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This evening is the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and I find myself thinking back.
I’ve always been the sort of person who prefers the easy way of doing things. When I was living and working in London, with access to Oxford Street and all its shops every lunchtime, that meant buying things: ready-made meals for one, ready-made desserts in individual portions, even bags of prepared vegetables, peeled and sliced carrot batons, broccoli florets, shelled peas, mixtures of veg that were ready to just go in the microwave and accompany the ready-made individual-sized pie which I’d stick in the oven when I got home from work – ok, partly this was because I actually didn’t know how to cook… but partly this was the lifestyle I was living: rushing to work every day, always feeling short of time, and being surrounded by shops selling any kind of luxury, so basically I bought time, I paid money so that someone else would save me having to spend time on peeling carrots.
So… the clocks go back tonight, and these days I do tend to remember… unlike one year, when I managed to spend the whole day out of synch with the world around me…
First, you’ll need a bit of background to follow this story.
It was sometime in the early 90s. I was living in a small town in Surrey, and attending the main Anglican church there, called St Andrew’s. They had a smaller sister church called St John’s, and evening service was sometimes held there. (In those days I used to get up in the morning and go to the main service – I guess I had more energy when I was younger…)
Oh, and the other detail that is crucial to the story is that the time of evening service was 6.30 for about half the year and 6pm for the other half.
Okay, now that you’ve got all that, sit comfortably and I’ll tell you what happened…
I woke up one Sunday morning in autumn, and thought, oops, I’ve overslept, I can’t make it to church this morning. So I stayed in, I don’t remember what I did all day but it didn’t involve switching on the television or the radio at any point.
Seeing as I’d missed morning service, I decided to go to St John’s in the evening. So off I go to St John’s, but I find the church shut and dark and there’s absolutely no sign of life. Strange, I think to myself, but maybe I made a mistake and it hasn’t changed to 6pm yet? Maybe we’re still on 6.30? Okay, I’ll go for a walk and come back.
So I go for a walk around my little town. I go through the high street and see that the Chinese takeaway is closed, which is strange because I know they open at 5.30pm on Sundays. Then I get to St Andrew’s, the main church, and the church clock is saying the wrong time! I’m beginning to get a weird feeling, like something terrible must have happened locally today and I’m the only one who hasn’t heard.
I go back to St John’s for the 6.30 service but it’s still dark and shut. Now what do I do? Okay, I’ll go home then.
So I head home, and on my way I bump into the two elderly sisters who hold the keys to St John’s. They’re just on their way to open up for the 6pm service.
And so, at what I thought was nearly 6.30pm, I discovered that I’d been an hour out for the whole day.
And what I learned from this for life was how easy it is to walk around being absolutely sure that your watch is right and the church clock is wrong… to be certain that if everyone around me is saying something different, then they’re the ones who have got it wrong…
For some people, though, there’s an opposite lesson – some people, because of the hard knocks they’ve had in life, have such low self-esteem that their immediate assumption would be that they’re wrong and the other people are right. If you’re one of those people, then the lesson I learned is not for you. Because the truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle: we all get some things right and some things wrong.
At that time I was at a stage in my life when I needed to learn humility. This lesson came to my mind a few years later, when God was challenging me to review my thinking on a pretty big issue, and I realised that I had been refusing to accept that others around me may have been right about it whilst I had been wrong.
This hasn’t stopped me from swimming against the tide at times… as those who have been reading my blog know very well… (in fact, there’s one post coming soon…) but I know I’m only human and fallible, and even though I may feel 101% sure about something, I may have missed a point somewhere… I know from experience that there have been plenty of things I have felt 101% sure about but then later changed my mind pretty drastically – so somewhere in the corner of my mind, even as I stand bravely on my soapbox, I know that my watch may be… well… at least a few seconds out…
Yes, 1 July 2002 is the day I was born again.
If you don’t know what being born again means, don’t worry, I didn’t either until it happened. Growing up in a Jewish home in Israel, you don’t hear about this stuff. And even going to church – well, it varies. The churches I attended didn’t tend to talk about it, and when I heard people use this term it meant nothing to me, it was as though they were talking Chinese. But eventually, in God’s good time, after over 12 years in the church and thinking I was a Christian, it happened.
My 12 years in the wilderness started with a visit to a church in London a few months after I arrived in England. I wasn’t searching for God or anything like that – I just went along with my partner, who wanted to go to church. (Long and complicated story, not for here and now)
To my great surprise, I met God there.
My surprise was not just because a Jewish girl doesn’t expect to bump into him in a church of all places, but also because an agnostic doesn’t expect to bump into him at all.
