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Black and white image of woman holding arms in the air, her hands in the shape of a heart. The words, "experiencing God" are overlaid.

Experiencing God – How I learned to let God in

How do you experience God? Do you ever feel a physical experience of the Divine surrounding you? Or is it more of a faith-based experience of trusting that God is there, even if you never feel His presence?

For me it has been mostly the latter, although I have had times in my life when the former happened too. And I’ve been desperately hoping for that overwhelming physical experience of being surrounded by love and support for quite some time. But I just couldn’t find it.

pushing God away

If you’ve been following my journey, either here on the blog or over on instagram, you’ll know that life has been unbelievably hard for us over the past few years. It all started in 2011, when the pregnancy I had dreamed of for as long as I could remember, turned into the hellish torture that 9 months of Hyperemesis Gravidarum and additional complications bring with them. During that year my entire experience of who I am and who I thought I was meant to be came crashing down.

The following year, as my baby began to grow up faster than I thought possible (how could the months fly by when a year earlier they had dragged into a seeming eternity?) I remember being so angry with God. Why had He made me so deeply maternal that all I had ever dreamed of was becoming a mother, if doing so was going to destroy my body and my soul? I had to choose not to have another baby, and it broke me.

Which led me to starting to write a book and working closely with a charity supporting women suffering from severe pregnancy sickness. I thought that maybe this was the reason for my suffering, so that I could use my writing and organisational skills to help others. And in my desperation to find a new purpose (and avoid the deep grief I was feeling), I ignored all the warning signs that this wasn’t where I was meant to be.

reaching breaking point

Which leads me to 2014, which I have described in the past as my “breaking point”. It was a year in which I should have been happier than ever, but in reality I was falling apart. I was ill-equipped for the role I ended up in, and by the time I learnt the importance of boundaries I was already broken. I remember walking to pick my son up from nursery and I would just sob the entire way there. And I remember lying awake at night, running conversations around in my head and feeling sick with anxiety over it all.

In reality, my time working to support others was more traumatic to my mental health than my pregnancy had been. And the impact of running on that much adrenaline for so long began to have an effect on my physical health too. By the end of 2014 I had been signed off work sick, and I was miserable.

Then, one evening I decided to watch a replay of one of the Thrive Moms retreats, and at the end there was the option to pray and ask Jesus into your life. I had always resisted this, given that I wasn’t sure I really fit into the Christian community. But that evening I really felt the pull to join in. So I did. And I felt an overwhelming sense of security fall over me.

I remember ending the retreat and continuing my prayer, saying to God, “okay, I have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to be doing, I don’t know how to get out of this situation, please, show me the way.” Immediately I thought of the word, “Surrender“. I just knew, in that moment, that I had to surrender everything to God, and so I did. A week later I found out I was being made redundant from my role, and I thought, “well there’s an answer to a prayer for guidance on next steps!”

learning to surrender

I remember, at the time, it all felt so simple. Nothing seemed to sway me, as I was riding high on the experience of having felt God with me so clearly. I had experienced moments of being connected to the Divine in the past, during meditation or whilst out in nature, but I’d never received such clarity in the moment. It was like a whole new experience for me, and I was on top of the world.

It felt like nothing could bring me down. I was turned down after 3 job interviews, each time because the employer felt like I was over-experienced (I was a graduate coming from a managerial position, applying for part-time admin work). I could see their point, but I also knew that I needed to take a step back in my career. I had a 3 year old son, and I wanted to spend more time with him whilst he was still young. So I kept applying, trusting that the right job would present itself.

A few months later it did, and I began working in a charity shop. I enjoyed the work, and it gave me 4 days a week to just potter around the house and enjoy being with my family. It felt perfect and I honestly thought, “this is it”. And then I got sick.

My health began to decline rapidly until I was signed off work sick in the Summer of 2016 and never returned. I would work 3 days and feel like I had the flu the rest of the week. I would get migraines lasting for days. I would wake up and feel like I would vomit every time I moved. My hips and pelvis became so unstable I could no longer use the stairs in our home properly. I became pretty much bed-ridden, and life was hard.

