Good News?

I was about 35 years old when I first discovered the Good News of Jesus Christ. Seeing as I’d been a Christian for around 31 years and was already some way through the vocations process towards becoming a Priest, some might say it was a bit late! I would say, better late than never (particularly recalling some of the faces I have seen in churches over the decades. Some good news there would be a really great thing…! 😉).

I was brought up in a very conservative but charismatic Baptist Church – male headship, conservative theology (I think that might be where I was told I needed a ticket for the ‘angel train’. Gutted to discover there is no angel train in scripture. I was really looking forward to that), but lots of singing, good music, a great junior choir, a weekly memory verse in Sunday School and some wonderful people who still walk the same path as me today.  In this church I learned that God was angry, so angry in fact that Jesus had to die so that God could even *look* at me. There was a lot of talk and singing about ‘the blood’ and I became terrified of going to Hell. I also learned that, if I had sex before marriage, (i) EVERYONE would know and (ii) I would be like a piece of chewed gum or used sticky tape or half-eaten apple core, and nobody would want to marry me, ever. I followed Jesus because he was going to save me from all this, and because he wanted to be my best friend. The best friend bit was pretty good news, but it didn’t feel like it was Good News I wanted to share with my friends (capital G, capital N).  I thought they were probably better off not knowing that their particular train was heading to the fiery furnace. FOREVER. Zero chance of escape. 😩

When I came back to faith, in 2001, I went to the church at the end of my road. It was near and convenient and meant I could still party hard on a Saturday night and make it there in time for the service on a Sunday. Worship-style-wise, this church was probably middle of the road, fairly typically Anglican, with a mix of hymns and songs and with a very mini worship band that formed when the organist left. Theologically it was fundamental (no fun, and absolutely mental) and abusive. In this church I was taught that if I wasn’t in church on a Sunday morning my life was in danger because I was “outside the banner of God’s protection”. I learned that no matter how hard I tried and how hard I worked, how hard I prayed or how much I gave up, I wasn’t ‘assured’ of salvation. I could only hope for it. The more likely outcome was that I would be separated from God and could just watch Him from a distance and spend eternity wishing I’d done better. I also learned there were demons ‘behind every blade of grass’. Yes really. Years of therapy* later, I also learned a huge percentage of this theology was bullshit. And God didn’t hate me. The chance of me inviting friends to this church was NIL – mostly to protect them from the abuse and fear some of us went through. It wasn’t just that there was no Good News here – there was buckets full of Bad News, Dreadful News. And yet, somehow, in that place, God called me to ordination (but that’s a story for another day).

I escaped that church (fortuitously by being called a scarlet woman, once again!) and was ‘placed’ in an Anglo-Catholic church – verrrrrry traditional, bells and smells, robed choir, an adoration to Mary, bowing and kneeling, organist, sung liturgy AND liberal theology. I was told that I was to go there ‘to learn’, as part of my vocations process. It felt like punishment. I did not know when to cross myself (and was always a few seconds behind everyone else, doing my head-tummy-shoulder-shoulder tap – think about it – at a million miles an hour, and kicking myself when I missed one!). I didn’t know the words to the Hail Mary, apart from those that my catholic-educated niece tried to teach me, and that was something about the ‘lime man Jesus’, so I guessed that was wrong! I went to one service of Adoration and Benediction (you can read about it here if you don’t know what I mean https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benediction_of_the_Blessed_Sacrament) and was fuming we didn’t get to eat the host at the end.  But my priest was amazing, and a super great friend and supporter. She gently and humorously talked me through things whenever I said, ‘what just went on there?!’ and she suggested I read this book, called Take This Bread, when I began to sense that this holy communion (or ‘the mass’ as she called it) was onto something. You can find it here – https://www.amazon.com.au/Take-This-Bread-Sara-Miles/dp/0345495799

I consumed this book (sorry!) in 2 days flat and to say it changed my life is no understatement, genuinely.   It led me on a journey that blew apart my theology, that gave me a new understanding and devotion to the mass (it comes from the word MISSION, and SENT, did you know?).  It took me to San Francisco to work with the author at the Food Pantry she set up. And it told me, showed me, and shaped me around the Good News of Jesus.

