince my religious friends that God is good, and we are innately lovable, yet this fell on deaf ears. Now, I give my attention to those who are already questioning their conditioning. I let them know that they are not crazy, and that there is life on the other side of reconstruction. God is Love, and when we are still enough, we can see the sacred in everything ordinary. 

– Christine Dixon

For more from Christine, check out The Ordinary Sacred

As a child growing up in a very conservative evangelical church, we sang with gusto “It only takes a spark”. We were the sparks, and we were to spread God’s love by passing it on to everyone we met. It was a happy kind of love. The fire it started would be warm and glowing and people would, of course, gather round to experience it. Our church was good. We were right. How could this spark ever go out?

Image used with permission.

Fire is good.  

I loved the open fireplace with my grandparents, where my dad would blow gently on the embers to get the fire roaring, while we learned to play cards with my pa. But not on Sundays. Nana said cards were banned on Sundays which didn’t really make sense but it must have been in the bible somewhere – I just didn’t know where. 

Fire is confusing. 

As a teen, I remember my first personal connection to a bushfire, sitting in an irrigation paddock with sprinklers overhead while fire came from over the hills. Friends lost homes and livestock. 

Fire is bad. 

In my late teens and early 20s,  we used to make bonfires on the beach  and contemplate life over marshmallows, watching as sparks mingled with stars while silly jokes mingled with hopes and dreams. 

Fire is good. 

As I grew older,  we sang of the refiners fire. A fire that would make us pure and holy – “set apart for you Lord”. This fire was one which would bring growth and make us better than we were. 

I was “on fire for God” as I set off for the mission field. On fire for God was like a badge of holiness, and songs of fire were my spiritual soundtrack – Set my heart ablaze; Let The Flame Burn Brighter; We’ll Walk the Land, with hearts on fire; Shine Jesus Shine – blaze, spirit blaze. 

Fire is good. 

Somewhere along the way, amidst the monotony of life,  that fire grew dim, and the spark from my childhood was barely an ember. 

I was burned out by the endless church events in my life – the deacons meetings, worship leading, Sunday school teaching, home group leading. The petty squabbles and major conflicts. The hurt caused and received. 

I was burned out by life in general. Children. A home. Work. Family responsibilities. 

Fire is bad. 

A couple of years ago, I was standing in my church singing “All I once held dear”. I knew that the lyrics were supposed to be about leaving a worldly life behind but at that moment, I had a physical sensation that somewhere deep inside the spark of my faith had quite literally died. I actually felt it. The fire had gone out. 

There was no god. There was no faith. And Everything I once held dear was gone. 

Bridges had been burned. 

Fire is bad.

As I write this, the air quality in my area is registering at “hazardous to health.” My state and my country is burning. Over 6.3  million hectares of land in Australia has burned this fire season. That’s 1 1/2 times the size of Switzerland. More than 3 times the size of Wales. It’s hard to see more than a couple of kilometres down the road. The air smells so bad that even though it is a hot Summer day, I can’t hang any washing out because it will come in smelling of smoke. The wind which fans those flames is harsh and changes direction. These winds of change bring more destruction as they turn the long side of the fires into the front. People and animals try desperately to find shelter and a safe haven from the fire. This is not a warm, comforting fire. It is a horror. 

Fire is very bad. 

Where is God? Where is my faith? 

Everything so many once held dear is gone. Homes. Lives. Livelihoods. 

The Australian landscape regenerates after fire. Soon we will see new growth sprouting from the burnt trees and when the rain comes the green shoots will stand out in stark contrast to the blackened stumps. The scars of the fires will remain and the landscape will be forever changed. But there is hope for new growth. 

Scientists are suggesting that the regrowth after these fires will be slower. The effects of climate change are real and the bush has been more damaged this time. But there has to be hope. 

Fire is bad. Fire is also good?

My story with God has begun its regrowth too. In the last year I’ve left formal church entirely, spending more time reading and contemplating faith and God than ever before. Looking at the bible in a new way,  I’ve begun meeting with a very small group of like minded friends and discussing the questions of life and faith that were too hard to ask before.  I’ve engaged with Nomad Podcast and book club and thought more deeply about a range of theological issues once off limits to my mind. 

Fire is good? 

I’ve learned that unlike the black and white faith of my younger days, life, like fire, isn’t just good or bad, black or white. 

Fire is bad and good. 

And now, I’m  hoping for a new spark. A gentler, more contained spark. Gently warming a room and a meal. The charred coals of my faith burn in a new and different way and I’m learning to look for the little shoots of green amongst the blackness.

– Charmaine Clark

The church I grew up in set the bar high for what I feel able to long for in community.  It was a tiny evangelical church in Trinidad and Tobago and one of a group of churches Canadian missionaries founded across the Caribbean region. My sense of God was grounded by expressions of togetherness that told me from an early age that I was loved and supported. From midweek prayer meetings to seasonal celebrations to youth camps, I felt held. I’ll always be grateful for that. 

Image used with permission.

Certainty of faith acted as a glue for that community as I think it does for many evangelical churches. When you’re in it, you feel secure and your life has an immense sense of purpose. On the flip side, if certainty holds everything together, it mustn’t fray. 

I became aware early on that there seemed little room for questions or rather that you could ask questions as long as you eventually arrived at the accepted conclusions. As life happened, I repeatedly suppressed doubts and internalised disappointment because I was afraid of losing not just my God but my community. 

This isn’t something that I could have put into language as a child and teenager because I was taught to fear my rebelliousness and to regard myself as incapable of good. I don’t blame anyone for that because the message was preached by people who were hemmed in by their own fear.

When I moved to Brighton in the UK for university at 19 I spotted an opportunity to discover myself outside the confines of church and figure out what I really thought about God. This was extremely short lived. Having moved countries as well as left home for the first time, the upset of culture shock sent me hurtling back toward the thing that felt vaguely familiar, church culture. I felt vulnerable and very much in need of God. 

I wound up settling into another tiny evangelical church that felt like family and met my husband who had recently started going to church and thinking about Christian spirituality. I remember liking that he wasn’t “too Christian” which may have been my subconscious telling me I wasn’t done exploring. 

The church we were in didn’t suit either of us. I couldn’t get on board with its complementarian gender politics and stringent views on divorce having grown up seeing women harmed by those beliefs. But there was love there and, actually, there was a lot of diversity of belief among the small congregation. 

We’ve moved further and further west since, each time jumping into a church straight away. I’ve felt progressively less connected to everything that was happening there, probably because I’ve felt that I couldn’t show up as my authentic self, that I had to hide what I was really thinking and feeling.  

Somewhere in the midst of that I had my first baby and found that new motherhood was a time when I was learning so much, feeling all the feelings and willing to put up with a lot less, which definitely exacerbated the situation. It was a period of highly accelerated growth.

When I tried to talk about my disappointment with church, I was encouraged to separate what I felt about God from what I felt about the church and to walk by faith not by feelings. I could see some merit in the former though there was and still is no clean demarcation in my mind. 

The latter, however, translated as a command to ignore my inner authority. I began to wonder whether God was really so unreasonable, so fragile. Why would God expect us to turn off our logic and intuition? In any other relationship, the demand for blind obedience would be considered abusive. 

The arrival of our first child was an initiation. We’d moved cities just before I conceived, I had trouble with mobility during pregnancy and I was working from home so I kind of had an enforced desert experience. Then once she was here, learning to live life with her, though full of every challenge, made me feel powerful in a way I’d never experienced before. For the first time, I could trust myself. 

There was also no doubt in my mind that God understood what I was experiencing. I could not be a better mother than God was. Nothing in me wanted to break anything in this little person I held. I just wanted her to know how much I loved her and wanted to know her. I wanted her to know that her value was unshakeable. If that was also true of God, I could bring to Her my questions and my creative, fumbling attempts at understanding life. 

Meanwhile, my kids were growing and I had to weigh up my desire for them to have the immersive community I’d enjoyed with the possibility that it could one day reject them. I answer their questions candidly and hope I’m raising them to think for themselves. I’m unwilling to teach them that they must make themselves small, quieting their own voices to be accepted. 

So we spent some time without a church. Sundays felt strange for a while – unmoored. For me it was the first time in my entire life that I’d not gone to church on a Sunday. For the kids too, actually.

At the same time, I was learning so much through reading, listening, having conversations with friends on similar spiritual journeys, and finding new ways of talking and listening to God. And my sense of church was expanding to include people who weren’t Christians and who had so much wisdom and love to share. I began to open up to ideas, practices and experiences outside the scope of the version of Christianity I’d grown up with.

We’ve since cautiously joined a liturgical church where there is, again, diversity of belief among the congregation but also softness from the front. I see it as just part of my family’s wider sense of community and just one of the places where I touch the face of God. Everything is so much more expansive now.

– Adele Jarrett-Kerr

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Two years ago, I went on a short trip to Venice with a friend to celebrate a big birthday.  As well as seeing some famous landmarks, I also hoped we could use our famously bad sense of direction to enjoy getting lost in this city known for its labyrinth of narrow streets. I was right and I was wrong, and it occurs to me now that this trip is a pretty good metaphor for my spiritual journey.

Image used with permission.

I was born a Catholic, no becoming, it just was. As well as church on a Sunday, I went to Catholic school both primary and secondary. It was a straight journey ahead; Christening, first Communion, Confirmation and, despite all the mystery within Catholicism, I don’t remember ever questioning any of it or being asked any questions about what I thought. It was normal life, the way things were. In terms of Venice, it was the Grand Canal; imperfect, winding and crumbly around the edges, but a direct route nonetheless. It wasn’t until my mid teens that a mixture of apathy and frustration saw me very quietly stop going to church.

With no plan I took a year off from religion, believing that it was it for me.  But then at a real low point in my life, I started going to a Pentecostal church and became a Christian, ‘for real’, so I thought. At the time I thought I was rebelling against my rigid Catholic upbringing and, that by getting rid of all the unnecessary religiosity, I could instead have something genuine, a relationship with God. I was introduced to the idea that what the Bible said was true and that its words contained power.  Over time I became more certain and believed my faith was getting stronger, yet there was still something missing.  I was using different words and singing different songs but essentially I still had a clear cut faith with little room for questioning and other opinions. Different gondola, same Grand Canal.

At the same time as I was believing for the best and holding onto promises, illness was slowly invading my body and my life. At first it was mostly exhaustion, meaning that getting to church on a Sunday was never a given and going to both services took most of the day and made for a gruelling Sabbath. It also meant that going to church was now forever tied in my mind with drivenness and disregarding my own physical needs. I gradually worsened and it was ironically on a Sunday after I’d pushed myself to go to church that I collapsed into bed and woke up with what I term ‘full-blown’ M.E. My life would never be the same again.

Silence and darkness of every kind followed. Many in my church now didn’t even know me, or had given up on me, and a rare few tried to support me but couldn’t understand the crushing tiredness their visit would cause. I was churchless once more but in a very different way. For the first time, I had a faith but nowhere for my faith to call home. Unable to leave the house, my ‘church’ was every Christian book I read, every sermon or talk I listened to, every Christian friend I made online. There were evangelicals, contemplatives, Catholics and Protestants of most if not every flavour. There was rich wisdom and large kindnesses, mixed in with some harmful and graceless theologies. In many ways, I was freer, and I explored that freedom, discovering for myself who I believed God was when there was no-one else but us. In the solitude, the despair and the hope, in learning to appreciate the small joys and in seeing what was truly important when life is stripped bare. Yet for all my thoughts of slowing down and being kind to my own body, my focus was still on pushing through to get better. I was still trying to make my way back to the Grand Canal.

It’s hard to pinpoint when this part of my journey fell apart. I had a relapse a decade after becoming ill when I’d believed I was getting better. There were losses and heartbreaks over several years after that. I no longer knew what to make of God, or my faith, but I couldn’t deny my way of living was not working. There was a time of grieving the faith I’d been so certain of. But then I realised, through everything falling apart, I was once again strangely free. Which brings me back to Venice.

In our wanderings we came across a wide canal we’d never heard of. The simplicity of sitting in early March sunshine on plastic chairs, watching life pass on the Giudecca Canal seemed a world away from the crowds and tourist traps we’d escaped. And there were other discoveries, the gondola boatyard, fruit markets and book sales in unlikely corners. Again and again it only took a few turns to enter pockets of astonishing stillness, or unexpected liveliness. My greatest discovery though was that, without an agenda or real expectations or a definite place to get to, it was in fact impossible to get lost. That if you take away the binary decision to go this way or that and replace it with openness and curiosity, what had been labelled a wrong turn became an opportunity. Before I’d been frightened of straying from the Christian path and now I was discovering meditation, Buddhist practices of self-compassion and acceptance and more. And instead of leading me away from faith, these practices helped me discover afresh what I’d always believed deep down. I was even able to revisit the Catholicism of my youth in a deeper and richer way. It is as if what was once a rather black-and-white faith was now becoming magnificent technicolour.  

Although I don’t know exactly where I am, I no longer feel lost. And I no longer see others coming from a different direction to me as lost. I find peace in the saying that a maze is a puzzle to be solved but a labyrinth is a path to be walked.