The church where this happened wasn’t very evangelistic, but it certainly had warm and friendly people. They made me feel welcome without prying into matters of faith at all – nobody offered me a tract or tried to tell me about Jesus, nobody asked if I was saved, they just weren’t into that sort of thing. This church, for various reasons, is not somewhere I’d feel comfortable now, but at that stage of my life it was exactly the place for me – I was very rebellious, and if I had felt that someone was trying to talk me into anything, I’d have been out of there like a shot. But nobody did, so I felt ok about going there again and again, not saying the prayers or even singing the songs because I was determined not to be hypocritical, not to say anything I didn’t believe in – but I just kept going because I felt something… well, now I know it was Someone really, it was God drawing me to him, very gently but persistently. And eventually we came to the point of me deciding to read this stuff that I was hearing about from the pulpit. So I bought a Bible from the church bookstall, and started to read the Gospels. And when I finished reading, I just knew – with a 100% certainty – that what I had read was true.
Now, if this was just a nice story, I would tell you that at this point my life changed dramatically, I stopped sinning and became a saint overnight. But this isn’t a story, it’s real life, which tends to be rather messy and complex. Especially my life…
My life remained a bit of a mess for a while, though I was trying to let God in, and gradually I was letting him change me. I was getting closer to him in some ways, but in other ways – well, I think I hadn’t quite got the full message really, and when I went to the pastor in that church back in 1990 and said I wanted to be a Christian, I didn’t really understand what that meant. I think at that stage all I was doing was a bit like joining a political party: I’ve read your manifesto, I agree with what you stand for, so I want to become a member. I was agreeing with the stuff that the church was saying, I was saying, yes, this guy Jesus is a good guy and what he says is true, I want to live according to this worldview.
I had not understood at that point that living according to Jesus’ teaching is actually not humanly possible, so signing up for it without having his power in me meant I was setting myself up for failure and for a humungous amount of guilt.
I had certainly not understood what all that talk about him being the Saviour meant.
So when I thought I was “becoming a Christian”, all that was happening was that I was saying: I think Christianity is a good idea and I want to be part of it.
Over the years God patiently taught me more and more about him, and part of me was getting more and more excited about God and really wanting to do his will, really wanting to please him. But I couldn’t do it.
I was getting confused and restless. There were moments when I felt like one day somebody is going to discover that I’m a fraud, that I say I’m a Christian but look at how I live —
The more I read the Bible the more the confusion grew. The stuff that I read there about the life of Christians just didn’t match my experience. According to the Bible I was supposed to have love and joy and peace growing in me, not to mention patience! and not to mention self-control!!! Instead I was at the mercy of my temper, my urges for instant gratification, my selfishness. There was a girl I worked with who I just didn’t get on with – we constantly rubbed each other up the wrong way. Again and again I would decide to be loving towards her. And now and again, for about two seconds, I would manage it. But most of the time I failed. My will was not enough to make it happen.
Something was wrong. Something was missing. I didn’t know what.
Fast forward to end of December 2000. I’ve been living in London in a rented flat, doing the normal 9-5 office job kind of life, but also getting more and more involved in my church. Rushing around a lot means not having much time to hear God. I’ve also been getting very tired. In fact, I’ve got so tired that I don’t have the energy to go away for Christmas to stay with the friends who had kind of become my adopted family in England. So I stay in London. And my vicar and his wife ask me if I would house-sit for them when they go away between Christmas and New Year. So for about a week I’m away from my flat, and just to make sure I’ll stay put God sends lots of snow, because he knows very well that I’m too scared to walk in the snow. So I end up having some solitude, which means God can get through to me, and start showing me how I’ve been trying to control everything and how tiring that is, and of course trying to control everything doesn’t make sense when I’ve been saying I trust God…
31 December 2000 I put my hands up and said to God: I’m not going to try to drive any more. I’m not even going to try to navigate. I won’t sneak a look at the map. You drive. You know where we’re going. I don’t.
On my way back to work after the Christmas break God said: Quit your job, give three months’ notice.
That was the start of the big adventure. No job means no salary and no salary means no rent, so I had to leave my flat. I went to live with friends in North Wales who run a small retreat house. From there I went to L’Arche, a community for people with mental handicaps. From there I went to work at another retreat house, this time near Oxford. But just before I started working there, God finally got through to me about going back home to Israel.
You see, the thing was that when I first came to England I went through a pretend-wedding in order to get a visa to allow me to stay here. And as I was telling a friend about this I suddenly heard myself. This was a new friend so I was telling her my story, and suddenly I heard what I was saying, and it just didn’t add up. I was telling her that I was a Christian, and that I had been living in England for years with a visa that I had got through lying.
I had to let go of that visa. I had to go back to Israel. Suddenly it was very simple, very clear.