Without any spoilers, it talks about a committed Atheist, Sara, who is also a photographer, chef, journalist and lover of food and people. Whilst away from her home city of San Francisco, a new church opens there (https://www.saintgregorys.org/). It begins to win awards for its amazing architecture and artwork. Do check it out; the awards are well earned!  Sara comes home and wants to get some photos of this new place so wanders in. Midway through her photographing a service begins, and not yet finished, but not wanting to be rude, Sara stays put for the service. When it comes to the mass, the congregation make this holy dance to surround the altar, and everyone is invited to receive.  On her first taste of the bread and wine – the body and blood of our Lord, Sara writes, “It changed everything.  It was like a radioactive pellet inside me.  Eating Jesus, as I did that day, to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned, and work I’d never imagine.  The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer but actual food – indeed the bread of life.”**

This book, this church ‘placement’, this liberal theology where nobody finds themselves on the outside but all are welcome, this realisation that we meet around a holy table to eat the Christ and then are sent – refreshed and refilled – to feed others; this was Good News. This IS Good News. This realisation that Jesus is obsessed with the poor, and with food; with eating with those who others say should be left hungry and then enjoying their company and learning from them. This was my radical conversion. And it changed me and is changing me.

It took me on a journey from conservative fundamentalism, bowed low with fear and anxiety, ashamed and without any sense of real value, to a place where I know the Good News of Jesus. I know, that just as Jesus says in Luke Chapter 4, so that same Spirit is also upon me and She sends me to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives (that took me to India!), comfort for those who mourn. She sends me to tell others that this, here, is the year of the Lord’s favour. God isn’t angry!  It took me from Coventry, through theological college (where, thanks team, you all helped me unpick some more awful theology and pick up some foundational truths!), to Hartlepool, where God, through us, fed hundreds of people who others might count as ‘on the margins’. And now the journey leads me here, to Australia, to see what holy mischief we might get up to next.

And that is Good News! 🥳

*despite being a reluctant therapee (is that what you call someone who goes to therapy??), I am now the hugest advocate of talking therapies because it saved my life, healed my soul, rebuilt my heart and strengthened my ministry. Thank you Tony, you are a true saint…

** Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (London: Canterbury Press, 2012) p. 59

“Just” a Love Story ❤️

When I shared my first blog post about my arrival here in Australia (you can read it here if you haven’t already… https://wordpress.com/post/holyadventures.blog/14) my good friend Becky messaged me saying, ‘And I thought it was “just” (forgive me, please 😊) a love story’, meaning she didn’t know God’s plan had coincided with Craig’s marriage proposal, in a perfect combination, for this Holy Adventure.

Nope, I thought, not just a love story at all. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I realise it really is ‘just’ a love story. One enormous one. One amazing, eternal one, that sprang from the dawn of time and goes beyond all time zones and beyond our wildest imaginings.

I grew up knowing that Jesus was my “best friend” and that God wanted me for a sunbeam (odd, isn’t it!?). I ‘asked Jesus into my heart’, aged 4, and every night thereafter for several years…just in case He had decided He didn’t like it in there and had wandered off somewhere. And I went to church. Every Sunday. I definitely called myself a Christian, and I was a baptised child of God, so I was one.

And then, aged 24, my marriage broke up.

My husband asked me to leave the house and then, because of that, my church asked me to leave that ‘house’ too. I left. Do you know what? I was glad to leave, because nobody had even asked if I was OK, and I really wasn’t. So, I left and I determinedly left my faith behind too. I had always been taught that ‘you can’t take yourself out of God’s hands’ but, if there was a way I could (I mean, God’s omnipresence kind of gets in the way here, annoyingly), then I would.

A couple of years passed and I quite enjoyed being mad at the Church and Christians (especially Christians; they were the WORST!). And Saturday nights were more fun when you didn’t have to get up on a Sunday.

In 2001, my parents were at a Christian Festival on the south coast of the UK, and they had a spare bed in their ‘chalet’. My mum called me up and, with all the ferocity she could muster (she would deny this, but she’s got a ferocious streak that one!), she said ‘get in your car and get down here’. And I did.

What was I thinking?! I thought Christians were the worst; the most judgemental, unkind, moralistic people I had ever met (apart from those I liked, obv – they got in the way of my argument a bit).  And there I was, driving for 3-hours, south, to go and spend 4 days with 15,000 of them in an enclosed space. All hands-raised, zip-off trouser and crocs-wearing, Christians*.

That first night I went into a huge marquee and listened to one of the few sermons I still remember (incidentally, one of the others I still remember was preached by my Craig on that first weekend we met…cute, eh? 😍). The preacher was a man named Steve Chalke (this guy – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Chalke) and he talked about the Sermon on the Mount (you can read it here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+5-7&version=NRSV). What he said was that the people desperate to follow Jesus were the outcasts and the sinners and the tax collectors and the prostitutes and HE WAS PLEASED TO SEE THEM! He was pleased to see them! I totally related to those people; this, so-called, ‘scarlet woman’ who had been kicked out of the church. Could it be that Jesus, the actual God-man, was pleased see me too?

