Three responses to God’s whispers

Rebecca Denny, Sandra Lewis and Barbara Dorward, 29 May 2022

Luke 24: 44–53

RD: Someone very wise (my Dad – don’t tell him!) once said to me that when you look for a church to join, you should pay close attention to how they treat the community in which they stand. I start with this as it is so central to how, and why, I stand here before you today.

Just over a year ago, my husband Phil and son Edward and I moved to Winchester. We weren’t meant to. We were meant to move to Haslemere at Easter in 2020. My husband was just transitioning from the Royal Navy to the civilian world, our son had just arrived five weeks before the pandemic and the move was planned to a lovely little market town. And I’d even started church-hunting, as we say.

We were moving from Portsmouth, a place we loved – our friends, our home, our church, it was all wonderful. But it wasn’t close enough to commute into London for Phil and we were living in a ‘married patch’ of military family housing so the move was compulsory – we weren’t allowed to hold on to the house.

So we were set, off to Haslemere, but then … lockdown. Edward was five weeks old. The move fell through in those first few weeks of lockdown when the housing market stopped, and we hunkered down in Portsmouth.

As the housing market opened up again, we couldn’t find the right house in Haslemere, and friends in Winchester were asking us to consider moving here. I began to pray about it. Where were we going, where did God want us to be? My work – I work for myself, I’m self-employed – so I could go anywhere. Phil just needed to be within a train’s commute to London.

As Christians we often talk about trusting God, about leaning in to listen to his guidance. How many times have I said, ‘Oh, it would be so helpful if God wouldn’t mind just popping a little letter of instruction through the letterbox of our front door’? But of course, it doesn’t quite go like that.

What is now our house in Winchester wasn’t even on the market. It wasn’t meant to be on the market when we were looking. It wouldn’t have usually come up in the search terms that I had set on Rightmove that I looked at daily. But the day I altered those search terms to cast the net a little bit wider it also happened to come back on the market. In fact, we were the third people to have an offer accepted, so it had fallen through twice before and it really shouldn’t have been back up for sale at all.

In the weeks, and months, whilst we waited to exchange, I prayed big prayers of ‘if this is your plan, so be it’, and sometimes far more emotionally in the dead of night, ‘Please God, please, please can it be so?’ I was so certain this was to be our home and I was quite fed up of house-hunting, and actually I did feel that we were meant to come to Winchester. There were many things in the process that were tricky and that I feel God’s hand was upon.

There were many things in the process that were tricky and that I feel God’s hand was upon.

Sadly, moving meant that we had to say goodbye to our home church in Portsmouth. We were part of Harbour Church, which is one of the Anglican Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) church plants in the city. Yes, now here’s my confession, I am one of those evangelical Anglicans! But thank you for accepting me anyway. We weren’t sure where we might end up going to church in Winchester but I did feel that God would provide.

We finally moved to Winchester last March, in the middle of another lockdown. At this point I was returning to work and Edward was starting nursery. I had never been to a baby group with him because of the pandemic – we had had a maternity leave of lockdown – but I was pleased to see some re-opening and I spotted this one on Friday morning at St Paul’s. So one sunny morning at the end of August last year, we visited for the first time and I met Mary Copping and the volunteers who support the group. And it really is a very lovely group!

Mary mentioned that there was a little family church activity some Sunday afternoons and I shared with her that we were church-hunting, as it were. One of the things that really appealed to me about St Paul’s was the time of the morning service, because it fits in with an early-rising toddler, which an 11 am service doesn’t quite do.

To quote another wise person (this time my Mum – I had to keep it balanced!), ‘Church has to be easy for families, otherwise you simply don’t go’. At the time, pre-children, I couldn’t really understand what could be difficult about church. But now, with one high-energy toddler, I totally do.

Whilst St Paul’s didn’t appear to be anything like the church we had come from, we’ve found many similarities the more we have got to know you all. The warm welcome, the desire to know God better, the love for your community and the excellent selection of biscuits! I am very pleased I walked into toddler group last summer. We’re particularly delighted that we had Edward christened here in February, although for those of you who were at the service and remember – Edward was less delighted. (In fact, this morning he’s been sat next to me, Mary, saying, ‘No wet hair’. One day in therapy that will all come out.)

Whilst I don’t know why God brought us to Winchester, I do know that one day I will fully understand. So often when we look back, we see that, as it was for Esther in the Old Testament, we are placed into situations or given particular experiences for ‘such a time as this’.

I feel that often, as Christians, we are waiting for that big ‘calling’ to be placed on our lives. And for some, it comes: in jobs, in vocations, sometimes in ordination – the latter being something I do continue to mull over personally. But I also want to encourage you all today, that if that isn’t you, that you are still being called … that the little things you find yourselves doing, the ways you show up and serve here, the ideas you have and the groups you host – they all matter, and they are part of God’s plan.

A great author who I admire, a lady called Christine Caine, wrote in her book Undaunted a reflection on Moses’ journey in Exodus 4 where he felt unequipped to do God’s will and began to question God. She says, ‘Just as God gave Moses exactly what he needed to accomplish great things, he will equip us in the same way. If he calls us to slay giants, he will make us into giant-slayers. God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.’

