There are rare moments when you stumble upon a soul that mirrors your own and though we are oceans apart, Jenifer Swan has become a cherished new friend. Her voice and story are truly beautiful and encouraging for us in this season. I met Jenifer on the vast world of Instagram and though I have struggled with the app, meeting women like Jenifer make the effort worthwhile!
Jenifer is currently studying theology and practicing growing peas on the east coast of Ireland. She has always lived beside the sea, it is her go-to place to chat with God and find peace within the rolling waves. She loves to play with words – in poetry and song and has recently rediscovered the joy of cycling! It is a blessing to have Jenifer at the table with us today.
Guest Blog by Jenifer Swan
In my childhood, church was a building of cold stone walls and songs sung by a choir played through our cathedral sound system. It was a place where good behaviour was encouraged, bible stories were read and you were prepared for the task of reading at the lectern. It was family time and a trip to the corner shop to buy penny sweets.
God seemed distant.
When I turned 15, I experienced God in a way that was new and exciting. I read the truth of Jesus’ love on the smiles of the camp leaders and in the way that they praised with their whole bodies. A longing was uncovered for something I thought I’d already figured out.
When I was 22, I received an invitation to a church in the inner city and although I was a country girl, I felt in many ways I had come home. Here I learned about joyous worship, what it means to love others and the expectation of Gods intervention in our everyday lives. Within the Pentecostal church I listened and grew in faith. We sought out supernatural experiences, we prayed for breakthroughs in work situations, health situations and every problem that presented itself. We boldly proclaimed that God was a miracle working God and, in those years, I developed an awareness of the issue of evil, the ominous presence of the devil and supernatural intervention.
Theological ideas shaped our worship, our preaching and our practices but I did not quite understand what all that meant. It was a beautiful time of community and I met and married my husband there.
God seemed active and present.
While doubts and questions lingered around the corners of my mind, they didn’t really take a hold until my life started to unravel. Unexplained infertility, recurrent miscarriage, the traumatic loss of a rescue greyhound we had only 3 weeks, health problems, family problems, and the death of my mum sooner than I ever expected.
This experience of life challenged every idea I had of a good and loving God working faithfully in my life. I felt abandoned and I struggled to hold onto hope.
Church which had always seemed a safe place became a place of unrest. The songs that had soothed and uplifted my faith now grated, the words of faith felt empty or judgemental. The place had not changed but I no longer seemed to fit.
God seemed so very absent.
It appears I have always been trying to fit God into a box yet somehow, I could not get him to stay there. I wanted a nice tidy belief system but my foundation of a faith that always is overcoming could not withstand the crises that hit.
Persistent memories of God’s goodness fuelled my tired and fragile faith when other explanations echoed hollowly for me. I clung to the hope that God could redeem all the brokenness I was experiencing.
Church through this ongoing season is not confined to a building but is the hands that hold mine, the ears that listen, and the eyes that weep with me. It is those who voiced anger on my behalf and those who have wisely led me towards the pathway of lament.
Through all my years following Jesus I had become proficient in praise yet when my dreams were crushed and my heart felt broken a different song and prayer was needed that I had not yet learned.
Returning to the scriptures I saw they were rich with images of suffering and lament. These were not the words of people who had given up on God, but those who turned to him in the depths of their pain and honestly conveyed the heartache and disappointment.
The Old Testament particularly the book of Job and the psalms are full of honest confession and questioning of God.
But it was some of the encounters in the Gospel that I saw with fresh eyes. Mary and Martha meeting Jesus after their brother Lazarus dies both say to him ‘It would have been different if you were here’ (my paraphrase John 11 v 21 & 32). My preoccupation with the end of this story meant I had overlooked this part – I was focused on the end and its triumphant outcome! Here in these encounters where Jesus interact with human emotions and human frailty we see that God takes time to listen and respond, and he is moved to weep with humanity in their sorrow.
The practice of lament has been a powerful exercise in my spiritual life; becoming aware and present to my pain and turning to God with that has been incredibly healing. In this posture I have humbly recognised my inability to make the world what I desire, I have reaffirmed my need of God and been reminded of the truth that he is concerned with restoring the world to wholeness.
We live within the tension of believing for God’s kingdom to come and his power to be displayed while yet continuing to see brokenness and terrible injustice. Lament allows us to name those things both in our own lives and the wider world that are not as they should be.
Lament invites us to return to close relationship with God when difficulties, injustice and pain if unvoiced could swallow up our faith. God is willing to hear our complaints. He is capable of holding our strong emotions. He is responsive to our pain and He is faithful to always be present with us.
As I look back on my journey of faith, I am struck by the fact that my many wonderful and sometimes terrible experiences however powerful must not be clung to. We must honour the myriad twists of our journey of faith. God alone is the unchanging faithful one in a world that is forever changing but while the established church can teach us about him it cannot control or contain him.
We must reckon with and accept the untamed and mysterious nature of God.
My understanding of church and faith have shifted and are shifting still. Yet this one thing is resolute that the one who shaped the sky, and set the starlings to take flight in it, is still creating, still shaping and forming and bringing forth life.
I still desire to feel in control, I still want to see not just the next step but the whole plan that’s ahead. Yet I have come to recognise the beauty of living in this moment, the gift of now whether that brings joy or pain.
I continue to live within the tension of unfulfilled longing and fragile hope. I know that I am here only because of grace and that I will continue on in the ways of faith only because of grace. That grace is dispensed to me in a multitude of ways; in poetry and the words of others, in shared sorrow and in drinking in the beauty of the natural world, in the scriptures and in the people, who show courage and faith though the world may be unjust.
That grace is most profoundly presented for me in the person of Jesus. As I continue to learn about him, look to him in all things, and attempt to follow him slowly and haltingly. I am continually struck anew that though great mystery remains here in Jesus is the fullest revelation of God.
Here is my greatest hope and the hope for all the world Immanuel – God with us.
A little note from Colette
Hey friends, I am so glad that you have joined us for the Ordinary Time series! This series will give us the opportunity to hear from a variety of voices, from different backgrounds, holding their own strong convictions around faith all the while calling us to the same thing: perseverance. I give my guests freedom to express their faith freely and any specific convictions they may hold. This is bigger table theology working itself out on this blog. We may not all agree concerning specific areas of scripture but one thing I know we can, Jesus is Lord!