– Jenny Simpson

One of my earliest memories is of sitting by the fire on my grandmother’s lap, hearing about inviting Jesus into my heart. As I grew up, I always had a sense of God being with me. My grandmother had come from a non-churchgoing family but chose to become a Christian in her teens. She attended a traditional rural Anglican church, was active in the Mother’s Union, read her bible, prayed a lot and shared her faith with those whom she loved. Her faith sustained her through being widowed at the age of 50 and having a daughter with severe bipolar affective disorder, my mother.

Image used with permission.

My parents were involved in the Charismatic movement of the 1970s and my father was ordained. In the muddy fields and marquees of charismatic camps, I learnt that God does not make people better, however fervently people told me that He can. And also that Christians can behave in really weird ways, which sometimes seemed to be connected with my mother ending up in a psychiatric hospital.

In my teens I found relative safety in what I now realise was a conservative Evangelical church, where head knowledge and obeying rules won the day. A large youth group was good for me in many ways, but the teaching did not help me make sense of life. A close friend, another vicar’s daughter, was killed in an accident. I learnt that bad things happen to good people and that God does not keep you safe.

At eighteen I arrived at university, unsure of what I believed, but I still sensed God’s presence. I remember being invited to join the Christian Medical Fellowship, but I was unable to sign up to their doctrinal statement. I went to the Christian Union once and knew that I did not belong. Then I found a book called ‘Am I still a Christian?’ written by a ‘liberal’ and from this I learnt that there is more that one way to be a Christian.  However, I had been warned about ‘woolly liberals’ and ‘slippery slopes’! I then discovered David Adam’s Celtic prayers which resonated with me then and have continued to be a source of strength when times have been hard.

My husband and I both inherited a faith where weekly church attendance was the norm, so we have always chosen to belong to a church community. From attending church with my grandmother, I was familiar with the Book of Common Prayer and traditional hymns and I still have a love for the richness of liturgical language. In 2004 we left a church due to a new incumbent’s particularly graceless evangelicalism. Being repeatedly told from the pulpit that you are evil is not good for anyone. At this time we found our current church which initially felt like a spiritual home. It was higher church than I was used to but I liked the greater emphasis on the different seasons and on symbolism.

Greenbelt has been an important part of my faith journey since I was in my teens, exposing me to a wide variety of Christian traditions and beliefs. It was there that I learned that the sky doesn’t fall in when women preside over communion. This seems so normal now, but at the time it was mind blowing. At Greenbelt, my husband and I heard Dave Tomlinson speak about his book, ‘The Post-Evangelical’. It was a significant moment for us; we had found our clan.

I have continued to question and attempt to make sense of life as I have encountered a variety of challenges and losses. Experience has taught me that deep love for family and a strong faith in God do not prevent depression and suicide, and that prayer does not keep someone alive; conception does not necessarily equate to the start of human life; sometimes you have to choose which is the lesser of two evils; love between two people of the same sex is beautiful and natural and not an abomination. Observation of the natural world and human behaviour has taught me that for life to exist, some pain is necessary and that the experience of joy is inevitably linked to suffering. 

About two or three years ago I was struggling with changes in our church. Again, I frequently found that the teaching was not answering my questions and I had an experience that was completely new to me. God was absent. Even in the darkest periods of my life, God was present and sustaining me. Even when, in my head, I questioned God’s very existence, He was there. But this experience was in my heart or soul, and at that moment, I felt utterly alone. 

This was a significant turning point for me; I knew that I had to act. I have discovered podcasts, in particular the Bible for Normal People and Nomad. I had struggled with much of the Bible all my life, feeling the disconnect between what I read (or how I read it) and real life experience. My evangelical beginnings cast a long shadow, but now I am finding new ways to understand and engage with the Bible. And Nomad has been like Greenbelt throughout the whole year for me. It has been a joy to hear such a variety of people discussing their faith and the many ways in which they live this out in their lives and communities. I have long been drawn to contemplative prayer and the resources on Nomad support this. 

My community is where I live out my faith. I continue to take an active part in our Church where, over the past two years, I have gained in confidence to speak out. I am passionate about the issue of LGBTQI equality and want to play a small part in making a change in the church. In the secular world, I work with people who have dementia, but in a service that recognises the importance of spiritual well-being. 

In church services, I am the one at the back with my hands in my pockets avoiding demonstrations of emotion, but alone at home I have discovered more music that helps me connect with God and occasionally I even dance! My journey continues. 

– Erica Bailey 

Raised in a Christian family, I was an earnest and passionate teenager, listening to Newsboys and ready to be God’s hands and feet. I threw myself into exotic and sacrificial adventures for the Lord. In my early twenties I was offered a job co-ordinating short term missions trips for young people – it would have been my dream job just months before. But around that time, my experience of Christianity broke. It felt as though the ground had fallen away and there was no sure footing. I believe God was behind that spiritual experience, but it was painful and scary. All that remained was a sense that God was real and God was good – and vaguely ‘the whole Jesus thing’. Everything else was suddenly up for grabs and any simplistic or narrow answers just made me angry. I didn’t go to church much at all for the next five years, and when I did it was problematic and painful. I listened to Rob Bell sermons at home and trusted that me and God were still ok. Gradually the anger subsided and I felt ready to reconnect somehow. 

Used with permission.

Seven years ago, my husband and I decided to root ourselves in a low-income community, start going to a church in walking distance and invest our energies locally. We found a church that seemed to be everything I was hoping for – small, welcoming, rough around the edges, full of good-hearted people of a variety of ages and backgrounds. The church is still the same, although it’s grown. I’ve grown too. 

As I have reconstructed faith and am more sure of what I *do* believe, not just what I no longer believe in, I have found it more and more difficult to fit in. (Thanks, Nomad Podcast.) I am grateful to have a few good friends who are on the same page, with whom I can speak freely, talk theology and life, and be myself. But outside of those safe spaces, it’s a different story. I’m naturally diplomatic and although I will readily speak my mind on politics or other issues, I’ve been cautious about rocking the boat when it comes to church. So over the last few years, I’ve held my tongue when I’ve felt that my different perspective might be confusing or unwelcome. After all, as I keep reminding myself, it isn’t my job to change anyone’s mind. Leading a house group with some very conservative evangelical members, my tongue-biting strategy became unbearable. I realised I had a deficit of integrity. I was fractured. 

In other areas of life I found myself to be more integrated, my faith flowing into my work and friendships in a different, more comfortable and natural way as I embraced a wider view of God and began to trust the glimpses of Christ I recognised in others. But at church, not allowing myself to be truly honest with anyone was taking its toll. I often wondered if it would be easier to stop going or to find a church full of like-minded people. The less I ventured my opinions, the more I imagined the entire church to be a homogenous bloc who all agreed with each other but not with me. Which, surely, is not the case. 

I have yet to find out. But I’ve decided that I need to be honest. I sometimes dream of a dramatic outburst: “…well I don’t agree with penal substitution and I’m gay affirming and the planet is literally on fire and we are all complicit and God has no gender and perhaps I am a universalist after all and WHAT OF IT?”. On reflection, I think a gentler approach might be more appropriate. I hope to become braver in answering questions honestly, offering alternative ideas when I’m faced with theology that I believe to be damaging, being more openly myself and hoping that people will deal with me kindly. They might not, of course, and I’m aware that many beloved listeners have shared painful stories of rejection for not following the party line in church. 

But I believe something powerful happens when we live fully from the depths of ourselves, knowing we are loved, ready to love others, bringing our unique gifts and perspectives to the world. I want to leave judgement of others and fear of being judged behind. I want to live kindly, gently, with conviction and integrity. I want to show up to life with my whole self, whether that be at church, at the school gates, at work or online. I’m nowhere near arriving at that goal, but I have to start somewhere. 

One more thing. A good friend of mine, with whom I did not always agree completely, died suddenly last week. I no longer care about the differences in our theology. I can only mourn the good friend that I have lost; the caring, compassionate, fiery woman that she was. I’ve realised that while I was holding my tongue, she didn’t hold back. She was the same person to everyone who knew her, never hiding her faith or opinions, and yet never pushing them on others. Surely what matters most is not what we think; not our current position on theology or politics or anything else. It’s how we live. We can choose to live with integrity, accepting ourselves as we are, extending grace to ourselves and to everyone around us. We can be brave and loving and free. Maybe that’s the gospel. 

– Becky Matyus

Soon after graduation from the academy, my family and a group of ten, took off from Cape Canaveral. We were part of ‘the new mission’; 25 vessels in all. We were all full of excitement. The overall mission coordinates were set by the academy; they determined the what; our ships determined the where and how. 

Image used with permission.

The exhilaration of light speed was powerful. However, soon into the mission, we experienced turbulence that never went away. I slowed the ship down gradually, but was concerned it would separate us from the convoy. The turbulence continued and was having a negative effect on the ship and all those on board. I hailed the lead ship and suggested that they take the other ten families off of our ship, onto theirs. A week after the others moved off the ship, leaving just our family there, I signalled the lead ship and suggested we shut the ship down for a period of time, so I could investigate further the root of the turbulence. “No, you risk the mission. This is normal. You have come this far. Keep going. This is not for the faint of heart. Continue.” His words bounced around my head. The turbulence continued, our family came under more stress, so one day, I signalled the lead ship that we were shutting down the engines and shutting down our communications. He was angry, but I knew in my core that we needed to do this. Something told me that I could not resolve this mysterious turbulence while in communication with the others. 

I would spend days looking at the ships engines and electronics to find the root problem, and at night, we would spend time as a family, talking, laughing. Life in the Academy had kept me so busy I had lost the art of rest. After dinner, we would look out the window, at the stars and just sit silently, floating in space. Night after night, we would sit there, suspended in space, between earth and our destination, lost, floating. “Do you think the ship is making a choice for us?” my wife asked me one night. “What do you mean?” “I think the ship decided something for us. It made a decision for us; one we were not brave enough to make on our own. I’ve noticed your desire to find the problem is lessening. You used to spend most of your time trying to find the problem. Now you spend most of your time, looking into space, reading, writing, talking to us. It’s as if you wanted this to happen.” “That’s ridiculous,” I said. But I knew she was right. 

Why wasn’t I trying harder to find the turbulence problem? Why wouldn’t we just go back to earth, very slowly? That would be so easy. She went to bed and I looked out the window. That’s when the truth came to me. “I can’t go back because I don’t fit in there anymore. I can’t go forward because I’m questioning the academy’s coordinates. The truth is, I wanted to be here, floating, because I couldn’t go back and I couldn’t go forward. But floating was for losers they said. The last place you want to be is lost in space, floating. That’s dangerous they always said. But it was what my heart needed and wanted. 

I turned on the communicator one night. There were many messages from the other ships, and from earth, concerned about us. I sent back messages that we were fine, but did not give out our coordinates, lest they rescue us. It’s lonely out here, floating, but I found I’m not alone. I found a frequency where there are others like me, floating. Their stories are similar to mine. Some of them have been floating for a while, some talk about the academy and their missions, which were to other galaxies. Some have just recently started to float. It’s funny to listen to them as they frantically try to repair, but you can hear in their voice, how much they long to float. One woman spoke of her struggle; to call a rescue ship to bring her home but not wanting it to turn up. What makes floaters unique is that they are quick to listen, and slow to speak, something we all learned at the academy, but rarely saw in practice. Most academy graduates were quick to be right and slow to listen; quick to give answers to all questions and doubts. I somehow know that if we went home, or continued on the original coordinates, there would be no judgement from the floaters. 

Our floating has taken us away from our regular routines and festivals we once attended on earth. We all feel the ache of their loss, the empty space that now fills them. I’m not sure how much I actually miss these routines but I just feel the empty space. Someone created a ‘floaters channel’ where we can speak in real time. We often just share our observations of the stars, but we also talk a lot about home. It’s a time with no agenda, no arguments.

The other night a rescue ship from the academy showed up on my radar. I happened to be awake at the time. It was 3am earth time. I did the strangest thing, without a thought. I cloaked the ship, making us invisible to them. I watched them pass in the distance. I zoomed my camera in on their cockpit. As they circled the vicinity of where our ship had recently registered, I could see the panicked look on their faces. I felt bad hiding. I understood their panic and appreciated their concern, but they didn’t have to be concerned. I could have been him. The biggest fear in the academy was to become a floater. We had heard stories of them, heard about the high percentage of those who ended up floating for years. Every life was to be lived between earth and the mission’s end, never to be caught stalled in the middle of the two. Yet, here we were in this strange place I call a terrible beauty. 

– Brian Ralph

There is but one journey towards both the authentic God, and the authentic self.

I was born in Central Scotland in 1952, and raised in fairly conservative Christian churches – Brethren (the ‘Open’ variety) and Baptist. As a child and teenager I felt strongly the pressure to be and to become the person my parents and churches seemed to expect of me. I neither knew myself, nor had a sufficiently robust inner confidence to begin the journey of self-discovery.

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The expectation was that I would be ‘converted’:  an apparent turning-point which, from the ‘testimonies’ I heard, would be both emotional and transformational.  This experience repeatedly eluded me, and when I was about 15, asked yet again if I had been converted, I said ‘Yes!’, lying, naming as the occasion the most recent of my secret wrestles with an unresponsive heaven.