So thank you for being such a welcoming church, and we look forward to journeying with you.

SL: A very different story. I am one of eight, a farming family. God was spoken about in terms of wrath and punishment, and my father wasn’t very godly. He was cruel and often beat us.

So, the funny thing about all of this is that, ever since I was a small child, I knew God would have my back. I was able to stay away from the family’s sidings, because there would often be family wars where one side of the family would be with my mother and the other side would be with my father. And I would often get these words in my head, ‘Don’t join in with this. It will lead to nowhere.’ So I didn’t.

Ever since I was a small child, I knew God would have my back.

I became the oddball of the family. I read a lot. I loved nature. We had lots of animals. And although sometimes it would be quite lonely I did still feel that someone was beside me. I don’t know that I would have verbalised that it was God, but I did know that I wasn’t on my own.

I went to school; I loved school, I loved learning and I still do, and I still read a huge amount of books. So this was very much my life until my friend said, ‘Do you want to come to Brownies?’ And I said, ‘Oh, alright, then’, so we went along to Brownies. And from Brownies I went to church.

I was the only one of my family who went to church. We were all Christians, because that was the thing to do. We weren’t poor. My father was the pillar of society, which was quite interesting, because often we think of domestic violence being in poor families, but this was not the case in mine.

Then it came to confirmation classes. I went home and I said to my mother, ‘I want to be confirmed’, and she went, ‘Really?’ It wasn’t easy, because the rest of the family just thought I was bonkers. I had to borrow a Communion dress, and I walked to the church on my own – it was about 1½ miles – in my borrowed dress. But I knew God had my back.

There’s so much about God and religion I don’t know – I have a million questions in my head – but I know the day we decided not to move to Alresford but to Winchester was again God guiding us. We came here and we found this marvellous house and we have wonderful neighbours, and I started church-hunting. I went to three or four, including St Matthew’s, but the day I walked through the door and saw Christopher Seaman who welcomed me warmly, that day truly brought together everything I believed and knew. It verbalised it, it allowed me to see what I’d felt all those years ago when I was a child.

I am truly blessed. I have nine grandchildren and a wonderful husband. Life has not always been easy, but the feeling that God was standing beside me, the trust I was able to put in God, did mean that I had and still have a very blessed life. I have learned so much since I’ve been here, and for that I thank Peter Seal, Mary Copping and Liz Stuart. They’ve taught me so much, and the wonderful people in this community as well. I missed last Sunday – I was at a wedding in Crete – but I did miss coming.

So my involvement in the drama is to encourage children to come along, and if I can just help even one of them know that God’s got their back, then my work here is done.

BD: After retiring 1½ years ago, in the middle of lockdown, I began to wonder what I could do in the community with my skills and my new-found free time. I started to think vaguely about working with refugees and maybe taking a course to teach English as a foreign language but didn’t manage to turn vague ideas into practical action, spending my time on the house and garden instead.

Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, with the terrible scenes unfolding on our television screens, I began to think again about what help I could offer. With the children having left home (and having homes of their own), offering spare rooms seemed an obvious option – it was an idea that occurred separately to Stuart, so we were in agreement from the start, although we talked it through carefully before committing ourselves.

We registered for Homes for Ukraine and at the same time saw a message from Mary to say that the parish had registered as a supporter with the Sanctuary Foundation. It seemed to me that building a community of those considering hosting and those not able to host but wanting to help in other ways would be of benefit to everyone, and I contacted Mary to offer to co-ordinate support within the parish.

More normal for me would be to wait for someone else to do something and then join in, but on this occasion I felt a very clear call to step forward myself, and a degree of confidence that this is what I could and should do. Fortunately Stuart was once again in agreement, and we began to work to pull together information and resources, often with Stuart doing the hard graft of collecting information, creating spreadsheets, etc., while I did the fun bit of networking, chatting to people and making contacts. Particularly useful contacts were made through Ursula Payne, whose neighbours were already working on this through Facebook and WhatsApp groups.

As the weeks have gone by the situation has developed fast. More and more information has become available, people have shared stories and helped each other with the bureaucratic nightmare of the government scheme, and Ukrainian families have arrived throughout the Winchester area and with hosts within the parish. We are still in the early days of working out what is needed and co-ordinating our efforts with those of others in the area, to provide support and avoid duplication of effort, and each week has brought useful new conversations and offers of help.

We are both very committed to the efforts being made to support families from Ukraine, but also to refugees more generally, and the current situation has made us aware of organisations such as Winchester City of Sanctuary, which we intend to support in the future. Often in the past couple of months the saying, ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’ has rung in my mind, and what we are doing now is our answer to that question.

Often in the past couple of months the saying, ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’ has rung in my mind.

As someone who has lots of bright ideas but is often backward in coming forward to do the hard work, I feel grateful that this opportunity to contribute has been offered to me and that I see a clear path to making a small difference in the world. I may even take that TEFL (ESOL) course sometime soon.