Also very very very scary. I didn’t want to go back. I had settled in nicely in England, I liked it here, I had made a life for myself here, I had built friendships, I was comfortable here.
And the other thing that I had managed not to think about most of the time was the debts I had left behind. You see, that’s why I came to England in the first place. I had run into huge debts, so huge that I couldn’t see myself ever managing to pay them, and I panicked and ran.
My conscience had tried to prick me about it. In fact at some point I remember going to see my vicar about it, and he – oh, how angry I am just thinking about it now – he gave me absolution!!! (For those who don’t know what that means, it’s when a priest hears someone’s confession and tells them that God has forgiven them.) He told me I was forgiven. He didn’t mention the need for restitution – for paying back what I owed.
But God hadn’t forgotten about it.
So, April 2002 I head back home to Israel. I start the archaeological dig – my attempts to find my old creditors and pay them. And – oh yes, to find my ex-boss from whom I’d stolen money just before leaving. It wasn’t easy, finding him. The company had gone into liquidation, but I did eventually manage to find the name and address of the director. I tried ringing him at home but twice I rang and he wasn’t in, and what sort of message could I leave? So I wrote him a letter, and explained that nearly 13 years previously I had worked for him and stolen a cheque from his company and that God had shown me the error of my ways and I wanted to repay him. (Not just the amount I’d taken – I found a biblical principle that talked about paying four or five times what you’d stolen.) He phoned me back, very intrigued as to why I was doing this after all this time. He wasn’t particularly interested in the money, as he was a millionaire and the amount I’d taken was a drop in the ocean for him. But he did understand my need to repay. And he really wanted to know why I was doing this, so we met and sat in a posh café in Herzlia Pituach and I told him about Jesus.
But going back to that evening when I had posted my letter to this guy – 1 July 2002. I felt that sending that letter was a huge thing to do, it was a risk as I had put it all on paper and if this guy wanted to go to the police with it, he could. I didn’t really know what he was like – I hadn’t known him personally, he was the director of this company and I was just a bookkeeper’s assistant. So this was a big thing for me to do, a scary step but something I knew was absolutely necessary. So I sat there in my bedroom in my mum’s flat and I said to Jesus: Okay, I’ve done it. And he said: There’s one thing you haven’t done yet. And I said: What? And he said: You haven’t given your life to me yet.
Now, I had heard people use this terminology but it had never meant anything to me. They might as well have spoken fluent Mandarin. I just didn’t know what they meant. It wasn’t an expression that was used in any of the churches I’d been part of along the way. The Anglican tradition says you become part of the church when you are baptised, which normally happens when you’re a baby, and you make your own commitment through what they call Confirmation. I had gone through Baptism in the Lutheran church in 1990, and Confirmation in the Anglican church a few years later, and I can tell you from my experience that it is entirely possible to go through these rituals as an adult without really giving your life to Jesus, without realising what it means that he is the Saviour, without accepting and receiving his amazing gift of Salvation, forgiveness of sins and a new start.
On 1 July 2002 I sat there in my bedroom, no rituals, no ceremonies, just me and Jesus in my room. He said: You haven’t given your life to me yet. And at that moment I knew. I knew it was true, I knew what it meant.
He had been preparing me. I’d been going to a Messianic fellowship and getting excellent teaching. And at that moment I was ready. I rummaged around for one of those paperbacks that tell you about people coming to faith and at the end they invite you to pray what some people call the sinner’s prayer – repenting of your sins, accepting Jesus as your Lord and Saviour and asking him to come into your life and take over. I had seen those prayers so many times and never took them very seriously. But this was the moment when everything came together, it all suddenly made perfect sense.
And afterwards – things did start to happen, all those things I’d read about in the Bible and wondered about, I started to see these things happen in my own life. Not just love and patience, but even self-control, which I never dreamt I could have! I discovered that it is real, all that stuff I’d read about, it’s just that you can’t make it happen just by wanting it to, it’s only when Jesus lives in you that these things can happen. You can’t get your car to move just by sitting at the wheel and wanting to get to, say, Bournemouth. You need the engine running. Jesus is my engine. Without him I can do nothing that’s any good. With him – I can get a lot further than Bournemouth.
P.S. Some loose ends I should tidy up since I opened them here:
I’m back in England now and married for real. I’ve got a new visa which I got by totally honest means this time – I even told them at the Consulate about the previous one. God is faithful.
P.P.S. Another thing I don’t remember being taught in that first church I attended back in 1990, was that being a Christian doesn’t mean you stop being Jewish, it’s not about joining a different religion. Jesus didn’t come to found a new religion, he came as the promised Messiah of Israel – though he is also, as promised, a light to the Gentiles.