In true Christian-festival-style, the evening ended with an altar call and Steve Chalke invited us to pray a prayer of YES to God. I don’t remember what he said but I remember closing my eyes and beginning a sentence that went ‘if you’re there, God…’ and then God literally interrupted (rude much? 😉) and said, so clearly, ‘It’s good to hear from you Gemma. About time too’.

Yeah, God gives me a hard time sometimes…🤨

God’s response, God’s call, was so loud, so clear, that I opened my eyes and wondered why nobody else in this big tent seemed to hear it. But it was God’s voice for me. The beginning of my new journey of faith and my revived relationship with the Creator of all things.  The beginning of a love affair, I guess. A really significant way-marker in the God Loves Gemma love-story.

So, yes, it is just a love story. And yes, I love Craig, so much. And his invitation to come to Australia came first. And my desire to be with him came first. But then God called. My Holy Lover invited me on this Holy adventure and, the truth is, even if Craig wasn’t here, I know that I still would be.

And this isn’t a love story of girl meets boy, girl moves to Australia for the love of him, and they live happily ever after (although, please God, let that be a significant chapter of it!). This is a story of girl meets boy, God calls, girl moves to Australia for love of them both (AND for God’s Church), and they all live (mostly) happily ever after. Amen.

*granted, I’m now ordained, and spend a real lot of time with Christians, AND in church. I swear by the truth that God arranged this to make sure I couldn’t run away again. And I also own a pair of crocs. True story.

Travelling Mercies

When I left the UK, I was sent on my way with so many different phrases: ‘safe travels’, ‘bon voyage’ (posh), ‘go well’, ‘see you later’ (for those who hate goodbyes), and then there was those who wished me ‘travelling mercies’. It’s one of those God-speak phrases, isn’t it? Kind of quaint, and a bit odd. Well, it turns out it packs a real punch, and is definitely going to be my future vocabulary for fellow Holy Adventurers. Let me explain…

Emigrating is a long process.

Emigrating in a pandemic is a significantly longer process.

Emigrating to a country with almost entirely closed borders is virtually impossible.

Emigrating to a country with almost entirely closed borders where your journey involves a layover in a state that is in total lockdown due to a spike in cases is actually impossible.

Maybe on another blog I’ll explain about the visa process and critical skills list and exemption to fly stuff, but suffice to say, there is a long old road to travel before you have flights booked, boarding passes in hand and are heading to the airport, but let’s just gloss over that bit for now.

And so it was, my flights were booked for 30th August. I was due to land in WA on 1st September. I knew I would have to hotel quarantine for 14 days, but then, then, I would enter the promised land and be reunited with Craig and begin life as a wife and Priest in Fremantle. All boxes ticked. All paperwork in hand. Ironically, I was Good to Go (bear with me. It’ll make sense in a few lines).

On 27th August, I woke up to an email alerting me to the fact that my G2G pass (Good to Go, see?) had been revoked. Without one of these, nobody can enter Perth, nor any area of WA in fact. I couldn’t get in. The side note explained this was because my flight path took me through New South Wales.  Perth was not accepting any travellers from there, due to rising rates of Covid. A little p.s. suggested ‘book a new flight that avoids NSW’. That simple, eh?

Long story, slightly shorter, several friends and family members spent a frantic 24 hours trying to find solutions to this not-insignificant problem.

We looked for new flights – there were none until mid-October, at the earliest

We looked for new routes – the one glimmer of hope involved needing written permission from the Sultan of Brunei to enter his country, and he wasn’t rushing to get his pen out 

We drew blank after blank, and yet, I mostly held on to this strange sense of peace and kept finding myself saying, ‘I’m interested to see how God is going to pull this one out the bag. I know it’ll happen; I just don’t know how’. And I was surprised to discover I meant it!

The advice from a wonderful woman from an Australian travel company, recommended to me by the diocese, suggested I just keep on applying for my G2G, in the hope that my application might eventually slip through the net. I did – 12 applications in the next 24 hours – until an exhausted sounding man called me, from Australia, to explain I must NOT submit a single other one and I would have to quarantine in Sydney and try again only once I was there. Nice that he remembered me… 😉

Time was ticking on, in that way that time does, and I decided to just show up at Manchester Airport and use my original ticket in the hope of making it through. A solid decision, I thought.

