I didn’t plan to be a single parent. Very few people do. But it happened. Aged thirty-three, my life felt as though it had been scripted from the pages of a Joanna Trollope novel. I was a vicar’s wife, living in a large country vicarage, with two small children aged two and four. Then my husband died. That wasn’t supposed to be in my life script, even if Joanna could have made a good story out of it. I was husbandless, homeless and hopeless.
There are many ways of being in the wilderness. It doesn’t necessarily mean schlepping in circles around the desert for forty years or existing on only locusts and wild honey done three ways (tartare, barbecued or sandwich). You can be in the desert and be surrounded by other people. A spiritual desert can feel achingly dry and barren, and the vultures can circle hungrily, waiting for their pickings from your fears and your longings and your vulnerabilities as you wonder where God is in it all.
I’ve been there.
Now when I was widowed, I had two smashing children who gave me a reason to get up in the mornings. I had other people who put scrambled eggs in front of me and told me to go and lie down whilst they took the kids out for the day. I had the trusty C of E who housed me and sent someone round at Christmas with a cheque so I could buy presents from Santa. I was not on my own in my desert.
But God didn’t show up.
I was mad with God and I guess it’s hard to get close to someone when they are mad with you. Maybe God wanted to come up to me and envelop me in a big hug and tell me that I was as precious to him as my own babies were to me. Maybe he agreed when I ranted about the unfairness of it all. Maybe he wanted to sit down and listen when I told him what a right blighter he was, taking my husband who had so much to offer – not only to his beleaguered little family but to his church and people. Maybe he wanted to wipe the tears from my eyes and offer me a big white handkerchief to blow my nose on. Maybe he just wanted to love me.
But I didn’t want to be loved by God.
I wasn’t even sure if I believed in God anymore which was a bit of a turn off for him if you think about it. If my husband comes up to me when I’m upset and I push him away saying ‘Are you even there?’ I guess he’d feel a tad rejected. But I wasn’t that sure about God. I’d never been that sure about God. He was some distant figure in the sky with the pointy finger who was out to get me and this latest chapter of bereavement just cemented my prejudices. It was a thanks very much and shut the door behind you (if you exist) kind of relationship.
I wandered around in my desert for thirteen years, not believing in God but believing just enough to rant at him when I felt like it.
And God was listening, I think.
I met my second husband, Richard after several circuits of the wilderness, and to cut a long story short, we happily married. And I began to talk a bit more to God because there was no reason to keep falling out with him. And because God is so much more gracious than I could ever begin to imagine, he didn’t say ‘naff off’ in the style of Princess Anne because I’d ignored him all that time. He went on giving me good things and people. And I experienced his love through other people who didn’t think I was wicked or lost or unredeemable or outside the city wall.
I began to come in from the cold.
And now, I’m getting quite warm as I sit by the fire with my companions who love the Lord and want to be near him and want to help me to be near him too.
The Advent readings are a lot about struggling in the wilderness – all the Old Testament stuff in Isaiah and in the New Testament with John the Baptist. I guess we all have to survive in the desert sometime. I guess with Covid we are all in a collective desert, and thank God we are beginning to navigate our way out with the herald of good tidings – the vaccine.
But one thing I am learning – and it’s taken years - is that God knows we are in the desert and God will guide us towards that neon flashing Exit sign.
He did it for the Israelites. He’s coming this Advent, to help us too.