Whilst this was happening my husband’s health also declined, and we both ended up out of work and reliant on a cruel benefit system. Our son was also diagnosed with Autism. And within a couple of years my extended family experienced so much grief and pain (my Nan, my Great Aunt, and my Aunt died, and two of my uncles were diagnosed with cancer). It felt like blow after blow, and I felt incredibly worthless when my own health kept me from being able to support my family in any useful way.

faith in the darkness

However, throughout all of this my faith began to blossom. At a time when I realised I could no longer rely on myself, I had to learn to rely on something greater than myself. I began reading more about Christianity, and thanks to books like Setting Jesus Free, Jesus Through Pagan Eyes, Convictions, and The Case for God, I began to realise that my own relationship with God and Jesus was not only beautiful, it was also okay.

I had long believed that I would never fit in, and my fear of being “found out” for my more liberal (and “out there”) beliefs kept me from joining fully into a faith community. And yet I desperately sought it. I remember clearly feeling God impress upon me that it was time for me to take the next step, as I sang a hymn one Sunday in church. I realised it was time for me to choose to affirm my faith, and that day I spoke to the minister about being baptised.

Since then I have grown deeper and deeper in my faith, both through being in community with others who support me and through my own desire for answers and support during my suffering. One of my favourite parts in the Bible has come to be 2 Corinthians, in which Paul writes about his own suffering:

Man sitting by a wall, head bowed, with text from 2 Corinthians 'Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.'

I cannot even begin to comprehend Paul’s experience of being content with his weakness, of which he experienced far more than I ever will. And yet, this speaks to me so powerfully of the idea that when we are weak we are made strong, at least where our faith is concerned. It is within having everything stripped away, all the things I thought that mattered most in giving me value, that I realised the true value of my worth as a human. It doesn’t lie in what I do or what I achieve, rather it is in my ability to live a good life, wherever I happen to find myself.

learning to let god in

And yet, despite all of these developments in my faith, I continued to feel distanced from God. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have faith, for I have always had that in abundance – in my darkest moments I have raged at God, and it’s hard to be angry at something you don’t believe in! Rather, it was that I felt like I was learning to understand God on an intellectual level whilst holding Him at arms’ length.

That’s not to say that the intellectual stuff isn’t important, because it is. Exploring the wider context of any spiritual teaching to discover how it might be relevant to your life is crucial. I’m a huge advocate of Biblical Literacy, as well as Interfaith Dialogue. I find it all fascinating, and something which deepens my faith. But there’s only so much you can read and think about faith before you need to experience it too!

So over the past few weeks I’ve been purposefully asking God to help me take that step towards him, opening my heart to the experience of Him, so that I could know Him in a deeper way. I’d become so caught up in trying to understand the nature of God that I’d lost sight of that experience I knew and recognised as the Divine. And over the course of a couple of weeks I felt myself being guided to make little changes, all of which left the gates open for God to sneak in.

so *that’s* what god is

This all led to a wonderful experience the other night, when I was laying in bed thanking God for having helped me to see changes I needed to make in my life. I knew that the clarity I was receiving could only be coming from a closer connection to God, and I was feeling gratitude for that. As I thanked Him, I felt this sudden rush of love sweeping towards me at great speed from all directions. And in that moment I knew – this was God.

“So, that’s who you are!” I said, smiling to myself. “How could I have forgotten?” I couldn’t describe the indescribable, and yet I found the words to express the experience. “You’re love, pure and simple. You’re everything. You both male and female, whilst also being neither of those things. You just are.” It all made sense, and though I felt the feeling ebbing away as I got caught up in my attempts to verbally describe the experience, I knew that a fleeting moment was all that I needed. When something is so powerful, you only need a momentary glimpse to keep you going.

I know now that I’ve been worrying too much about whether I experience God or not. The experience was beautiful, and I wish I could bottle it up and share it with everyone I know. But that’s not how it works. It isn’t necessary to “bottle it up”, because it is there for anyone to experience, at any time. God doesn’t stay away from us, it’s we who keep him at what we think is a safe distance, when we are too caught up in thinking we have it all figured out.

embracing my weakness

I also know, without a doubt, that I’m going to repeatedly do that throughout my life. I’m only human, after all, and I will often believe that I know what is best for me. Life experience has taught me very clearly that I often don’t, but I’ll still fall into the trap of believing I’m doing okay on my own. This is especially true when life is going well, but also true when things start to go wrong and I feel like I need to fix it.

