I had this pebble, when I was younger, that had the word “surrender” written across it in felt tip pen. We’d been at a Christian festival one summer, sat in a seminar, and these stones were handed out. We were told to pray for a while, and then to write on the stone one word that we felt God was saying, something about our relationship with him, something he might want us to know for sure and hold on to. I had no doubts about writing “surrender”. I was sure it was what he’d be telling me to do, without even asking. It’s how I would have summed up my relationship with God, or at least, how I wanted it to be, for most of my teenage years. It was very straight forward in my head: I wasn’t good enough, and to be good enough, I needed to surrender those parts of my life to God that I was currently holding back from him. I spent a lot of time willing myself to surrender more, to be better. All that willing myself didn’t really get me too far, it turns out.
If I were given that stone now, I’d pick a very different word. One that isn’t about what I need to do.
I’ve got enough words like that already: on to do lists, on exam regulations, on the bottom of essays. There are verbs everywhere in my life at the moment: revise this, look up that, memorise this quote, ask about that theologian, make another mind map, improve that week’s work, learn everything in Greek, and don’t forget to buy your missing bits of sub-fusc. I feel like I’m right at the end of my ability to do anything, and there is absolutely no space for any more verbs in my life. I always knew finals would be stressful. I had no idea how stressful. I expected that because I wouldn’t be going into a job that needs a 2.i or anything, I wouldn’t feel the pressure. I kind of thought that I might be one of those people who has learnt how to trust God and has their priorities sorted and breezes through finals looking after everyone else and still turning up to prayer meetings to show off how chilled out they are. Turns out I’m not, and the pressure is still pretty huge even without needing to get a particular grade for a job. It’s the pressure to do yourself justice, to make the last three years of hard work worth while, to fulfil your potential. The pressure is to avoid a situation on results day where you know you could have done well but you tripped at the last hurdle and you let yourself down for the sake of a bit of extra TV or another few drinks. It’s hard work. I’m at the end of myself.
So no, my word now wouldn’t be a verb. It would be an adjective, one that has become more and more important over the last few months. My rock would say, “safe”. Safe. It’s become my buzz word, in conversations about the future with a friend, in prayers and in pep talks, I’ve told myself over and over, that I’m safe.
If you’ve been reading this blog regularly in the last few months (then I very much appreciate it!) you might have sensed that there’s a lot I’m working through at the moment. Questions about faith, about the Bible, about traditions, about Church, about people, about gender, about sexuality, about everything. They’ve all been personal questions rather than abstract ones, they’re part of working out how I live my life as well as just what I think. It’s a time of working out who the God I know is, what church means in my experiences, what I think it should be, where I fit and where I’m going, what it means for me to consider myself a woman, and what on earth to make of my own sexuality. It might be that I’m coming to a few conclusions on some of those things. But more important to me is that I’m becoming more confident in asking the questions because I’m coming to know with more and more certainty that I’m safe with God no matter what. I’m safe whatever I come to think about church. I’m safe wherever I feel I should go in future. I’m safe whatever my relationships look like. I’m safe even if I get all those questions wrong. That’s what I’ve come to be amazed by – my security is not threatened if I get stuff wrong because its foundation is nothing to do with me. The more I’m coming to know about God’s love, how high and how wide and how deep and how long and how sweet and how strong it is, the more certain I am that it holds me unshakably. Whatever questions I ask, whatever answers I hold on to or reject, I’m safe.
(By the way, the poem I wrote recently, Safety in Chaos, was about exactly this, especially working out my sexuality.)
Just as I’m safe in all the questions and change, so too I’m safe when finals bring me to the end of myself. It doesn’t matter if I stress. (Thank goodness, because feeling guilty for being a stressed Christian was only making it worse!) It doesn’t matter if I can’t take in a single bit more information. It doesn’t matter if I can’t pray one day, or I forget to read the Bible, or if I can’t even find the energy to do laundry. It doesn’t matter if I let myself down or if I don’t achieve my potential or if I trip over any number of last hurdles, none of it matters because I’m still safe. I’m still safe. When I come to the end of myself, I don’t fall into an unknown abyss. I’m held firmly in that love that I’ll never come to the end of, that nothing can threaten or take away.
I’m not one for rewriting the Bible, but if I were to have co-authored Romans with Paul, I might have ended chapter 8 like this:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, neither questions nor doubts, neither fear nor failure, not even finals themselves, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Because we’re safe. End of.