This lie led to anguish in my late teens and early 20s, an anguish triggered by my proneness to anxiety and depression, which it in turn nourished. I feared that the Lord would come, and I would be left; I felt comfortable neither among Christians, nor those whom my upbringing had led me to see as being on the ‘outside’; I had no skills in building relationships.

I thought if I confessed my lie, my hypocrisy, someone would help me, and was devastated when, having eventually done this, I was not believed.  The devil was unsettling me, I was told.  What terrible act, I wondered, did I have to commit to persuade them that I was not a believer?

When I was 22, I was blessed with a conversion experience, which did bring whispers of joy.  This new breath of life led to me buying a  Revised Standard Version Bible; I immersed myself in the Reformed theology of Martin Lloyd-Jones and entered his theological cosmos; I helped at a Scripture Union summer mission team where, for the very first time, I felt loved and accepted as I was.

I supposed I was now on the ‘inside’, but there were still twinges of sadness, and confusion when books I read – on prayer, for instance – did not resonate with my own experience. What, I wondered, was wrong with me?  Why was I not the John God was surely calling to me to be?

Through timidity, I lived with my parents until I was 31. They loved me enormously and generously, but I still felt the burden of their expectations that I would be someone I did not feel I had it in me to be.

My anxiety persisted; the doctor experimented with various drugs; I withdrew from psychotherapy because my mother (who herself struggled with not-truly-acknowledged mental health issues) could not bear the sound of  relaxation tapes in the house.

I found the courage to move to a church other than the one I was attending with my parents.  The friendship and support I found there empowered me to move into my own flat. But still, God seemed generally absent, though there were ‘Yes!’ moments of insight, joy, givenness.  I immersed myself in intense busyness at church, seeking fulfilment in roles, while still feeling ‘on the outside.’

I must seek the Holy Spirit – the Spirit would surely lead me in. I sought this experience, was prayed for, the demons of suicide were rebuked, but the longed-for Paraclete neglected to descend. And then I realised – or God prompted the realisation – that the Holy Spirit I longed for so much had always been with me and in me, and would perpetually accompany my future.

I learned in my 30s relationship lessons which most people acquire as teenagers. Though there was much sadness and rejection, there was also a discerning that nothing would ever be the same again. I read books through which I was reminded in ‘given’ moments of clarity that I was loved by God, accepted.

When I was 38, my doctor tried a medication which significantly moderated the symptoms of anxiety and depression, and I have taken this ever since.  This drug, combined with a hope which I believe was God-planted, gave me the courage to go abroad for the first time, and to meet Lorna through a Christian introduction agency. We were married in 1992, and have two adult daughters.

But still, I felt on the outside, still journeying towards a sense of authentic identity.  In the 1990s, I began to question the assumptions of evangelicalism. I remember the alien thought, listening to a sermon on Jude’s epistle, that there was a hollowness behind the preacher’s loud, eloquent words. 

I puzzled over teaching about gay people; I was unsettled by contradictions in the Bible; I came to think that Systematic Theology was a threadbare thing, an intellectual robe painstakingly woven to conceal our unknowing.

I read books like Dave Tomlinson’s Post-evangelicaland Alan Jamieson’s A Churchless Faith. There were ‘Yes!’ moments in the kitchen. I joined a pre-social-media group called Spirited Exchangesa go-to place for nomads of the early 2000s.

I had been standing in the darkness, looking through the window of the cosy cottage of evangelicalism, watching as they sang worship songs around the blazing fire, wanting desperately to enter, but unable to find a door which would yield to me. Now I looked up, and saw no longer darkness, but the vast dome of a bigger place, home to all of us who call on the name of Jesus.

For years, I called myself a ‘complicated evangelical’, sitting on the fence, forever drawing back after I had taken a few tentative steps on the forbidden side.  I envied those who could walk away from evangelicalism seemingly unscathed.  Only in 2017 did I realise that I must say ‘I am no longer an evangelical’ (in the sense of holding many of the beliefs of evangelicalism), and so took my stand in a broader, inclusive place.

Throughout my life, there have been friends through whom God’s loved reached me, and I found more friends in Nomad. 

I was helped by Richard Rohr’s work, and by Jung’s concept of self-actualisation, and of living with the shadow.  I realise that in welcoming God, you are in fact welcoming yourself, and that the more you become the person God has made you to be, the closer you draw to God. I realised that the dark stuff in me is not the enemy; it is part of me, to be acknowledged, though I do not choose to let it live me. And as I learn to welcome, indeed to love the darkness in me, so its power is diminished.

I remain prone to anxiety and to troughs of sadness, but I seek to choose joy, not pretending to be joyful, but recognising the pain, while resolving to act in the light of a joy and love which I do not, for the moment, experience.  And yet there are also moments when it is as though God knocks on the front door, and when I open it, says ‘Hey, do you want to come out to play?’

My faith now is pretty minimalistic. I believe in a Great Love which grieves over our brokenness, and summons the whole of humanity into its embrace.  I am a follower of the Jesus in whom this Great Love was most evident.

I have many questions, but loved with such a love, I do not need to know the answers.  To me, faith  is not so much about what you believe, as how open you are to the Love, and how fully (if imperfectly) it is expressed in all your living.

I know now that there is no ‘inside’, no ‘outside’. We are all  beloved daughters and sons of the Great Love, who summons us from light to darkness.

– John Dempster

“All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain…If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” – Richard Rohr

My spiritual journey has certainly been shaped by pain.

Image used with permission.

The point from which we as a family tend to measure all time is 8am on November 16th 2003, when we discovered our young son Ethan had died in his sleep. Unknowingly to us he had contracted septicaemia while he had been ill with the flu.

That date, and what rapidly unfolded after it, shapes – to a greater or lesser extent –  everything we do as a family and frames the way we see everything. So I tend to always begin with this event, and the feelings that have anchored themselves to it, as it looms large over all that has happened since and how my theology and faith have been shaped.

I am from a large, loving Christian family. I fell in love with Mark, married and started our family when I was 24. Ethan came along and slotted into our busy lives as we carried on serving in our local Pentecostal church. Our second son, Jonah, came along surprisingly quickly and we found ourselves beginning to struggle to keep all the balls in the air. Leading, running the youth group, singing, and helping out in various other ways left us little time to nurture our small family. I started to resent the expectations being placed on us as capable and willing young leaders.

I suspect we were heading for classic burn out. But then our trajectory got thrown completely off course when on that Sunday in November 2003 everything changed.

Slowly we began to piece back together the fragments of our relationships and family, and return to work. My spiritual journey was the last thing I could focus on. The questions I had for God seemed too big and I wasn’t sure I actually wanted the answers. It would be two years before I felt able to start picking up the pieces of my faith from the wreckage.

At this point I had drifted away from church. A new pastor had come along and things had changed. The culture of our church – future-focused and celebratory – gave little room for sadness or lament. 

Fortunately, I found a more open and honest space in a mums bible study at a local toddler group.Over the next few years I began to explore what my faith really meant. I was drawn to the Northumbria Community’s Rule of Life, especially the focus on being authentic and vulnerable. This resonated with me as a grieving mum. I wanted real, authentic friends and conversations, and I truly believe that God put those very people in my life. They were Jesus to me, letting me be myself and giving me space to wrestle with questions and struggles.

Meanwhile our home church was going through its own trials and many of our friends were caught up in the hurts and fallout from this. We remained but drifted further away as I was left feeling disillusioned by the way people had been treated. And I felt that I needed to take responsibility for my own spirituality rather than rely on the church to feed me.

I began reading and searching for different ways to do church. It was during that time that I stumbled across Nomad Podcast. It was so refreshing to listen to the talks and not feel so isolated. I started reading books and exploring different expressions of church. Thin places and quiet days, Celtic spirituality and new monastic rhythms of life all allowed me to sit with my feelings, and helped me get through some of the harder days now that we had another baby. 

Looking back, it was quite an intense but joyous time. The mums group I was part of was a real sanctuary. We explored creative prayer and I began to have a greater capacity to give out again. I started to volunteer at a local food bank and became a befriender for a bereavement charity, offering peer support to other parents who had lost children.

I began to realise that my grief and spiritual journey were intrinsically linked. Earlier on in my grief I often felt very alone as Mark and I grieved so utterly differently. Once I realised that it was totally normal for individuals in couples to grieve in different ways, I began to relax.

I now realise that God really was holding me during that time. I’ve now felt able to become part of a church community again, but with very different boundaries and spiritual practices that have helped me be myself and to own my own story.

It gives me a real sense of hope when I come across other people who have walked the path of pain and have been transformed and reformed by it. No longer the same person, but perhaps a more whole person. Vulnerable, alive and rich in compassion.

This has given me a desire to see Jesus in everything and everyone, and it has been an enriching experience. Elizabeth Barrett Browning sums this up beautifully.

“Earth’s crammed with heaven, 

And every common bush afire with God; 

But only he who sees takes off his shoes…”

So now I rest in the knowledge that the mystery of faith is OK. We don’t need all the answers. God meets us in our pain, often by bringing people alongside us on our journey, people who speak life to us. God is in everything and everyone, we just need to slow down, take a look around and maybe take off our shoes every once in a while.

Rachel Huskisson

“I have no idea where I am going,
I do not see the road ahead of me,
I cannot know for certain where it will end.”
– Thomas Merton

We were a group of malcontent teenagers. Think the churchy version of those hooded youths loitering outside of Sainsbury’s late on a Saturday night. Dissatisfied with the status quo, we ran our own early morning prayer meetings, emailed around our Bible study notes and spent after school evenings running Youth Alpha courses for our friends. For fun, we memorized Scripture and cleared gardens for disadvantaged families. We revelled in the intensity of Christian summer camps but secretly suspected most of the adult members of our small-town New Frontiers church congregation weren’t ‘real’ Christians. Where was their zeal? 

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Underpinning our earnest efforts was a potent combination of excitement about faith, a relentless pursuit for an unidentified more, and a need to be history makers in this world. Christianity was absolutely central to my life. It was a pretty positive teenage obsession as they go. 

Yet here I was, now in my twenties, roaming the damp Welsh hills around a small Christian retreat centre. I was looking for answers. My faith had undergone some seismic shifts since then. I found more inspiration reading Wendell Berry novels than the Bible. My church was a natural ‘cathedral’ of Beech trees where I sat alone on a Sunday morning. Most of my friends wouldn’t identify me as a Christian. I’m not sure I would have, either. But prayer was a habit I kept up instinctively, firmly rooted in a decade of diligent practice. I certainly didn’t want to return to the frenzied faith of my teenage years, but I still found myself looking back longingly on those times. 

It was a grimy Welsh day but I trudged uphill across boggy heathland towards the high point marked on my map. As I climbed, a thick fog settled around me, so dense that I could barely see 10m ahead of me. Walking through the heather with no path and no sightlines made me nervous. How could I know if I was going straight? I felt utterly cut off from the world, alone in a foggy soup, half expecting to see a mythical beast emerge through the mist. My eyes scanned constantly for where the next weathered signpost would appear, beckoning me on in the right direction.

As I climbed, it occurred to me that this was exactly what my life felt like at that moment. Hard, uncertain and lonely. I had no idea where I was going, every blessed signpost a reassurance that I hadn’t altogether left the path of faith.  A clear direction and destination, companions along the way, assurance that I was actually going somewhere. These were the luxuries I missed from my teenage faith.

My faith journey up to that point had taken me across some varied terrain. The flat tarmacked paths of evangelicalism had given my fledgling faith as a teenager an easy, speedy start. It had given me much reverence for the Scriptures, for good character, for morals. There I learnt to be proactive about faith and to always ask whether my beliefs meant good news for others, too. But it left me with a suspicion of the unknown, with an unhealthy need to know the right answers and a desperate need to be ‘in’. In my blinkered self-righteousness, I was embarrassingly disparaging of other faiths and denominations. Fear underpinned my fragile faith in many ways. 

I dipped my toes into charismatic streams as a University student and found some affinity there. Wading through those waters was thrilling and terrifying; it felt like taking my faith to the next level. I was intimidated and inspired by the people I met here, people who fizzed with a holy joy and seemed to have constant communication with God. I learnt from them to value and engage imagination as part of my spirituality. Sharing prophetic words, praying for healing, speaking in tongues…I jumped in with both feet. But whatever I experienced, it was never enough, and deep down I had an inkling that I wasn’t always being honest with myself about my spiritual experiences. The language and practices of charismatic Christianity often felt uncomfortable and forced; I was the actress playing her part. 

A rocky year of full-time church work sent me off on my own wilderness paths for a while. My wandering found me in the pews of the local Anglican church, surprised by the refreshment I experienced there. Here I found quiet meadows of freedom, permission to be myself without expectations or requirements. The liturgical rhythm carried me through having no words of my own. Mystery was welcomed and suffering acknowledged. But I lacked companions for the journey and a sense of belonging. It was a resting place but I wasn’t home. 

