Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin:
Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a woman sitting in an empty house in Durban. Although this woman had a lovely daughter, just four years old, and although the sky was blue and there was a swimming pool in the garden (something she had always always dreamed of) she was very sad. She was homesick, and heartsick and she felt a complete failure… oh, I can’t be bothered with the Listen With Mother style. Start again:
I was 33, on my second marriage, and it was failing. We had been in South Africa for a year, starting off in Jo’burg but my husband, an engineer and project manager in the sugar industry, had been relocated to Durban and so there we were, in a shabby but OKish bungalow, with little furniture, not knowing anyone, and homesickness had hit me hard. I wasn’t homesick for my family – I didn’t really have any – but I hated the bars on the windows, the guard dogs, the culture, the lousy TV, the rubbish radio, and George’s 14 hour days and 6 day weeks. The swimming pool filter system was broken and the surface shimmered with scum and sunlight. I felt dislocated and disoriented. And we were beginning to talk about divorce, the second for both of us. I could see our daughter growing up without a dad and I was so full of failure and guilt. It seemed like I just couldn’t ever be in a relationship that was steady and loving. I couldn’t do this ‘love’ thing.
Then a woman, about my own age, came to the door with a plate of brownies. Her name was Irene and she was Canadian. Very very Canadian. She told me that her husband was the Pastor of a little Baptist church in the next street. My heart sank. One of them! A do-gooding Pastor’s wife. Great. Where’s my passport? Show me the way to the airport. But Irene was humorous and understanding and those brownies were the most life-giving plate of brownies the world has ever known.
At Irene’s invitation (insistence) I took Lou to Sunday school and I sat at the back of the church and listened. It was somewhere to go and something to do, that’s all. After 6 months (I’m sure it was only days but Irene says it was months) in a late, late night study ( actually all night) on Gethsemane, all alone as the huge (massive! cat size!) rats scurried and scratted in the back garden, I finally gave in. Gave my life to God. Within a year, George and I were baptised together.
In the years that followed, in difficult times and good, and with the death of my husband, I slipped away from God, but he never slipped away from me. I never stopped believing, I never stopped praying, but having given my life to Him, I snatched it back, and went my own sweet way. Not so sweet.
But this is where Irene pops up again! Thirty years after that plate of brownies, Leigh and Irene came to stay with me here in West Wales, for just a few days, and as usual they started to nag me about never going to church. Nag nag nag. I mean, come onnnn. Give over with the wise words. I didn’t need church! I was fine on my own. Me and God – we’d come to an understanding. They listened to all my reasoning and earnest explanation and seemed to understand but somehow they were unyielding too. Leigh said it was hard to be a Christian without fellowship. He may even have said it was impossible. I think they looked at me, 30 years on, and saw that I hadn’t grown closer to God, hadn’t matured in any way spiritually. Had gone backwards. When they returned home, they still didn’t give up! Irene sent an email ‘Why don’t you go to that sweet little church we saw in the town that day?” and so, just to keep her quiet, I went. I went in a mood, I went in defiance.
And in that church I saw everything I had been missing; the joy of discipleship, the privilege of being held accountable, the gift of worship, the warmth of friendship. But I learnt that it wasn’t too late, that I wasn’t being judged or rejected, that I could start again, that God was still there, unchanged and unchanging. As loving and forgiving now as He had been all those years ago when I first knew Him. I learnt – so very very late – that church is family and that maybe I could, after all, do this ‘love’ thing.
Thank you, Irene.
In the long years while I was slipping away from God, Leigh was serving faithfully as the senior Pastor in a large church in Johannesburg, supported and strengthened by Irene, but now, approaching 70, this sweet couple are facing a new challenge. Their tenure is up and Leigh is moving aside for his successor. The adventure goes on! Maybe they’ll pastor a smaller church, maybe that’s what God has lined up for them. Maybe He has something else in mind. Whatever the future holds, God held it first.
Way back, on that morning in Durban, when Irene decided she was going to take some cookies to that new sad neighbour, God was there in the recipe book, there in the kitchen, there on the doorstep. He was there for me. And He will be there for whatever Leigh and Irene do next.
Proverbs 16:9. In their hearts humans plan their course,
but the Lord establishes their steps.
This is my favourite pic of a lovely holiday in Umhlanga, 6 years ago, with Leigh and Irene