So whilst I am a very long way from what Paul describes as being glad in his weakness, I can now see the depth of the truth within his message. For it is when I am brought to my knees, whether through pain or awe at the beauty of this world, that I truly open up to the experience of God.

Black and white image of woman with arms above her head, her hands making a heart shape. The words, "Experiencing God, how I learned to let God in" are overlaid.

Nurturing Faith in the Family

As you may have noticed, I think quite a lot about faith and how that relates to our lives as individuals and as a family. I don't write about it anywhere near as often as I think about it, but it does crop up from time to time.

I've been thinking about it a lot lately, as I've been trying to get my head and heart around certain things and I have been reading quite a bit too (whenever I've had the time). I've been wondering how to nurture faith in our family, especially in terms of introducing the idea of faith to Little Man and encouraging him to explore it in his own way.

I consider myself to be a Unitarian and as I wrote in this post, "The Unitarians believe you should actively seek your own experience and understanding of the Divine". But how do I do this with Little Man whilst he is so young? At this age they want clear and specific answers, not ones that ask them to consider deep thoughts they are unable to really comprehend right now. 

But even more confusing is how do I explain to him that I read the Bible but that I interpret it in the way that I feel guided to inside my own heart which doesn't always tally up with the more typical interpretations? It makes using a devotional very challenging and so we haven't got any of those.

So I was really happy to find and read the book "What God Wants" by Neale Donald Walsch and find that it talked very deeply about what he calls "Separation Theology" (the theology that we are separate from God and one another and that there must be one true religion) and went into detail about how he feels a theology of Unity would work. After all, this is what Unitarian thinking is all about. 

The following two quotations are ones that I want to keep in my mind and heart as I work on nurturing faith within myself and Little Man, and I hope you don't mind me sharing them. 

About Religion

"There is only one God. Whatever we think God is, most of the major religions of the world would agree: there is only One of That […] From "There is only one God" to "There is only One Thing at all" is a small shift. It's not a rejection of doctrine, but an enlargement. It's not an abandonment of traditional religious teaching, but an expansion […] This is not about rejecting religion. It is, in fact, about reinvigorating it, enlivening it, refreshing it." (Chapter 18)

About Scripture

"Humans will understand that God's words are found in all of the world's Holy Scriptures, and that no scripture is more authoritative, more complete, more accurate, or more authentic than any other, but that each contains great wisdom and each leads to a greater understanding of The Only Truth There Is" (Chapter 23)

These two verses speak to me so much and make me feel so much more at peace with how I approach the Bible and other sacred texts in a way that has previously been described by many as a "pick and mix" approach without much substance.

But nothing could be further from the truth, as I am constantly exploring God and my relationship with him. This is currently now being explored through another book I found at our local library, this time a Christian one, "What the Bible Really Teaches" by Keith Ward. 

Although I have found the beginning of this book rather hard going, it is in fact helping me to explore things in ever more detail and depth and I do believe that even though a book may be hard to read, that doesn't mean you shouldn't read it!

The reason I find it so hard is that actually the author is rather forceful in his "challenge" to fundamentalist thinking and beliefs and though I completely agree with an awful lot of the points he makes, I don't appreciate the style and force behind his words. It was a fundamentalist style of Christianity that pushed me away and so it is good to read a book that focuses on it, but even so it could have been toned down (in my mind, at least).

That being said, I am enjoying reading his "six principles of biblical interpretation". These include:

The Principle of Contextualisation

"We cannot read a biblical passage as though it has just fallen out of the sky and was addressed to us personally. We have to try and see who wrote it, when, why and for whom".
"What the Bible really teaches  is usually not very clear, and it is often widely misunderstood. In other words, what the Bible really teaches is not one thing, clearly stated, which it is faithless to doubt or deny" 

and

The Principle of Comprehensiveness

"In reading any passage of the Bible, we must consider all relevant biblical material, and not take passages in isolaton and out of context".

These both make me want to explore the Bible in much more detail than I have in the past and work out what it meant to the people at the time and what it means to me now. 