Where next? At 25 years old, I had reached a dead end in every area of my life: faith, work, relationships. So, I did what I have always done when I need some direction in life. I took myself off to the remotest part of the country I could access and headed for the hills. The foggy, boggy Welsh hills as it turned out. Maybe God would speak to me here. Or maybe I was just getting more lost. 

Signpost by signpost I ascended the hill. It seemed to be taking too long. I wondered if I should turn back while I still could. But then suddenly it appeared a few meters in front of me, dark against the misty white backdrop: the mounded stones of a small cairn. As I stood there, at the top, wind spraying rain against my cheeks, my uncertainty gave way to exhilaration. Wild and wonderful, mysterious and magical, the beautiful gift that I alone was here to experience this moment. I was alive. I was glad to be on this part of my journey, even if I didn’t know where I was or where it would end. I didn’t need to. My only task was to keep walking. 

Five years have passed since then. My path has taken some unexpected twists and turns, landing me back in the small town I grew up in and married to a friend from my youth. Now raising our own small children in the church of our teenage years, we have become the lacking-in-zeal adults we once criticized. Faith for me now is less fraught than it was then, even though I have fewer answers and more questions than ever. Certainty is not equal to security.

For the first time in my life, I am content, not striving for more or anxious for the next step. There are a lot of things I have left behind, at least for now. I still love the Scriptures, still love to sing together on a Sunday morning, to whisper a bedtime prayer with my children, to share communion with my family. Although it isn’t easy, I have finally found a home where I can belong to a community of people, despite differences, and begin the difficult work of learning to love one another. For that I am thankful. 

I still don’t know where I am going on this journey.  But the mist has lifted and the view has opened up spectacularly. I am able to look back with thankfulness about where I have come from and look ahead with hopefulness about where I am headed. The terrain will change again, no doubt, but I am not afraid of the uncertainty. I only need to keep walking.

Kandace Burnhams

When I think of the word “Nomad” I think of how it can include the idea of being a misfit and I relate strongly, and fondly, with that idea. I experienced events early in my life that mean I shall forever feel like a misfit.

Image used with permission.

As a child, my internal life was crushed, pulled part, and scattered in places that I’m still struggling to find almost fifty years later. There is hope, lots of it, and that is what I hope to convey.  

I became aware of Jesus’s presence in my life at the age of four, and the profound nature of that experience still amazes me to this day.

I would say that Jesus has pursued me all my life, but please don’t read that it a sentimental way. I would often try to avoid this reality, thinking that life would be so much easier without him.  

After the traumatic events of the early years of my life I went numb internally for almost a decade. It often felt like I was pretending I was human. Then I searched out counselling and stuck with it over twelve gruelling years, until it was abruptly ended when the therapist lost his license for having an affair with a client. All of a sudden I was alone with all this partially processed junk in my life. All I felt I had was this Jesus who continued to pursue me. He remained kind and gentle, and I made it. I went to nursing school and have worked with children for the last eleven years.

So this is what I would like to convey about my journey. My life seems to be about Jesus. I just cannot seem to shake him off. I don’t think I’m ever going to fit into a church, feel like I own a particular theology, or even have a clear sense of what it means to be a Christian. All I know is that there is a kindness that keeps whispering to me, that asks me to sit and be aware of how much I am loved. Jesus is with me and asks me to hang in there.  

I adopted a prayer I heard from someone, it goes “Father, help me to know your love so well that I cannot help but love others.” I use this prayer as a mantra for my life. I try to view myself and the world through this lens. It’s challenging though because it continually asks the question, where is God’s love within any experience I may be having. But it’s led to me listening to life in a different way. I hear the pauses, the sighs and the laughter throughout the day. It’s helped me to hear Jesus more clearly when I am with others. I recoil at feeling obligated to mention my faith to others but find myself compelled to fill the gaps, pauses, and sighs I hear throughout the day with kindness. When I step into those places I find Jesus. And I often experience that odd paradox that I feel loved while trying to express love towards others.

I work on a hospital acute care unit that has kids who want to either hurt themselves or others, or both. I will leave you with something I wrote as an attempt to process a difficult week with a difficult patient. I believe these words would not be possible had I not been pursued by Jesus.

Whispering Into Cracks

Cracks. They represent pain, vulnerability, and an entry point for disease, when viewed by a nurse looking at a patient’s skin. I sat at the feet of a patient with cracks all over his feet, abrasions over other parts of his body, and swollen hands from punching people and walls. This patient was described as a monster by numerous people, for numerous reasons. I sat on the floor at his feet to apply medicated cream and thought about my co-worker whose jaw he broke. I tried to push away a sense of fear. As I started to apply the cream I heard him try to communicate some feeling of gratitude. But I only heard the tone. A beautiful whisper that was full of appreciation. The cracks looked painful and angry, like the anger he expressed toward others that brought him to this hospital.

His short life has been full of rage and he described later how he, his siblings, and meth-addicted parents resolved all conflicts by ‘knocking the shit out of each other’. Knowing this made his whisper of gratitude all the more profound. My soul whispered gratitude too, despite the brutalities of this world. 

I massaged the cream into his feet for as long as I could, hoping he would experience both this whispered kindness and gratitude, which I assumed he had been deprived off for much of his life. 

There is a whisper of kindness in this world, and I hear it more and more. This kindness sits at my soul’s feet, washes them and applies a healing ointment. There is no other response to give but gratitude. This kindness lingers and draws me deeper in. Every fibre of my being wishes my patient could hear this whisper. I believe this patient, with so many cracks, vulnerabilities, and openings for a disease to enter into his young soul, has the ability to know love, and to whisper gratitude. I believe this to be true for him, me, and everyone else living in this broken world. There is a love that whispers into cracks.

Miche Spring

How do you feel about almonds? Personally, I love them in every single form, from the marzipan that covered the wedding cake my husband shockingly made us to the milk in my cereal this morning. The thing about almonds is that they come from very thirsty trees.

Image used with permission.

The thirsty nature of these delicious, life-giving nuts featured in a years-long drought plaguing California, where 80% of the world’s almonds are produced. Successive years of insufficient rain and aggressive industrial agriculture shrank the aquifers California depended on. But it wasn’t just almond trees that needed the receding wellsprings; so did the thousands of people living in rural communities across California who depended on household wells to supply water to their homes.  As the rain stopped falling and the agriculture industry sucked up what was left, California wells ran dry.  Although industrial farmers could afford the heavy machinery to drill down deep enough to keep the world’s almond supply afloat, your average person could not. 

Before hearing this story, I didn’t fully understand the metaphor “to plumb the depths.” A cursory understanding of the way plumbing works doesn’t capture the total desperation of a dry well. A ton of effort and money is expended to dig wells deep enough to sustain households indefinitely, then uncontrollable circumstances come along and dry them up. No matter how far you dig, you can’t quite tap the water deep in the depths. The thing that once sustained you is out of reach.

Last spring, California’s drought came to an end, for the time being; Instagram feeds filled with super-bloom selfies as evidence. Yet, as her wells began to replenish, 3,000 miles away, mine were beginning to run dry. There was no shortage of water in New York City; our taps were predictably delivering copious amounts of fresh Catskills water into glasses and bathtubs and the dough for the best bagels in the world. Rather, it was the wellspring of my spirit that was quickly draining her reserves. 

“My soul thirsts for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Scripture is full of metaphors of thirst and drought; the people who wrote it knew what it meant to live in an arid place. Yet, I found myself asking, how does the river of life promised to Christians become a dry and barren place? 

I was raised in a Pentecostal church, where songs of ever-flowing springs were sung with raucous praise and congregants would dance in circular loops around the sanctuary like Hassids on a holy day.  There, the favor of the Lord resulted in material wealth and a victorious life, a reward for obedience. In this theology, if your springs were running dry, you were probably being punished or tested. For a young girl prone to anxiety, the nearness of hellfire was ever-present. My fail-safe was to serve the church relentlessly and remove any temptation to sin. Because of this, immense guilt followed benign things, such as enjoying a ‘secular’ song or having a crush. Some parents worried about their children rebelling…my parents pleaded with me to go to a party sometime. 

Those intense years of Christian perfection were a struggle; I felt like a dry riverbed that reflected a verdant mirage to others. Even worse, I believed the emptiness and sadness I held proved a lack of faith, and I was terrified someone might find out. All the pretense and effort caused that little 17 year-old girl to burn out, and my mother encouraged me to take a step back from serving. I experienced my first panic attack while resigning from my posts, the guilt of disappointing the church and God was so strong. I lived in that shame until one July day the following year. I was at a Christian festival I didn’t want to attend, sitting alone in a field far from the throngs. I don’t remember my exact thoughts, but I remember the heat, the long grass, the ridgeline of trees in the distance, and the sudden voice of God speaking to my heart…“ You can stop trying, you never needed to try. I love you as you are, regardless of what you do.”

It is one of the moments in my life I am most grateful for. Whereas many of my Christian friends spun out from the legalistic clutches of our culture into chaos, I fell into the arms of a God of love, who saw me as I was and found it to be enough. For the first time in my life, I had my own well of fresh, living water flowing within me. 

A few months later, I headed across the country to Los Angeles to attend a non-denominational Christian college; It was as far from home as I could get on the continental United States, and a place where I’d experience another kind of Christianity. A staunchly evangelical institution, the Spirit of Love often rebelled within me against the strictures some of my classmates and professors imposed on the faith. Whereas I had once been taught a dry well was a sign of sin, I was now taught that dry and weary seasons were anticipated as a normal course of the Christian life. It was not what one ‘felt’ that made them Christian, it was the right beliefs they clung to, regardless of feeling. One simply travelled through the desert place and trusted.

It didn’t take long for me to head down a spiritual road less travelled by many of my fellow evangelicals, finding solace in liturgy and centuries old texts, exploring alternate methods of biblical interpretation, finding beauty in other traditions, and questioning assumptions. The path I walked became a genuinely verdant one. While my ever-expanding view of God’s love occasionally came into conflict with American evangelical orthodoxy, I always seemed to find my people along the way- fellow travellers not afraid of big questions or satisfied with easy answers. Early on, a mentor told me that “sometimes you have to come up to the cliff of what people think is heresy and look over.” I took on a view that a genuinely seeking heart would always be caught and that God was not threatened by ideas. My perspective mirrored what Thomas Merton called “a submarine life in which faith sometimes mysteriously takes on the aspect of doubt, when, in fact, one has to doubt and reject the conventional and superstitious surrogates that have taken the place of faith.” For nearly two decades, this approach to a life of faith has served me well.

However, something that stuck was this sense that one had to muscle through dry seasons in faith. I thought I’d done it, from time to time in a low point here or there. But you see, I had only experienced a temporary lowering of water levels in my well; the rain always came to refill it, until for too many days it didn’t. My theology explained the obvious; a faithful life was not necessarily a pain-free life; in life struggle was often par for the course.  The thing it did not explain was how one could get so bone-dry in the first place. 

In this arid place, I looked around my interior landscape and saw a metaphor in the almond trees. I saw how, in a season of little rain, something that otherwise might bring joy and life could suck your reservoir dry. There were so many thirsty things in my life drawing from my spiritual reserves; challenges in my spouse’s ministry, constant change, and the toxic spiritual and political climate in the home country I had only just returned to. It feels like, right now in America, there is no safe space for people of faith. From every corner, some vested political interest is co-opting ‘god’ for their own ends, damming up the rivers of life with special interests and campaign slogans. 

I realized I had been knuckling down, trying to bore deeper and deeper through the bedrock, while all the noise was leeching the water out from every level. All I could do was put aside the drills and wait for the rain that just wouldn’t seem to come. Meanwhile, I was hoarding my reserves, cautiously sipping from the remaining canteens, resentful of anyone who asked to share for fear I would run out. 

Can you guess how the residents of rural California survived the drought? Government agencies and nonprofits provided a steady supply of water, carried in from outside sources. Bottles, jugs, and big water tanks that could be replenished at filling stations. Reflecting on this has been a revelation; when my spiritual well is empty and the rain is not falling, I can find God in the filling stations, in the gifted bottles, in the water tanks. 

More explicitly, the lesson I have taken is: humble yourself, and fill up where you can. Just like I have balked against someone presenting a political litmus test for membership in the Christian community, I have realized I must not present a spiritual litmus test for others, but instead find God where I can in their midst. I have learned my thirst can be quenched in a catholic mass or a mega-church or a podcast or a conversation with a fellow traveller, no matter which road they’ve come from. I’ve learned that I don’t need to sign up to all the particulars to realize that in each place there is something they’ve got right about God’s nature and what it means to be human. So, I fill up my tank, and a couple extra bottles to share and I continue to wait for the rain, but I do it less alone.

In the opening pages of the Universal Christ,Richard Rohr references “..the Full and Big Tradition, by which I mean the perennial tradition, the Wisdom of the entire body of Christ…” In some ways, it seems that figuring out what this is has been the great lesson of my life so far. I know I am not done learning it, and I have no idea where it will take me. But I think I see some rain clouds in the horizon…and maybe, was that perhaps a little drizzle?