All good. Ish. So, I went to print boarding passes for my flights from Manchester to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Tokyo, Tokyo to Sydney, and maybe there might even be a blip in the system that allowed me a pass from Sydney to Perth and I could just see what happened? 

Not so.

Not in the least.

Instead, I was faced with various terrifying warning messages on each screen (the person whose job it is to write those must be very angry a lot of the time, I think).  One of the airlines had no record of my booking. Another airline recognised my flight number but not my name. And the real kicker was with Tokyo – I think that message said something delicate like ‘NO FLIGHTS PERMITTED FROM THE UK. DO NOT FLY’. It was subtle.

I was kind of out of ideas, and because it was Sunday afternoon, and I was due to fly on Monday morning, I didn’t really have time to think of any. But, also, I still had this thing in my head (or maybe it was my heart) that kept saying ‘I’m interested to see how God is going to pull this one out the bag. I know it’ll happen; I just don’t know how’.

My sister threw me a surprise hen-do the night before I was due to fly and, as a small group of Christian women do, when slightly emotional and bolstered by much prosecco, we launched into a prayer time. God really got it, both barrels. As did the angels, the saints, and anyone else who cared to tune in! And then we went to bed…

Not really knowing what else to do, we set off for Manchester Airport, with my life in the boot and my mum’s heart in her mouth. We said goodbyes, maybe someone wished me ‘travelling mercies’ and I went on my way (full disclosure: I thought I would be seeing them again, later that night).

Forgive that really long introduction to my journey, but hold up, because this is where the miracles begin…

I make my way to the check in desk for my flight to Frankfurt. My ticket says I will fly onward to Tokyo where I will need to COLLECT AND RE-CHECK my bags, for my flight to Sydney. I have no boarding passes, some uncertainty about whether one of the airlines knows I’m coming and a very stern warning to not enter Tokyo. The woman behind the desk (query, angel?) takes my passport and ticket print-out and starts typing. She looks baffled at her computer screen (a gaze I become all too familiar with), talks to a colleague, asks for my visa, looks concerned, repeats this process and then looks up and says ‘all sorted, here are your boarding passes for ALL flights. You’ll see these cases in Sydney. All done’.

Nothing to do in Tokyo. Nothing to do in Tokyo?? Travelling mercies.

My flight to Frankfurt and then to Tokyo are largely uneventful, except for each of the cabin crew, in turn, coming to my seat and saying, words to the effect of, ‘I see you are travelling to Sydney, via Tokyo? HOW THE HELL HAVE YOU MANAGED THAT???’  Travelling mercies.

I arrive at Tokyo airport and the cabin crew tell all passengers to remain seated while customs and immigration come on to do their checks. At that moment, a young Japanese woman gets on the plane, walks directly to my seat, and says, ‘come with me’. Just me. Everyone else is staying put. We walk through airport corridors, not seeing a soul. We walk through doors saying ‘no entry’ and through barriers she just moves to allow us through and she tells me I am the only person on that plane to be travelling THROUGH Tokyo. Everyone else had reached their destination.

She delivers me to security, and they complete their checks in record speed, no questions asked, and spit me out on the other side into the departure lounge. Travelling mercies.

My layover is more than 7 hours and I probably saw no more than 7 other travellers in that whole time. The airport seemed closed – all eateries and shops were shut – but from time to time an Olympian wandered past in their country’s kit. You couldn’t make this up.

Eventually it was time for my flight to Sydney to board and I hear an announcement over the tannoy, ‘can Miss Gemma (hard G, every time) Sampson make herself known at the desk’. Remember the woman’s reaction on that first desk in Manchester Airport? Repeat that, with three members of staff, in Japanese. They took my passport, then asked for my ‘other’ one(??). They took my visa and my boarding passes for all flights. They took my tickets. They wandered off, came back, stared at screens, and then said they needed to call the Australian Government before they could let me board the flight. There is a flurry of phone calls and then one of them says to me ‘everything is fine. They know you are coming. So sorry for your delay’. WHAT JUST HAPPENED THERE? Travelling mercies.

(Incidentally, I got on the plane and was handed a glass of champagne to say ‘sorry for the mistake, welcome on board’ – turns out travelling mercies come with effusive apologies and perfectly chilled fizz).