Essentially, these two books have made me feel more at ease with sharing parts of the Bible to introduce Little Man to God and faith and that it is okay to do this and share my own thoughts on what it all means, even if that isn't the mainstream intepretation. I was so worried that I might introduce something to Little Man and then him come across it again at school or something and find himself in a difficult situation if what I have shared with him is different to what is shared with him by another. 

But isn't that the point? Faith is personal, I have always maintained that, and yet I worry so much about getting it wrong when trying to explain this to Little Man. I need to let go of some of that worry and trust that he will find his own way in his own time. 

Thanks for letting me share this part of my heart with you today. I know that some of you may be very firm in your faith and the way you are raising your children and may find this slightly perplexing. Others of you may have no faith or be quite sincere atheists and may think I am mad for worrying so much about it. Either way, I'd be happy to hear your thoughts in the comment (as long as they are respectful and polite, of course!) 

Keeping Faith… Why I believe…

First of all, I must say a massive thanks to all those of you who left comments and sent messages to me following my previous post. I am overwhelmed by the response, for I don't think any post I've written has ever inspired so many people to leave a message. I guess being honest and sharing even those most scary thoughts really does make for good reading!

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So I thought I would expand on this openness and start a new series about the more spiritual nature and inspiration in my life. I have steered clear of going too deeply into this subject before through both a fear of alienating my readers and bringing judgemental, argumentative or theological responses that I cannot answer. 

You see, if someone asks me "what" I believe, I find it difficult to answer. This isn't just because of a fear of rejection, but also because it is hard to define something that is more a feeling and intuition than a solid and measurable thing.

I also feel rather weakly equipped, for although I know the basics of the Bible and Christianity (for example) when their scriptures, teachings or theologies are presented to me as a way of discussing or debating a certain issue I am often at a loss. This does not mean I dislike such conversations, as they can be very interesting and revealing, I just find them difficult when the other person has a range of quotations and religious examples to make their point and I have to somehow take what I feel in my heart and make sense of it with words.

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I may be good with words, but something as personal as faith is very hard to define (and defend, if arguments do arise). Even more difficult can be explaining to someone how you believe in pretty much the same thing that they do, are willing to accept their beliefs as spiritual truths, but are unwilling to accept and follow their religion. I still haven't figured that one out yet…

But ask me "why" I believe, and that I can answer far more easily. 

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I believe, because I do.

There has never been a time in my life that I cannot remember feeling that someone was there. My mind has always been enquiring: as a child I remember lying in bed trying to figure out how we know if we are dreaming or not, and where our thoughts occur because they are far too big to fit in our heads. I could imagine whole worlds in my mind's eye, so where was this world occurring? 

I never once stopped questioning things, but I never once questioned that God existed. (I use the word God as it is what I am most comfortable with, but there was a time in my early adulthood that I felt religion has taken the word away from me and I looked for alternative words such as Source and Energy but eventually I came back to the word God as it felt right for me). 

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I've spent years talking to someone, telling them everything from what I was feeling to what I was planning on doing. It was like a conversation took place in my mind, but there was someone else there to hear it. I even laughed and responded to some unheard reply sometimes, never quite knowing exactly why. I may sound mad, but it is how I live and I'll take madness over loneliness any day.

It didn't matter who this person was, I just knew that someone was there, guiding me, comforting me, and inspiring me. When I became too self-absorbed and run-down by life's events I lost the feeling of security that came with knowing someone was there, but still I talked, sharing my grief. And when things got exciting, I jumped for joy, knowing someone was watching.

So although my answer "I believe, because I do" may sound like a cop-out, it truly is the best way to answer the question of why I believe. To not believe is as alien a concept to me as to not hope or fear. 

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And I cannot blame this on some aspect of my upbringing because my parents never really spoke of anything beyond the visible until after my granddad died when I was 9, by which stage my belief was well and truly founded already.

Sure I came across aspects of religion in school, but never enough to form the strong bond I had with this unseen force. And besides, I only have to look at my conversations with "God" during the times I was angry with religion to know that no matter what questions I had about the specifics of it all, I could never doubt the existence of something beyond the world I see.

Incidentally, I believe in a lot more things than God, but the point is not to discuss that. I only mention it to point out that whilst our environment and upbringing can affect our ideas of the world to an extent, it really is our own ability to create our own beliefs that makes them as strong as they are.