Liza Cucco

I’ve come across so many people who have a similar life story to me – growing up in a loving, conservative Christian home, attending church every Sunday, Brethren in my case, doing all the right things, learning all the Bible stories in Sunday school, baptised at 13. I think I had a genuine and meaningful experience of God in my teens but my earliest memories of why I came to faith were out of fear – fear of being “left behind” (anyone else freaked out by that movie from the 70s?), fear of going to hell, fear of disappointing my family. It’s no wonder so many leave a fear based and shame based faith behind as they move into adulthood. 

Image used with permission.

I escaped the constraints of home life for university and promptly settled in an equally conservative church, where women were still not allowed to preach or lead, although with a lively youth and student ministry. There I encountered the joys of young earth creationism, and dispensationalism, as well as traditional views on the roles of men and women, while for the first time wrestling with the underpinnings of my faith in lectures on the philosophy of science and evolutionary biology. The first of many questions started to bubble up – what kind of God would make a world that looked old? Was he trying to make things difficult for us? Why do my friends experience spiritual gifts at the church down the road but my church teaches that these gifts died out when the canon of Scripture was completed? Who’s not telling the truth here?

Something else I inherited was the “evangelical hero complex” probably with a hefty dose of colonialism mixed in. Through my years at university, giving your life to God and going overseas as a missionary was held up as the pinnacle of what we should aspire to. It was drip fed through numerous mission conferences, countless students going overseas for summer mission trips and reporting back on amazing experiences, and the golden few, sacrificing it all to go off on long term cross cultural missions. In my desire to do something meaningful with my life, it’s no surprise that I followed suit, spending two years on board the OM ship the Doulos. 

Those two years were wonderful in so many ways, experiencing Christian community with people from all over the world, visiting many cultures, welcoming thousands of people on board. But at the same time there is now a sense of unease at the underlying cultural narratives, the cringeworthy street evangelism, and whether the experience was about genuine service, or a bunch of people fresh out of school or uni “finding themselves”. I’m still analysing this! Meeting my husband who hailed from Ethiopia was an unexpected bonus!

Fast forwarding on, via a brief stint in the home office of an even more conservative evangelical mission agency, finally reaching the end of my tether with full-time missions, a move to Scotland, settling into a new church, the arrival of children. I’m not sure what really kicked off the process of deconstruction, but it was more like the bubbling up of a general dissatisfaction with church – why was I there every Sunday? What was the point? Why did so many amazing people not see any need for a faith? Why weren’t my questions welcome? 

What changed was my church taking on its first pastor. A pastor who welcomed questions, and actually genuinely believed in equality for men and women, and took time to engage with me on the questions I had. Having permission to ask questions for the first time, and knowing someone who had asked them all before opened the flood gates. I had been on the brink of leaving church, of just giving up on faith – too many disappointments, too many inconsistencies, too irrelevant to my life. The cognitive dissonance had become too much. 

When I have questions, I always turn to books. I remember three books which really kicked off the deconstruction and reconstruction of my faith – “Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices” by Frank Viola, “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That are Transforming the Faith” by Brian McLaren, and “Evolving in Monkey Town” which introduced me to Rachel Held-Evans whose story and questions were so familiar to me. There have been so many books since, and blogs, podcasts, videos, sermons, discussions over coffee and wine, which have given me a reason to stay in my own tradition, to look back into its history and rediscover practices and theology so relevant today, to understand the Bible is so much more than an instruction manual, that God is so much bigger than I could imagine. 

The last decade or so has been a process of shedding evangelical baggage, stepping outside the tent of my inherited faith and finding so much beauty out there. My faith is much more integrated into my whole life now, my politics, my work. It’s an ongoing process and I’m so thankful to be part of the Nomad community and to find fellow travellers. Parenting two girls has strengthened my commitment to feminism, and has given me the challenge of trying to articulate what it is I believe about Jesus, the Bible and what I think matters most in life. Trying to pass on a faith without passing on the fear and shame which I inherited. Trying to pass on love and acceptance of all, affirming all regardless of sexuality, gender, race, faith. Trying to pass on a love and care of the earth and how that connects deeply to our faith. 

I couldn’t finish without paying tribute to Rachel Held Evans. She felt like a friend on the journey. Her blog, especially a few years ago, helped me to wrestle with some really big issues by sharing different views on topics such as hell, and same sex marriage. She handled these debates with grace and openness. She was a force to be reckoned with on Twitter and was fearless in calling out oppression and injustice where she saw it. I think if we can all be a bit more like Rachel we will be on the right path.

Laura Worku

In the beginning, I had a box. It started out small, in black and white with hard edges. As I grew and experienced new things, my box grew too. I decorated it with colour, and as I pressed against the walls, they moved outward. There was room to breathe, to expand. I grew to be happy with my box. It was safe and secure. Everyone I knew and loved was in the box too. We rejoiced in our box-ness. We felt sad for those who were outside the box. The box wasn’t perfect, but it was ours – everything I had ever known. 

Image used with permission.

But one day, the bottom of the box fell out from under me, and suddenly I was, for the first time, outside​. I didn’t want to be outside; I had loved my box. I was angry and afraid, disoriented. I tried to go back inside, but it didn’t look the same anymore, and it felt claustrophobic after the expanse of outside. I didn’t want to stay in the box as it was, but I didn’t want to be outside either. And so I sat, half in and half out, wondering if I’d find another box that would fit. 

I can pretty much pinpoint the exact moment that my box started to break. Or perhaps more accurately, it was a crack in the foundation, which eventually, with pressure, caused the floor to give way. The hospital room was dark as I stared up at a screen and saw a tiny baby with no heartbeat; I should have been three months along. It was a moment where everything shattered, one of those defining moments that alters the trajectory of your life. That trauma ushered in a period of intense pain, an anxiety disorder and ultimately the dismantling of my faith as I knew it. 

To begin at the beginning, I grew up conservative evangelical-ish, my formative years spent at a Baptist church in Southern Africa before moving to England in my early teens. My early Christian years taught me about the goodness of God and the kindness of community – but also who was in and out, the rules to follow. It was later on in my teenage years, through experiences like Soul Survivor and going to a small, vibrant church at university, that I really felt the ​presence​ of God. Being a Christian then, felt inspiring and exciting. It gave me purpose and belonging and life made sense. 

Yet it was suffering that changed everything, years later. As I battled anxiety and grief over my lost baby, I felt God’s presence so closely around me. Yet it didn’t change my circumstances. And it was ​that ​that changed everything​– ​when prayer didn’t work and didn’t seem to make a difference, when all the answers I had no longer made sense to me. I felt an intense anger that cut me to my core as I raged at God, at church, at Christianity. 

Once I pulled that thread, everything else started to unravel. I listened to new voices with different theologies and suddenly I wasn’t so sure about anything. Questions which had never bothered me about life, the universe and everything felt more prescient. ​Why ​did God create us? Did I believe in hell? Was Christianity the only truth? Some days I wasn’t 100% sure I believed in God at all. I still miss my box – my easy, comfortable, has-most-of-the-answers faith. I get mad at the box, at the people who have never left it. I know plenty of others who have experienced intense suffering but have not deconstructed their faith. If anything, it’s made them more sure, and I envy them. But at the same time, I’m not sure I’d change anything. My faith is different now, but it’s still there. There’s a new depth to it, despite the uncertainty. I love my church and there’s plenty that I love about Christianity, but I don’t feel fully ​in it. It feels as though I’m still in the in-between, half in and half out of the box. I don’t pray a whole lot, and I don’t read the Bible. I’m still angry in ways that I can’t completely understand, angry at things I believed that I no longer hold to be true. But after everything, it’s my experience of Jesus that has remained. I’m not sure about much else, but Jesus I’m pretty sure about. When I walk into my garden or I’m out in nature, I feel the wind blow against my skin and I sense the Spirit. I long for a world and a self made whole, without suffering, all things redeemed and restored. 

Catherine Gale

I’ve always lived more inside my head.  Things just felt safer and looked more hopeful in my imagination.  I grew up in the Christian tradition, with those stories of hope, yet it became harder and harder to reconcile them with the world I knew.  Spirituality became an escape from the world rather than a way to be part of it and so my two ‘worlds’ diverged.  Half laziness on my part, and half heavy burden on my shoulders from the obligation of my faith tradition’s beliefs.  It was the beginning of the end.

Image used with permission.

When I emerged from the ashes of the empire I created as a young man, there was a desperate hunger for something real.  I had gone as far as I could with my escape from reality and I could see where it was going.  It was going towards despair, isolation, and loneliness.  It was very tempting at the time to double down on that. To simply let myself slip away into the shadows and be forgotten by a world I didn’t know if I could ever trust or love and just live for the moment.

It has not been a quick process.  Absolute beliefs were easy signposts of where to go but they also allow you to bypass others for whom that road is not a good fit. In finding compassion for my own failures I’ve been surprised to also discover compassion for others.  In acceptance of my own limitations I’ve become more tolerant of the limitations of others. My head was used to being in charge so it was a new experience believing things with my heart as well. But it feels like peace to me when my wild and unruly heart is comforted and invited into choices rather than forced by the domineering logic of my mind.  It just takes time to teach the procedural memory of your body that it can live another way.

I don’t know why I felt compelled to make the choices I did.  Others seem to thrive by following road maps.  All I can assume is that they are trying to find a different place than I am. If I was going to describe it I’d use the same words you might use for exploration.  I learned to sail a boat not to just catch fish, or trade goods, but to go to the places no one had yet been.  I became curious and went off the beaten path into the bush to find God.  I learned a faith there that was not dependant on following instructions but which was more about learning my limitations and discovering my potential.  I’ve seen something there that was more beautiful and healthy than the road maps of others could promise.  A place that is worth staying in.

Since then my faith has become more mystical in nature.  More enchanted and magical.  But it isn’t like the magic I imagined in my youth.  The kind of power that changes the world to suit you.  Instead it feels more like the kind of magic that changes you so that you can enter into the true world and know that it will not hurt you in the ways that matter.  I’m becoming more a part of the world rather than trying to escape it and that feels like getting bigger somehow.  More connected to God through others and through the trust forged by my unique self-imposed wilderness adventure.

It feels good to know where I belong but it also feels good to leave the places I don’t belong.  The sense of freedom to go wherever I desire is very satisfying.  It gives my curiosity freedom to create which is another way to talk about hope.  The sense of choice and the confidence in my power to shape a beautiful yet imaginary future by being more firmly rooted and alive in the present moment.

What do I hope that will look like?

That I can be angry and yet choose how I express it. That I can be sad and feel freedom to let it be heard.  That I can be silly and not be embarrassed about how it looks.  That I can feel hatred and let it go.  That I can feel love and attraction and make healthy choices about it.  That I can do things I’m not good at and my failure will not erode the excitement of trying something new.  That the hard work is becoming more like hard play in that my inner compass directs me more quickly each time I fall apart so that I’m starting to enjoy the journey itself more.

This hope makes my life more fun because it speaks to me of being uniquely qualified to be myself and a part of this world we live in.  Now I would say that my faith is equally defined by my practices as it is by my beliefs. They critique each other and encourage each other to make me feel more real and permanent in this world.  How could I not feel hope when my heart and mind tell me I am an eternal creature slowly becoming more alive as the fear of death subsides. It’s just exciting to watch myself and the world around me change and wonder what it will look like tomorrow.

When God inhabits the place I’m in it’s like we experience the world together.  Today I was in a church leadership gathering and there was an invitation to contemplate where Jesus was meeting you in the Eucharist and it was instantaneous. I best saw Jesus manifested in a small but vocal Filipino girl, not the crowd of older white men who had the power.  I tried to play it cool and give it a little time but there wasn’t really any question about it.  If you are invited to the table and you get the chance, you jump at the opportunity to give Filipino Female Jesus some bread and wine because you’re just excited to be in the same room.  I’m not looking so far ahead to find God any longer and maybe that is why I’m finding God more often on the path beside me.  When your eyes change, the view just seems more magical.

– Chris Peters

I like words. I rarely find myself stuck for them. Words have been my friends all my life. I like to talk, to say what I think, to express how I feel through them. I lose myself in books, I love learning languages, to wield new vocabulary like a weapon, testing the heft and the hew of it.

Image used with permission.

And words shaped my faith, the Word of God, I was told, sharper than a sword, contained in the thousands of pages of a book called the bible. Millions of words were written about this book, and thousands of sermons spoken. It was ‘God-breathed’ and ‘useful for instruction’, verses memorised as if the words themselves had magical powers. Prayer was primarily verbal: I was taught to ask, to present my petitions, to confess. When faith was tested, it was to see if you could answer correctly: did you know the right words to speak? Did you have the right verses memorised? Sometimes it seemed we thought God were a puppet master who answered us if we spoke well enough, if we just laid claim to the outcome we wanted with enough vim and vigour, enough urgency, knocking, knocking at the door like the woman with the unjust judge.  We prayed for so many things, and so few of them, if we were honest, ever came good, at least not in the way we asked, despite all the claims to the contrary.  Wars still happened, people still got sick, people still died (because everyone does, in the end).  Miracles that happened, little signs of hope, serendipities and co-incidences, everyday graces, seemed to bear no relationship to what was asked for. Words, words and more words.

