You’ve been dating your gorgeous boy or girlfriend for three months, have just received a phone call confirming that you’ve got the job you always wanted, and you’re looking forward to an upcoming holiday in the sun. Life is good and you can’t help skipping along the street or walking around with a ridiculous grin on your face. Worship on Sunday morning is a sheer delight; you’re just so thankful for everything.
Or maybe you’ve experienced the pain of losing someone close, you’re suffering with persistent health issues and you’ve just opened yet another rejection letter. Nothing seems to be going right in your life and you’re greeted by Mr Happy as you reluctantly slink into the church service, five minutes late, wishing that you hadn’t bothered coming at all. Life is miserable, and you don’t feel like clapping along to some hyper praise song with snazzy guitar riffs.
Perhaps the incredible thing is, that the two people described above could be one and the same person, just 5 -10 years apart. Those statements could more or less describe me. Life can be a rollercoaster sometimes.
I remember it well: We were on a boat off the shore of San Francisco’s bay, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge on one side and the vague outline of hills in the twilight beyond. Having tucked into a wonderful four course meal, as a live band played on board, we were then called out on deck to watch an amazing firework display. Hand in hand, gazing into the sky, we couldn’t believe our luck. Here we were, my husband and I, on an all expenses trip that only my husband and a few others from the UK had been awarded courtesy of his company. The drinks flowed, the sky dazzled and everything seemed so perfect. It was as if we were momentarily caught up in the centre of a live movie. We would return later to our room at the downtown 5* Marriott Hotel with its huge 6ft wide bed and glamorous marble bathroom. Life was good! It seemed a world away from the reality of Birmingham, which we called ‘home’ at that time.
At 22 my life had been pretty stress free and enjoyable for the most part. My childhood had generally featured fun and friends; my teens and beyond marked by opportunities to dive into travel, drama, youth events, and hanging out in pubs. Even my foray into the world of work had been fun, as I found my skill at evening telemarketing earned me lots of money in commission for every appointment I made. Everything I aimed for seemed to work out; every door seemed to open for me. I was accepted into my first choice of university, met my husband to be on the day I arrived (yes, really) and within a few years we would find ourselves living in New York City. Pretty sickening, eh? I had even enjoyed quite good health up until this time; the only problem I experienced involved a few dental operations.
Not long after this trip of a lifetime, things began to change. I didn’t get the jobs I wanted, friendships were hard to come by, and I noticed that things often didn’t work out. I felt unsettled, but hopeful that things would soon turn around for the better.
When we started a family, that was probably the biggest change of my life. Whilst five years of marriage had been pretty much a breeze, this parenthood business was no easy feat. My first son was colicky and difficult; my family were across the Atlantic. Even when we moved back to the UK in 2000, we arrived back to the wettest November in 200 years (similar to what we experienced just this January and February), and then I was hit by morning sickness of a second pregnancy. For several years, life seemed challenging or disappointing in so many ways. (Yes it’s possible to be married and feel lonely or miserable – even though your partner is wonderful. Feeling constantly tired doesn’t help.) Although things started to pick up work wise, and a few opportunities came my way over the next few years, I began to suffer from several health problems and sometime later watched my wonderful dad slowly degenerate due to cancer, dying within a year and half after a couple of surgeries. I’d never lost someone close before; my heart ached.
Through the hard times I grappled with sadness, wrestled with God and learned to accept that life will never be all round perfect all the time. Compassion and empathy are developed during the times of adversity we experience. I’ve learned to read people better and listen more, my eyes now opened to the realisation that everyone is at a different stage of their life. Not so much in terms of age or marital status, rather the joy or pain they’re experiencing at that time. It’s good to develop sensitivity in view of that knowledge, and be open to hearing others’ life stories. That subdued looking person at work or church could be you in a few years’ time. We all go through highs and lows; disappointments come to us all. It’s crucial to give people the space to reveal where they’re at and what their struggles are.
As I grew and developed in my relationship with God in that time, I also learned about waiting, disappointment, regret, anger and anguish. I discovered my weaknesses and fought with failure. I began to see situations differently – to not have an easy answer for everything. And I learned acceptance – acceptance that we can’t possibly explain why certain stuff happens in our lives. I finally began to grasp what was meant by that phrase ‘character building’ – which is far from sentimental – instead raw and tumultuous – and painful. It’s navigating through trials and troubles that shape and define you, that chip away at self until you learn to be desperately dependent on God. I basically grew up in my faith at the very time that God seemed most distant.