I had been in Poole a couple of months and I was really struggling, work and the parish had been my life, and suddenly with it all gone I felt bereft, in the midst of parish busyness I felt like I had lost myself feeding an insatiable monster with my all my time and energy and yet it was never satisfied. I talked about “finding the disciple behind the dog collar” as it is easy to be a “professional Christian regurgitating all the right answers” but now with it all stripped away I did not know who I was anymore, perhaps it was a time of pruning -quite extreme pruning, cutting back and deep, leaving me feeling naked and cold, and wondering what -if anything- will grow back. I know that I am supposed to say something about trusting the gardener with his pruning, knowing that he knows what he is doing and that ultimately it is for my best, but sometimes what I know in my head or can say from my mouth, feels very different from what is in my heart or that nagging knot within my stomach.
I realised when I stopped and was alone with just God and myself without the distractions that my value and self worth was much more tied up in what I did than I realised. I used to hate it when people asked: “So Andy, what do you do?” I don’t know but I am hoping God will show me!
Now it was just God and me, and whether the relationship continued to grow or went down the pan was my choice, I had no “official role” or “party line” I had returned to the laity as just another ordinary Christian trying to follow Jesus where I was, with what I had. I realised that over the decade in ordained ministry perhaps I had allowed my ego to swell, a sense of entitlement to take root and perhaps an empire to creep in a little, I had gone up a few ladders and progressed reasonably well, but here I was having slid down a snake and back at the bottom, back literally in Poole where much of my early spiritual life had begun.
It was a funny time for relationships too, many of the people I had been friends with had left Poole, those who were left had changed and I myself had changed, it is always difficult going back somewhere as part of me naively believed that I could just slot in where I had left off 13 years ago, but that is not the case. Also, I returned not at my best, I had left to go off to theological college to go and be a Vicar with lots of excitement and anticipation, I feel like I limp back, battle warn and broken by endless cuts and blows from churchy people I had tried to serve and the parish I believed God had called me to had not wanted me and chosen someone else leaving me really confused, “why God, I thought I had heard you so clearly?” I was not the “old mase” laughing in the pub surrounded by a crowd, but a new “jaded mase” fighting back the tears, feeling like an unwanted failure.
At that time I was really grateful for two friends (both called Chris) who took me out for beers even when I was rubbish company and kept inviting me and didn’t try and solve everything, just being mates who kept on hanging out with me.
There were also sadly some clergy I knew in the area, some where lovely and really blessed us as a family, and some sadly were not the friends and allies we had hope they would be, realise when you have nothing much too offer who stands by and encourages and blesses and who are just hollow words and empty rhetoric, you can see peoples true character when you are at your most broken and seeking restoration.
I once heard a talk about “the third day” -there are lots of third days in the Bible -the 3rd day the wine ran out, Lazerous had been dead three days and of course the resurrection happens on the third day- the first day something happens, in my case resigning from my job and moving to Poole, and a third day when salvation and resurrection happens, but what of the middle day, what of “Holy Saturday” when you are waiting for the resurrection and nothing with your human eyes causes you to have any hope, believing that God had called us to Poole, and he still has a plan and purpose.
I was hoping for some form of spiritual epiphany where God would turn up and tell me how much he loved me and answer all these questions and doubts that were plaguing me, but no such lightening bolt has zapped me, and maybe that kind of experience might never happen, -I’ve often found that God speaks to me more like Elijah with that still small voice rather than the noisy theophany, although I do believe that somehow God will direct my steps and use me for his Kingdom purposes, although I do worry that I might not notice his gentle guiding voice saying “this is the way walk in it”.
“God, what do you want me to do?” was my abiding question, which got answered after a couple of months when I went to a prayer meeting in a neighbouring neighbourhood and got chatting with a guy -called Dave who was a retired lecturer from loughborough- who had also recently moved into Poole and felt that God had called him and his wife here to Poole, it turned out he and I lived in the same area (more or less) and we agreed to meet up a couple of days later and just wander around the park and the new housing where we both lived and ask God to bless this area.
Interestingly, as I chatted to my dad, who was a former local minister of a neighbouring parish, he shared how he and a previous vicar had wandered around the area which had no yet been developed and one of their specific prayers was that God would bring Christians into this area, it felt like in a weird way like we were an answer to my dads prayers all those years before.
In many way just meeting one guy, drinking coffee, and praying was a small call from God, and at times as I explored where God was calling I was a bit like Naaman saying to God “prayer walking once a week -I want more than that!” Yet, this is something that God is challenging within me, we are all called to be faithful rather than successful, one quote I had above my desk for a while was from Shane Claiborne which said “everyone wants a revolution but no one wants to do the washing up!” (this got me in trouble with Allana, my wife, when I forget to do the washing up!!
Yet these times of prayer were for me a real blessing and comfort, and excitingly they began to grow, a lady called Jane joined us sometimes and brought a friend, a friend called Alix also joined us and is pioneering a project for a multipurpose community centre, called the powerhouse, to be based in the centre of the part of the redevelopment project that is yet to be built, on the former site of an old power station. Then later a pioneer minister John was employed by the local baptist church to explore doing something new in this area and the area yet to be built.
This small prayer group, which started with just the two of us, has become something of a hub of what appears to be an emerging Christian community, and as we always grab a coffee before hand we have begun to build good relationships with the staff at the cafe and this has become a place where we are known and part of the local community.
As we have prayer walked I have also taken my dog Teddy, who is very friendly -perhaps too friendly!- and leaps up and greets everyone as an old friend, and I have been aware how the dog has opened up so many conversations that would have been forced or just weird without him, and through him we have got to know people and their names.
It feels a little like the people walking around the walls of Jericho awaiting something Gods break through, I am reminded that every move of God we have seen in this country was first birthed by a few faithful saints who prayed -sometimes unseen for years on end- and as we cry out to God for our community, receiving his heart for the people we live amongst the community is changed, and we ourselves are changed too, we become more aware of where we are living and amongst who we are living, our community has faces and names and we become more embedded within it.
Prayer is the only place to start with anything, too often we say to God “here is my idea, please bless it” rather than pouring ourselves out before God, open and vulnerable, and we respond in faithful obedience where he leads, and to keep going.
In past experience we have tried to do prayer walks and have found that by the 3rd week it has fizzled out people have got bored and stopped coming, but here this group has kept one another faithful -iron sharpening iron as one person sharpens another- that mutual accountability helps keep us praying! I believe that we are called to be faithful and keep pressing on into God with the same tenacity that Jacob had when he wrestled with the angel all night long and said: “I will not go until you bless me” -keeping going wrestling with God in prayer knowing that ultimately his desire is always to bless those who seek him.