At some point in my thirties these words lost their power. Two things happened: Firstly, we went through hard times. Everybody does. Things happened to me that up until then had only happened to other people: serious things that I desperately wanted good outcomes for, but did not dare pray for. What if I prayed and it did not happen? What if my prayers, like so many others, were not answered? I became superstitious about it: to pray overtly might be to invite the opposite of what you wanted to happen. And words became dangerous – the way people prayed could be alienating or hurtful even if their intention was good. Like the time my husband needed an operation for a brain tumour and someone prayed, Lord we don’t need surgeons, we just need Jesus. And I thought, actually, I’d rather have the brain surgeon.  I began to find listening to other people’s prayers unbearable. Words stuck in my throat, and before long I was not praying at all.

Secondly, I began to seriously question the ‘Word of God’ as having authority in and of itself. I think for some people this can be terrifying; for me, this was actually exciting. Rather than trying to squeeze the bible into a doctrinal box that had to be correctly understood, I finally began to read it as I read other books: literately, not literally. I felt there was no end to the richness of what you could unpack if you thought about what was written in terms of when it was written, by, and for whom, what kind of text it was, how radical it was for its time, and how it had been translated. I noticed how the idea of God changed over time. I stopped expecting to find consistency, only stories, and the meanings of these stories began to multiply until they became, for me, big mystical concepts, so fat, and underpinning, I literally Ran. Out. Of. Words.

The good thing is, everything got very quiet. I began to notice the noisiness of the church community I was part of. The restless moving from one item to the next, with barely a pause for breath. The five-piece band, the keyboard pads, the drums, even our prayer underpinned by a constant twanging of guitar. Slowly, slowly I could feel Love pulling me outside, drawing me away from the crowds. Love also tipped me out of my old ways of living: the rush and the bustle and the full list of tasks, and the salary, and pre-occupation. I took redundancy, like a prickly gift – a chestnut if you like, hard to hold, but with a sweet kernel inside, if only I could let it grow. I learned to accept a new diagnosis for a life-long illness, and it made me cherish everything that I still have and can still do.

I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands, and for the first time in my life I discovered what it was like to find a place where I could meet with God. For me it was on the floor between the bed and the window, hidden away. There, I learnt how to spend time in both the absence and the presence of God – to not pray at all, but just to sit. I often imagined myself by a river, a mindfulness exercise where you imagine your thoughts as leaves drifting away, and I wondered, where is God? And then I began to notice the feeling of Jesus sitting right next to me, watching the river with me. So that’s what I do now. I sit there, and I put things in the river, before Jesus. No one can see or hear me do this. Sometimes I just do it in my mind, but I have found it liberating to actually use gestures – to place whatever it is, with my hands, in that imaginary river. Sometimes the thing is so heavy I can hardly lift it, sometimes it’s something I’m angry about and I can hurl it in, or it’s sticky and I can’t get it out of my chest, I have to tug at it, or pull it off in layers. Sometimes doing this will give me a picture of who or what I’m praying about: the time my daughter was anxious about her first school trip away from home, I placed her very tenderly like a tealight in a paper flower and watched her float away.

The Loving Kindness meditation originally found in Buddhism (thanks to The Liturgists for bringing this practice to me) has also become profound for me. I find it overwhelmingly beautiful.  The format is simple. You sit for a while and centre your breathing, and then slowly pray through the same prayer, each time with a different person in mind, starting with yourself, and then moving to someone you respect deeply; someone you care for; someone who is a stranger; and someone with whom you have trouble.  They are like five movements in a symphony, each one building on the last.

Each time I pray this way, God brings different people to mind: people from my past, and people from my present. Praying for the complete stranger, the sandwich seller or the homeless person I walked by that day, has been humbling. It is growing compassion in me. One time, I felt the ‘one with whom I have trouble’ was my grandpa who died several years ago, a rather cantankerous individual. In that moment I found myself wanting and able to forgive him, letting him go. Greeting him in my mind, and holding him there, looking him in the eyes as if he were still alive, was deeply moving, and I felt a relief from a burden I hadn’t realised I was carrying.  I feel I could pray like this for ever.

There is a song I grew up with that went, “let me have my way among you; do not strive, do not strive”. So, if any of you have, like me, run out of words, may you know that God is always with you, anyway. And if you wonder if prayer changes outcomes, please know that I’m also still not sure. The only thing I am sure of is that prayer changes me. But that’s worth a start.

– Alice Huntley

I have a confession: I find it infinitely easier to find God in fiction than I do in church. It may sound obvious, but a book doesn’t have to be by a Christian author to be able to strike at heart of what Love is. One of the most compelling stories of relationship I’ve read recently was a science-fiction work called the Dreamhealersby M.C.A. Hogarth, where two aliens establish a telepathic emotional bond. This is just one example of many. Other favourites include Marilynne Robinson (Gilead, Home), Stephen Lawhead (Empyrion, Pendragon), and C. S. Lewis (Narnia, Till they have faces). All these works manage to convey the compassionate and frustrating love of a God who demands authentic relationship and submission, whereas my experience of church has frequently, although not always, been a little lonely.

Maybe I find God in fiction because, like the divine, a story is a nebulous thing. You might think it would be easy to grasp onto, to carve up, identify, categorise. We divide it into plot, character, setting, and talk about first-person narratives, poetic structure, and underlying ideology. But whatever attempt is made to cement meaning, it is almost always immediately frustrated. My own experience of academia has given me insight into the sheer volume of conclusions that can be drawn from a single written work. Arguments rage between scholars as to how we should receive a text: is the author dead, or does their intent still remain within ancient words awaiting discovery? (Frequently ignoring the, perhaps, more prescient question: does anyone care?)

I, for my own part, am interested in what happens in the space between the words being uttered and their reception by another. My doctoral thesis consisted of 85,000 words on a single epic poem, Statius’ Thebaid, its premise being that interaction with others, loving or violent, is what makes an individual who they are. Isn’t that what all story is? An attempt to close the impassable “gap” between our “selves” and an “other”? Perhaps that’s why I find telling my own story so difficult – I am anxious that my words make it safely across. I don’t wish to be misunderstood.

I wonder if God feels the same?

If you’ve got this far into my meandering thoughts, thank you. I think what I’m trying to begin to talk about is this: being a Christian is really all about how we negotiate the space between ourselves and others. One of the ways this has played out in my own life is, rather embarrassingly, my inability to pray for someone without crying. I simply need to put my hand on someone’s shoulder and the tears begin to build. Soon I am rendered a soggy mess whilst the person on the receiving end is in all likelihood absolutely fine. This is particularly infuriating as I really dislike displays of emotion. When I was a young teenager I used to judge girls who would cry in school, deeming them emotionally manipulative. Yet, for some annoying reason the single most frequent way I experience the Holy Spirit is through a debilitating wave of compassion. Crying makes me vulnerable, it leaves me exposed.

However, as fearful as I am of the space between the ‘I’ and the ‘non-I’, I am even more afraid of those who ignore it. When we refuse to acknowledge the difference between ourselves and others we can end up erasing the other entirely. It is far better to be misunderstood than to destroy. Sometimes I have been on the receiving end of an imposed idea of what a Christian should look like, made to soften and change in order to fit an ideological mould. When I refused it seemed that relationship was no longer available. Yet, my hope lies in the fact that more and more it seems that small pockets of Church seem to be embracing expressions that seek to maintain difference. It is with friends whom I trust that I can be myself without fear. In small gatherings I can allow myself to love others and share my story, just as God, whom I find in the stories of others, loves me.

– Joscelyn Cole

My body has been through some difficult times already. There came a point where people began remarking: “Of course, this happened to you. If it’s extreme/random/unlikely, it’s going to happen to Ashleigh.”

Now, this looks harsh written out. At first it didn’t feel harsh; it felt true. And the people who say this do not mean to be hurtful AT ALL. In fact, I think they are trying to offer a kind of witnessing. They are not wanting to dismiss that, in some lights, I’ve had more than my “fair share.” [Although there is no “fair share”, in reality.]

Image used with permission.

And I can’t blame them. I have lived with an attitude toward my body that ranges from resignation to infuriation. When I was 11-12, I developed a mysterious infection that turned out to be a kind of pneumonia transmitted by cats.… The year I was 18, I had a series of concussions from skiing and sports that culminated in a camping concussion and resulted in an extremely difficult head injury. I had to put off university for a year because I couldn’t make simple decisions or make sense of a computer screen. [Thankfully, my brain fully healed with the exception of number retention: a VERY minor although often humbling blip to live with.] Just before Jordan and I got married, I developed mono: a totally typical thing for a college student living with how many?—four?—other young women in a two bed apartment and not getting ANY sleep. BUT. Wait for it. My liver and my spleen swelled up to such extraordinary sizes that my stomach collapsed, and all sorts of specialists paraded through my room to poke and prod and look at my “most unusual case.” Our wedding was postponed and we took a wheelchair on our honeymoon. Each of my pregnancies has involved HG, to increasing extents. My second trimester with Nienna was complete bedrest because there was a growth which made losing our baby the likely scenario (thank God, she is now a thriving eight year old! I have not had to experience that searing, unbelievable loss.) During my pregnancy with Cressida, I developed kidney stones. Again, not uncommon during pregnancy. But mine blocked my ureter, causing my left kidney to rupture, and I was close to being septic. [Don’t do that. It’s really hellish.] When I was at the end of my second trimester with Skandar, I had an appendectomy, which, amazingly, is not super uncommon.

Neither is cancer. Cancer is very, very, common. We are all living so close to it.

However, I am part of a new cohort of otherwise healthy men and women in their twenties and thirties developing colorectal cancer. I fit none of the risk factors. In the past, the profile of someone with my type of cancer and stage would be at least a couple decades older than myself — until recently, when people like me began showing up in higher numbers, raising many questions in the medical community.

Now that you have a litany of my strange medical issues, you can see why someone might say, “Of course this is happening to Ashleigh.”

The unintended side-effect of that attitude is that I began to feel this shame towards my body. I began to feel an unhealthy resignation. Rather than flexibility and adaptability, this kind of observation began to make me feel like giving up.

Child-birth and running were two of the first things that began to help me change my perspective. Not only could I come face-to-face with hard things — I could choose how to engage them, and I could kick ass. Ask my older brothers: there has always been this side to me that just won’t give up, even when all the chips are down and it’s clear I’ve lost. [Such as when a boy 4-6 years older than me was sitting on top of me, pounding me, and I’d still be trash-talking.] When I started giving that side of me its voice, I began seeing all these things as things I’ve overcome and I began to see myself as strong, rather than as weak and shameful and not enough. After Nienna was born, the subsequent health issues each began teaching me and leading me towards a lot of beautiful truths and experiences. Even as they totally tore me down. I am NOT saying I floated blissfully through these events. These beauties are the beauties that come out of engaging with the pain, and letting others join me.

In the first weeks after dropping the bomb “I have stage IV colorectal cancer” on my dear ones, our little family was flooded with so much kindness and support. Some of the first face-to-face encounters that stand out to me include those, who, like my father-in-law, have seen me walk (or army crawl) through health storms before. He hugged me and told me, “You are brave. You can do this. You are one of the strongest women I know.” There were other types of first responses that also have really helped and stood out, but, the ones that relate to my strength and courage are the ones that touch on this new thing:

Compassion for my body.

You see, one of the side effects of seeing myself as strong and brave, is that I can look at my body from a position of agency and strength, rather than of resignation and shame.

Our dear friends sent Jordan and I to a day at Thermëa Spa (oh, heaven!), and my sister-in-law provided child care. One of the spectacular gifts of Jordan and I both identifying as Nines on the Enneagram, is that we can really relax together. Towards the end of the day, Jordan asked me how I was doing. I told him that what kept reverberating around my heart and head was, “My poor body,” along with other sentences of kindness, compassion, and gentle-heartedness towards this cancerous, toxin-filled body.

Since then, I’m trying to make this a discipline; to have my inner dialogue be filled with compassion for my body. If I can’t muster it in my own voice, I hear that of my Jordan, my dear friend Karla, and my dear friend Anna (especially when I want a little attitude with the compassion.)

It took a long time and a lot of struggling to get to a place where I can meet my flawed, hurting, sick, failing body with compassion and kindness. To see myself as having strength beyond the confines of health issues I cannot control. I would ask you to try to see yourself— whatever that struggle — with compassion. It doesn’t make the problems go away, but it does help sustain us through the hardship. I hope it can make me look a little more like the God of Love who died for this body of mine.

– Ashleigh Dueck

It was the mid 1990s. A new teen, Jonathan, had joined the church youth group. He was cool; he had a black leather jacket. Jonathan was clean cut, held passionate opinions and was sensitive. We became friends. He was different to my other friends. Even though I was only 17 I was one of the junior leadership team. Jonathan asked if he and I could have a chat. Mum and I invited him for dinner and after the meal he came up to my bedroom which was my hang out space. I put on some music and we both sat on the edge of my bed, though I could see something was weighing on his mind. He sat, head in hands for a while, then looked up and said, ‘I think I’m gay.’ I immediately moved from the bed to a chair.

Image used with permission.