My arrival to Australia was nothing short of perfect – slick, smooth, polite, friendly, welcoming, no dramas and my bags came off first. My phone call with the exhausted Australian Border Force man had made it very clear that I would be quarantining in Sydney, and that there is a good chance that I will need to quarantine again once I finally make it to WA. But I’m praying for a perfectly chilled glass of fizz, straight off my flight from NSW, with my Craig.

Might there be one more travelling mercy, Lord?

Day Zero…

Do you remember that famous love story where boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, they plan to get married and a global pandemic hits and keeps them apart for nearly two years?? No, me either. But that’s my story; that’s our story; and that’s why, I find myself here, in a hotel room at Sydney Harbour, on “day zero” of my 14-day quarantine, just waiting to begin the next chapter in the rest of my life.

Maybe I should introduce myself (in case anyone ever stumbles across this blog who isn’t a Facebook friend or family member!)…

I’m Gemma.

A priest in the Anglican Church.

A lover of food and Jesus, and particularly fond of combining the two.

A proud dog-parent to Maggie (she will be a feature. Guaranteed).

A daughter, a sister, a friend, an auntie, a relative and a soon-to-be wife (please God) of the boy from paragraph one. My Craig.

I first met Craig way back in about 2004; this tall, bald-headed, potty mouthed, builder was standing and speaking at a Christian conference-type-thing, and I thought he was pretty special. In my own, awkward, way I tried to flirt (awful). He didn’t notice (standard). He mentioned his family and their plans to emigrate to Australia and there he was, gone (gutted).

And then nothing, for around 15 years

Fast forward to 2019 and our paths crossed again – virtually – via Facebook Messenger. Time had moved on, things had changed. I had got ordained. Craig had a great life down under and it would have been a completely stupid idea to fall in love, wouldn’t it? 10,000 miles apart? Both of us really happy where we lived and worked and neither wanting to move? Yup, that would be a completely stupid idea.

So, why am I sat on the 24th floor of the Sydney Harbour Marriott hotel with my capsule wardrobe (that’ll feature too; game changer), a pile of books, and a countdown to fresh air and human contact?!

In short, the answer to that is two-fold: the simple matter of a Global Pandemic and a tricksy God with an invitation I couldn’t turn down.

The thing about a pandemic being global means we’ve all experienced it, so you don’t need a(nother) blog to talk about cancelled travel plans, closed borders, postponed weddings, not seeing loved ones and how that combination creates the perfect storm to change perspectives. That’s a given, right?

But the Tricksy God thing might need a bit of unfolding.

There have been times in my life where I can, hand-on-heart, say I believe I have heard from God. I don’t say it lightly, nor often, because God is like Almighty and the Creator of the Universe, and all.  But sometimes I have felt called, or drawn, or led, or nudged, or booted up the backside, by that Source of All Life.

A while back I made a crazy promise (learn from me; don’t make promises like this lightly or you too might find yourself somewhere you never imagined). Anyways, a while back I kind of promised and kind of bargained with God a bit (again, risky). I said to God, ‘God, if I ever think you’re asking me to do something, I promise I will do it. If I’m not sure what you’re asking me to do I will do what I want to until you guide me otherwise’. It had a theological basis – check out this gorgeous prayer from Thomas Merton – https://reflections.yale.edu/article/seize-day-vocation-calling-work/merton-prayer – and I really meant it. Not in a ‘I’ll do what I want unless you stop me’ kind of way, but in a ‘I really want to do your will, if you will show me, Lord’.

During the UK lockdowns I had some pretty incredible moments with God. I realised for the first time that I am utterly loved by God – not for doing anything or being anything but just because. That was a great moment (and continues to be). And I also heard this call. It went something like this… ‘Babes (that was a new lockdown thing too – I know, it’s kind of odd to me too, but I like it so…) do you want to come on a holy adventure with me?’

God, in God’s infinite and warm grace and welcome was holding God’s hand out to me and inviting me on a holy adventure. I had never heard God speak to me like that before and it was kind of intriguing to start with. But God went on, ‘we can cause holy chaos together! I would love you to come. Come if you want!’

Come if you want? God was letting me choose? But how could I ever pass up an opportunity to go on a holy adventure, cause holy chaos, holy mischief even, with the King of all Kings? Particularly when God had been so kind as to extend the invitation!

God said so much more and has opened doors and borders where it didn’t seem possible but I’ll stop here for now. If I am going to be a Holy Adventurer, I need to kick this jet lag into touch and get some sleep!

Oh, and I’m determined to blog something on each of the 14 days of lockdown, and then regularly beyond that, so please keep me company. It’s pretty lonely up here!