I was fairly spotty and a little overweight, but my first thought was, ‘does he fancy me?’ I was horrified. I felt revulsion. He remained frozen and afraid. Jonathan continued to describe the realisation of liking other guys. I was out of my depth. He had come to me for help but I had no help to offer. I dug through my mental archives for something useful.  I had heard it preached that ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’ That didn’t feel fit for purpose. No I was now in full defence mode. I thought his sin would lead to contamination, not just of me but of the youth group and the church. I saw him as an interloper.

If I had taken a breath perhaps I would have seen he was looking for God’s assurance. He was overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings and wanted some guidance, or some normality. I advised him to talk to the youth pastor about it. I was struggling to know how to (cliche alert), ‘hate the sin and love the sinner.’ Twenty five years later, that moment still plays on my mind. He didn’t stay with our youth group for much longer. The gossip of his sexuality began to enter our conversations around the tuck shop. There was a celibate gay man in the youth group. He, however, was revered as a different species. He had tamed his desire, overcome temptation and had chosen to bear his cross. By contrast, Jonathan was lost as he seemed unrepentant. Once he had left we could breathe easily as we were safe. He would not be a problem anymore.

Skip ahead a number of years. I was a church planter, and known within a large church network. I had found myself beginning to question the traditional evangelical view of marriage being exclusively heterosexual. The church I had planted was part of this network and I had been absent from a number of gatherings. My doubts, and desire to avoid conflict had led to me slowly backing away without explanation. A member of the network had been sent to find out why I wasn’t showing up. We went out for coffee and she began a familiar script I’d heard before. She said: ‘Churches in this network are like family and friends, and you and your church are definitely family.’ She had a warmth to her tone. I decided to take a risk. I falteringly said: ‘I am unsure what I feel about same sex relationships.’ Without skipping a beat she said ‘Maybe you and your church are in the ‘friends’ category.’ In taking a tentative step towards her, she took a huge step backwards away from me. In a tiny way, my little identification with the ‘other’ made me into the ‘other.’ She didn’t physically move away from me, as I had done to the young man years before, but we realised the ideological chasm between us.

My uncertainty was born of shifting theological perspectives. I began to read scripture not as the last word on a theme but sometimes the first word. I encountered broader systems of interpretation of the Bible which led to me revising my view of the cross, sin, and scripture itself. The problem was that as a church leader people came to me for answers. I don’t think they expected me to have as many questions as they did. For the longest time I hid my personal civil war between holding a perspective of faithfulness to scripture, versus responding lovingly to those whose sexuality I had been taught and believed was sinful and deviant. I had sat in prayer meetings where normally kind characters would in prayer denounce the evil spirit of homosexuality. I heard same sex attracted people denounce themselves, in what sounded to me like deep shame and self-hatred.

Then, whilst ministering in my last church, a couple moved into an apartment besides the church. One man arrived first and I, being neighbourly, popped over and welcomed him to the area. A couple of months later he invited me to meet his partner who’d arrived from abroad. When I saw another man standing beside the first man hand in hand, and obviously in love, my theory and theology broke down in the light of the love I witnessed and felt in and from them. Over time, hearing their stories of rejection by the churches they grew up in shook the final doubts I had. Bible verses could be used to justify God’s displeasure at homosexual orientations. Bible verses could also be used to support faithful loving relationships between two people regardless of their gender. I decided to lean towards, learn about and eventually adopt the second narrative.

There is a cost. For a spell I was an occasional lecturer for a theological college. Their statement of beliefs sees marriage as heterosexual only. I shared my changing perspectives with colleagues. I learnt the college had a red line for its team. Their policy was that if I felt same sex marriage was something God might approve of I had probably moved too far away from the college ethos. Over my time of teaching there I came to see same sex marriage as equal marriage, and I stepped down. It’s painful to recount this as I deeply appreciated their welcoming me into the academic community, and believing in what I had to bring. I simply wish the welcome would have be extended even further.

I have a number of close friends who felt/feel me to be lost. Earnest friends who love me have tried to talk me out of my new position and I have felt a distancing from people I have known for years. I left the church I planted. I searched for another church where there was an openness to exploring a positive view of equal marriage. I sincerely hope to guide my new congregation towards becoming a member of the Inclusive Church network. The network have the following statement of intent:

“We believe in inclusive Church – church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”

Postscript

Whilst writing this piece the heaviness of the anecdote of Jonathan in the youth group caused me to rifle through Facebook, sifting through friends of friends until I found him. We became friends on Facebook. I sent a message to him and asked his forgiveness. I was relieved to learn he didn’t hold it against me. I was delighted to learn he is in a loving partnership with another man. I hope in time he and his partner could happily attend a church I lead and feel at home in God’s and my love.

– Azariah France-Williams

Glancing up at the screen I register the song lyrics – ‘You’ve never failed me yet’ – and experience a familiar surge of frustration and pain. I’m sat at the edge of the room with a notebook, so I start journaling:

There’s a part of me that would like to shout ‘bollocks’ to that…
And yet – you’ve led me through and out to a place that is better in every way…
And yet – the manipulation and bullying were carried out in your name AND YOU HAVE NOT DISTANCED YOURSELF FROM THEIR ACTIONS AND WORDS.
That feels like failing me.

Image used with permission.

This is me, aged 43, at the church I attend with my husband and teenage sons. If my younger self could see me now, she’d be concerned. I can imagine her puzzled frown as she tries to understand why I’m sat on the floor at the back of a church meeting, no arms in the air, no heartfelt singing – instead responding to worship songs with naughty words. How did a contender for ‘Most Enthusiastically Committed to all things Church’ get to this place?

I’m not always quite sure how I got here either. For a while the process was remembered in a mish-mash of frozen emotions and jumbled images. I’m still working on it in therapy but, a further four years down the line, I can put the pieces together much more coherently.

Since birth I attended charismatic or Pentecostal churches, enjoying shared faith and a profound sense of belonging. Eight years ago, whilst working for a church, I noticed my stress levels rising as I experienced unusual levels of conflict and drama with the relatively new leader of the church. Things built up until two years later, anxiety levels caused me to cry during a planning meeting. In the following days the leadership told me they believed God was asking them to give me the ‘opportunity’ to resign from my job. Exhausted, I agree.

We remained in the church and my husband began ministerial training. However, we seemed to be in a continual cycle of conflict and appeasement with the leader. During that time, I read a book on childhood and adult bullying and felt as if I finally understood what was happening. Looking for a way forward, I spoke with people I trusted with a view to raising the issues with the leader and working towards a healthier relationship… what could possibly go wrong?!

It turned out, quite a lot and approximately a year later my family and I left our church of 21 years. By then our friends, truly loving, wonderful people, were questioning my character and sanity. Some of them had rebuked me – ‘telling me ‘in love’ that I should ‘honour, respect and submit’ to the man I had begun to think was manipulating and bullying us. Others were no longer speaking to me. My husband was no longer training to be a minister and we had not been permitted to serve on any team for some months. I was terrified that I was ruining my sons’ spiritual and emotional lives. My mental health was plummeting, alongside my sense of faith in myself, others and, even though I desperately wanted to protect it, my trust in God.

During that final year though, I started training to be a counsellor at Waverley Abbey College. I was spending long weekends in a beautiful mansion in Surrey, connecting with like minds, exploring counselling psychology and the areas of interface with spirituality and faith. Combined with antidepressants and a mind-bogglingly supportive husband, I believe this ongoing learning experience prevented me from losing my life to anxiety and depression.

On the course were Christians with a wide range of beliefs, some of which I shared, but many of which I’d thought were incompatible with a ‘real Christian faith’. As we were being encouraged to critique pretty much everything, I started evaluating the legitimacy of terms such as ‘spiritual authority’, carrying on questioning, until even the existence of hell was up for grabs.

I was also delving into ethics, issues around power imbalance, and learning to truly respect and promote the autonomy and agency of another person. Why oh why, I wondered, was this something I had rarely witnessed in pastoral care and church leadership? And although my experience was on the milder end of the spectrum, I also devoured everything I could find about spiritual abuse, narcissistic leadership and recovery for those who had been a part of unhealthy religious systems.

And so, over the next few years, plenty of unravelling, learning and change took place. Whilst new friendships have emerged, I still grieve those I’ve lost and sometimes I long for the old security of evangelical certainty. My faith is fragile but somehow it exists and I’m hopeful that it will develop and grow in healthy directions. Mostly I’m hoping that I will get closer to understanding the nature of God’s love and what it means to be made in their image.

With that in mind I started to wonder what it would be like if God joined me…

We sit together with that sense of betrayal and it’s OK.
God’s not asking me to change how I feel and definitely not demanding I repent.
We can look at this together.

“Of course you feel betrayed. Why wouldn’t you? I know how deep that pain goes and I know it hurts just to look at it. You don’t have to, but if you want, you can express it all to me. Rant, swear, scream if you need to. There’s no rush. You don’t need to apologise. I’m not angry, but I understand if you’re angry with me. I’m so very sorry.”

What if that was God’s response? What if that was how S/He met with every abused heart? And what if there was space in every faith community for this sense of betrayal to be heard and accepted?

– Joy Brooks

I love singing, and have over the years developed a compendious knowledge of Hymns Ancient & Modern, through to a range of current (ish) worship songs.  However, I find myself struggling with a lot of the implicit or explicit theology, particularly as expressed in some of the accompanying graphics on YouTube where Jesus is wafting on clouds, surrounded by angelic hosts.

Image used with permission.

For the past decade or so, I’ve been involved with a charity in my city which supports Refugees and Asylum Seekers.  Service users are supported with advice, representation and hospitality. They range from 16-year-old kids who often have faced hell and high water to arrive in the UK from Calais, through to people whose Asylum claim has been refused and have now become destitute.  In between, there have been countless single people, couples and families escaping horrors we can’t even begin to imagine.  These people want what the rest of us want – a roof over their heads, an income, meaningful work, a future for their kids.  A chance to live free from persecution and bombs.  Once here, they are invariably struggling with innumerable obstacles and difficulties.  When the Home Office (under Theresa May) declared it was looking to create a hostile environment for migrants, they weren’t joking.  In fact, they’ve been extremely successful in this aim, condemning many to live in a climate of misery, uncertainty and fear. I know of one woman who has been waiting 18 and a half years for her asylum application to be resolved.   During most of that time she has had to be dependent on the charity of others, with all the inherent dangers of exploitation and abuse. The hostile environment has succeeded through a lack of care, and insufficient resources to act justly, fairly and humanely towards migrants.

Here I see people stripped down to their basic humanity, without any of the props of money, status or any of the markers we use to identify who is above us and who below in the social hierarchy.  All they have is themselves, and sometimes, if they’re lucky, each other to carry them through each day.  To many they would appear worthless, not worthy of any respect or consideration in their powerlessness and vulnerability. Some will have had status and respect in their own country; some are professional people, but are now unable to practice their profession and use their skills.  All will have been loved by someone. Back home, they are some mother’s son or daughter, often having had to leave behind all family, dead or alive, and those they love.  Often, faith is hugely important, whatever they are calling their God.

Going back to where I started, I wonder, did Jesus put himself in this place, a place of weakness, vulnerability and dependency?   I think he did and for me this Jesus is the one who is the reality, not the King of Kings and Lord of Lords of traditional and popular hymnody.  For me, faith has become recognising this Jesus in others, and trying to work out how we respond.

– Maggie Jones

The archetypal narrative of a Christian often begins with that remembered moment when they first welcomed Jesus into their life as a young person. However, what has instead become the most defining aspect of my life’s journey to date took place in September 2007 – when I was 27 years old and I discovered that my faith was precipitously waning. It was almost like having lost or misplaced something valuable that I once had; something that was deeply important to me, that defined who I was, and that I desperately wanted to find. And though I never fully stopped believing in the existence of God or in the teachings of and about Jesus, my progressively conscious awareness of a disconnect between theoretical doctrine and practical experience manifested itself in what I would describe as a decade-long existential crisis. If I had been doing anything other than full-time vocational ministry in the church at that point in time, I don’t know if I would have felt so conflicted and hypocritical. But the flip-side of being in such a predicament is that it forced me to wrestle through the dis-integration in order to salvage something workable with the negligible faith that remained.

Image used with permission.

Given that my inherited spiritual framework was profoundly Trinitarian, at the core of my unease was (and continues to be) not seeing God as actively involved in the world and our lives. It made me wonder if the divine silence I knew was my fault, or on the other hand, whether God for whatever reason had ceased to speak. After all, if God is presented to us in the Bible as a personal being – who communicated with language to people throughout the history of Israel, who became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, and who is said to relate to us still via the Holy Spirit – then one would understandably assume that a “relationship” with God is not only possible, but arguably normative for us as humans. But when prayer was consistently experienced as a non-conversational monologue, when requests for others to not suffer and die constantly went unanswered, when it became evident that other people’s “hearing from God” recurrently seemed to accord only with what they themselves wanted to hear, etc…the cumulative effect of such disenchantments facilitated the razing of my formerly held beliefs to the ground. And unfortunately, there is little room in most churches for open and honest dialogue about questions, uncertainties or even the consideration of alternative perspectives – especially for those in positions of leadership.

So, I largely kept this desolation to myself and assumed that my sense of feeling lost would eventually pass. But since I was still employed by the church, I was duty-bound to figure out some authentic path forward that both acknowledged my doubts and was nonetheless true to those inarguably core Christian principles of mercy, grace and love. It was around this time that I became familiar with the work of people like Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and Peter Rollins, whose writing gave me hope that there might be different yet valid ways of understanding the Judeo-Christian story. Coincidentally, I was then extremely fortunate to reconnect with an old friend from high school, who I spent many hours with over the next number of years – pints of beer in hand – talking through our mutual wonderings about the mysteries of life and faith. And since writing music has always been the most cathartic and genuine way for me to work through difficulties, many songs were inspired by and recorded during those dark days. All of these things helped me to not cross the line into outright apostasy. Yet, it was also quickly becoming clear to me that the necessary evolution of my convictions wouldn’t be well received. In other words, while critics of those who hold beliefs that aren’t entirely “orthodox” may fault so-called “heretics” for not taking the Bible or God seriously enough, though my faith was in flux, I was anything but apathetic – the source of my trouble was that I took my spiritual life very seriously.

As I wrote in one song a few years ago: “I guess nothing is what you need to truly start again.” In many ways, that seems to be where I find myself now – starting over. Or as I’ve more recently heard it described, perhaps this past season of barrenness since 2007 was the vanguard for what is termed a “second naiveté.” Because though I continue to find myself in a space of feeling in-between, unsettled and spiritually adrift, even so the overarching story of the Hebrew Bible and the remembered teachings/example of Jesus make sense to me. Day-to-day, I don’t unwaveringly believe – but I want to. More often than not, my faith in Christ today may sound to others and be experienced by me as much closer to existentialism or deism. However, if I’m honest, I find myself to be in a better place as a Christian than I’ve ever been. I’m less sure about more things and have fewer strictly held beliefs. Yet, this requires me to deliberately choose to have faith in God, which highlights the important notion that trust is not a feeling – it’s a choice. It’s not always possible to proverbially look on the bright side of life. I still do get discouraged and don’t quite know what to do with the practice of prayer. But what has been most encouraging for me in this age of interconnectedness – especially as mediated via podcasts and online communities like this one – is that we’re not alone. For that, I am particularly grateful and this motivates me on my better days to be willing with whatever strength remains to keep fighting the good fight of the faith.

– Mike Powell

I’ve always felt that if I had to describe my life in terms of the tortoise and the hare fable, I’m the tortoise.  My spiritual evolution has been slow and steady.

I grew up in the seventies in a denomination where the only way to be saved was by immersion at some ambiguous “age of accountability” and even after baptism, you could fall away at any time.  Grace was seldom given more than lip service and the Holy Spirit was something you got at baptism and never talked about again.  On the most-emphasized sin list: instrumental music, un-submissive women, dancing and lust.

Image used with permission.

My mom believed there were many paths to God, and that dogma was baloney.  She made sure to debunk anything that needed debunking.  This feeling that it was OK to question anything and everything was a priceless foundation. I hear people ask all the time how they should proceed in raising their kids: church? doctrines?  I think about my mom and how none of that mattered nearly as much as the encouragement to question it all.

As a teen, I loved the things of god. My perspective on god and spirituality was broad and ecumenical, but I was a typical teen who wanted to change the world.  I fell in love with a boy from church and married at age eighteen because, well, it’s better to marry than to burn with passion.  We went into ministry in a pretty dysfunctional non-denominational church that felt “radical” and “sold out” compared to the church of my childhood.  During those years, I moved away from the open mindset my mom had raised me with and sunk deep into dogma, thinking that this was a spiritually superior way of being.

My marriage was awful. A counselor I saw gave me an assignment: no “shoulds” for two weeks. Do only what I wanted, with no regard for what was right or wrong.  In essence, it was a grace assignment.  I skipped church.  This seems silly to me now, but it was huge at the time (we were in ministry you see, so I was skipping work too).   My husband took our two girls to church and I stayed in bed.  It was heavenly.  The second Sunday, as I was luxuriating in bed, I began wondering how the people at church whom I loved were doing and wondering what my girls were doing in Sunday School.  I wantedto go to church.  Hm.  Interesting. Up to that point, I had been so focused on what was right, I hadn’t known my own wants and desires.  I was completely disconnected from my heart.  I thought if I removed the law, I would discover that my desires were sinful.  Instead, I discovered they were about the people I loved and the things I loved.   This was my beginning with grace and freedom and next it led to truth.

In my late twenties, I left ministry and became a licensed hypnotherapist and social worker.  My journey at that time was a journey of self-discovery.  Grace had given me the freedom to pursue truth.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the truth was setting me free.   As I became more and more truthful about who I was, and what I wanted, my marriage fell apart.  After sixteen years of marriage, my husband revealed to me that he was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, had a sexual addiction and had not been faithful.  It was an excruciating time in my life. I did the religious things to try to cope like prayer and fasting, but my marriage fell apart anyway.  I had done what I thought God wanted.  They had told me if I followed the rules (sexual “purity”, marry a “Christian”, service to god….) my life would be blessed.  God had failed and betrayed me. It was then that I realized that in thinking god had failed me, I obviously felt that what god was about was positive life outcomes.  I had been using god as a vehicle for control and security.  I had to decide if my faith was about control or about love.  I chose love, which meant choosing surrender.

My journey since that time has continued to be about grace and truth, and surrender.  As the years have gone by, life has upped the ante on surrender of control.  Over the last 15 years I’ve had to learn surrender when one of my children was diagnosed with mental illness, and one attempted suicide, and one was raped.  Each time life hits me over the head, I return to the idea of surrendering to the present reality instead of trying to fix it, and I find a freedom in it.   I’ve also been trying to surrender where knowledge is concerned.  I’m a huge questioner still, but I don’t think I’ll find the answers anymore.  I am learning to enjoy the adventure of unknowing.  I’m learning to walk on water, and put to death daily old ideas so new birth can occur.   I don’t know what THE truth is anymore, but I try to connect to MY truth.  I don’t know what god is anymore, but I know what god is to me.  God to me is the logic, the ultimate reality, the life force that creates and sustains reality.  I don’t really understandit, but my contemplative practice is the attempt to connect with the is-ness of this world and receive reality and experience grace in the midst of it rather than raging against it. In doing this, I find there is good wrapped up in evil, light wrapped up in darkness and life wrapped up in death.

I’m a scientist by profession now and love the connections I see between science and faith.  I’m writing about the parallel between evolution in nature and evolution of spirit.  In nature, it is the infinite capacity for error (mutations) on the genome that provides the raw material for life to evolve and thus continue through natural selection.  Spiritually, grace allows for infinite error (everything is permissible) and it is this error that also provides the raw material for human consciousness and spirit to evolve. And evolution is slow and steady.   At least that’s how it has been in my reality.

– Heather Reynolds

The podcast I was listening to cut out halfway to my Aunt Hilda’s funeral. Like a switch being flicked, I suddenly saw my surroundings. I saw the greyness of the sky, the blankness of the white fields, the flatness of the landscape. Driving through the prairies in wintertime is like wandering the corridors of an abandoned school in summertime: everything is long, straight and empty.

The podcast was an incomplete download. Ugh. I was irritated. I was expecting to be bored in half an hour, but not now. I was heading back to the small conservative Mennonite town where my mother’s people started out. Grunthal, Manitoba is a sweetly named place if you speak German. In English it sounds rather sour. The “green valley” for which the place is named is not there. The name either refers to a ridge that was hauled away for gravel years ago, or it arose from the founders’ homesickness for someplace else.

Image used with permission

I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting of the funeral, but probably some tropes about “going home” that put all the colour someplace distant from here, from this life, this place. I must confess that I did not think of my Aunt Hilda as a colourful person, so I didn’t really believe that she had given her funeral officiants much to work with.

I was wrong on both counts. Aunt Hilda’s funeral blew me away.

My Aunt Hilda never married, and I see now that I had held this against her as something sad, something like a failure. This was a bit of stupid prejudice on my part. I learned at her funeral that Hilda’s singleness was not at a sad state. She had friends and colleagues who became her family and cherished her. She was known by them as someone who was happy, grateful and kind.

It turns out that Aunt Hilda knew how to celebrate life, and her funeral sermon was given by a preacher who knew how to celebrate her. It was the most powerful funeral sermon I think I have ever heard.

Because the preacher shares Hilda’s diagnosis. Gary Martens is a gifted preacher, and he has terminal metastatic colon cancer, exactly the same as Hilda did. Gary can joke, can quote scripture verbatim off the cuff, he can hold an audience and he can tell a story. He began his and Hilda’s story with Hilda’s diagnosis, and his visits to her as her pastor. The plot twist came eight months into Hilda’s treatment, when Gary got his news, and they started hanging out as chemo buddies.

When I die, I hope the homilist is someone who really was my friend, and someone who really knows how to preach. It is something to behold. There was respect, there was honesty, there was grief, and there was a contagious joy over a life well-lived in Gary’s sermon.

And then my people sang.

Say what you will about my people. We are obstinate, slow to change, suspicious of outsiders, often suffocating in our moralism, but we can sing. All the art we denied ourselves, all the colour we drained out of our church windows, all the fun we never had we sublimated into choral singing.

God, it felt good. It made me homesick for church.

It’s funny, you know, because I was looking forward to hanging out with a fellow church castaway after the funeral. Aunt Hilda’s funeral was only half the reason I made the road trip to Grunthal. I probably wouldn’t have gone if Grunthal weren’t also the home of a friend I recently made online via the Nomad Podcast Beloved Listener Lounge. Mike is a recovering evangelical pastor who could no longer toe the party line of the Baptist church where he had been ministering for the past fifteen years. His Instagram handle is closetjudas, which probably tells you most of what you need to know about that. Mike ended up in Grunthal because Grunthal is close to a Bible College where his PhD wife finally landed a gig, just in time for Mike to take a break and not go crazy from officially representing the faith he had been privately deconstructing for years. For now he is a stay-at-home Dad in a town where Halloween rounds with the kids have to be quietly pre-arranged via Facebook, because you don’t want to horrify the wrong neighbour with the fact that you and your three-year-old pink princess and your seven-year-old little superhero dude are out celebrating Satan’s birthday.

So Mike’s place was the cathartic encounter I was really looking forward to, and it really was a terrific visit. Thank you Nomad for helping me find a friend in Grunthal!

We talked about kids, and our stories, and we talked a lot about church. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. For me and Mike this is not just a frustration of a desire to belong, but a desire to contribute, a desire to lead. Mike strikes me as a pastor of a church that doesn’t exist yet. It was interesting for us to compare notes and see that the hurdles for people like us are in many ways as high in churches on the liberal end of the continuum as they are on the conservative end.

On the conservative side, the admission requirements are drawn up mostly according to what I would call “content.” Does your statement of faith tick all the right boxes? If so, welcome to the club. Here is your mantle of leadership. Now just never change your mind about anything, and you have a lifetime gig here as an intellectual and spiritual guide to the faithful. On the liberal side, the gatekeeping is all about what I would call “process.” Mike and I have both explored the possibility of pastoral ministry in the United Church of Canada, the most liberal mainline denomination in the land. (For you non-Canucks trying to place this tribe, it is a made-in-Canada amalgam of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist denominations) The message of the UCC is: Everyone is welcome here, we have open minds and open hearts. And iron-clad protocol. That few members understand. So when some young outsiders come along without the proper paperwork, the UCC just doesn’t know what to do with them and their offer of pastoral involvement dies in committee.

In its defence, the UCC is trying to protect its congregations from hostile takeovers by zealots who have come along in the past to try to “save” them from their liberal heresies. And they are trying to protect their pulpits for the good folk who have gone through their accredited seminaries and find themselves competing for pastoral charges in an ever-shrinking pool of viable UCC congregations. Just like the glaciers we thought of as permanent to the Canadian landscape, liberal mainline churches are dissolving quickly in a rapidly changing climate. It’s a hard time to be hospitable.

So guys like me and Mike get together to lick our wounds and soothe our egos and figure out how in the world our love for reading theology and making music and meeting people in the most real moments of their lives could still be a vocation, and perhaps, please God, a livelihood.

In the wilderness in which we wander, podcasts like Nomad are manna. They feed us, and draw us together around a common,  if virtual, table. We may be homeless wanderers, but we are homeless together, and that is a life-saving difference. We are so grateful for the leadership and provision podcasts like Nomad offer us in this mostly leaderless, provisional time. But still, we ache for a land in which to settle, a place to grow our own crops and provide for others instead of living off of the morsels drifting down out of the sky.

When I was leaving, Mike lent me a book by Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace. It so happens that in the book, Volf asks the question of what it means to be a nomad. Does it mean a life where, as Gilles Deleuze says, “There is no starting point just as there is no goal to reach”? Volf suggests that rather than the life of a nomad, what Deleuze is describing is the life of a “vagabond” or “stroller.” Nomads are going somewhere, seeking something. They are “departing…without leaving,” according to Volf. He points  to the nomadic archetype of Abraham: Abraham’s “departure had a starting point – his country, his kindred, and his father’s house; and it had a definite goal – creation of a people” (40).

Here’s to being a nomad.

Marcus Rempel