I have told you a little of the shadows that have been cast in my life, of the bereavements that have dragged me down. In this post I would like to start and try to share something of my experience of the light that has almost chased those shadows away.
It all seems so long ago from where I am now and it is half a lifetime ago, well, half of my lifetime. In some ways finding the light began with another shadow, that I won’t describe in detail here now. Briefly, a month before my 15th birthday my brother, sister and I were taken into foster care. For the purposes of this post the reasons do not matter, although they may be discussed in a later post. We were in care for 6 months.
For the first part of that time we were separated and I was sent to a foster home almost 18 miles from my parents and everything familiar. At first the only familiar things were school and the group therapy with the child psychologists. I felt let down by my social worker because she was often late to collect me for ‘contact’ and I never felt she listened to me. I really disliked (almost put hated but that’s not a word I like to use too often) the woman in my first foster home, some may describe her as my foster-mother but I wouldn’t. She never seemed very maternal toward me and upset me in several ways. She used a powder freshener on my soft toys, taking away the scent of a much-loved gift that Grandma had bought me and she used to lock me out of the house in the winter months I was there and leave me roaming the streets alone. I was so relieved when she decided to give up on me, that she couldn’t do anything to change me and that social services would have to place me elsewhere. Added to that relief was the knowledge that my brother’s first foster-carers had come to the same decision at the same time.
Social services then approached the couple that had been fostering my sister the whole time and asked them to consider taking my brother and me too. Our foster-mother there said that had they realised we were all in care they would have taken us all from the beginning. The new foster home was around four miles from my parents and literally down the road and round the corner from where Granddad still lived, in the village I will always be happy to say I count as a childhood home from home. I was so happy to be there, in that village, with my siblings, in this family that embraced us and made us feel their home really was our home too. This couple were AMW’s parents and in this home I found a real foster-mother who was gentle and patient with me and made me feel safe, a foster-father who was able to guide and to discipline out of love and this ‘foster sister’ who became as close as, if not closer than, my actual sister. I was free to be myself there, to sit in my room and read or write, to go out and see Granddad or to go and sit on Grandma’s grave and talk to her and it really felt like a home.
It didn’t take very long to realise that this couple were not acting purely out of their own resources of love or patience as I watched their struggles with their adopted son. They persisted where I imagined many others would have given up. I thought I knew where they got the extra supplies from though. They were Christians who took my sister to church on a Sunday and read Bible stories to her. By this time we were going back home to our parents on a weekend so they would collect my sister from my parents and bring her back. It took time but, eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and one week I went to church with them too.
Their church was not the Methodist chapel of my earliest memories of church, nor was it a grey stone building where the people said they were CofE. It didn’t really resemble the Elim church where I had naively said a prayer four years before asking Jesus into my heart for all the wrong reasons. In fact it looked like my school assembly hall with a group of normal people meeting together to sing, pray and listen to teaching, maybe because that’s what it was. I knew that the focus of the songs and the teaching, the one they were praying to was the God I said I hated because of my Grandma’s death. But even that knowledge could not mask the welcome and the peace I had when I was among those people.
I didn’t go to the church very often to start with but after they put on a production called ‘The Witness’ that I believe told the story of a person who had seen everything written in the Gospels something changed. Not because of the production or the fact that my sister was in it. It was more because while we were there to watch my sister my Dad was taken ill and an ambulance had to be called. FosterMum and FosterDad stepped in straight away to look after us again and the other members of the church were there for us too.
When our time in care was coming to an end our world was shaken again. Granddad had set off to go to Skegness to visit an old friend but never made it. He slipped away in his sleep somewhere around the time the coach was crossing the Humber Bridge. I tend to romanticise this by thinking that he may have been dreaming of Grandma and simply stepped into Heaven to be with her. Officially he had a heart attack. The way our foster-parents handled this news was exactly right for me. They sat us down and told us carefully and sensitively what had happened. That still did not stop me from grabbing AMW’s bike and pedalling harder than I ever have to the next village, about a mile and a half, to OldestFriend’s house.
It was in the week that followed this news that I was told that AuntyV, an old family friend who was a deaconess in the Methodist church had been in touch with Foster Mum. She had heard about Granddad and she wanted to give me the opportunity to spend some time with her and her daughter who I will call SistersGodsister. This girl and I had spent several school holidays together having fun as only little girls with the countryside around them can. Even though this time would be spent on a Christian youth camp the opportunity to see AuntyV and SistersGodsister was too tempting, even when it meant going straight from Granddad’s funeral.
After reading a poem at Granddad’s funeral with the minister’s hand on my shoulder I went back to the bungalow, said good bye to family I would not see again for a long, long time and got into a taxi. 24 miles later I arrived at Hollybush Farm. There is a church that meets at the venue called Hollybush Christian Fellowship and every year they host a youth camp. AuntyV was waiting for me when I arrived. I was so pleased to see her and to feel those familiar arms around me.
In the days that followed I saw some things at that camp that I thought were ‘weird’, ‘freaky’ and possibly dangerous. It was 1997 and the ‘Toronto blessing’ was still a big thing in some churches over here. Many of the youth group that were there with AuntyV and SistersGodsister, including SistersGodsister, were ‘slain by the Spirit’ several times, getting up and going straight back for more. That they would get up and go back to be back on the floor again almost as soon as the ministry person touched them unnerved me, in fact it made me feel sick. Watching them drop to the ground as if fainting and sometimes shaking while there made me worried and actually a little fearful for them. When AuntyV was ‘slain in the Spirit’ too I was upset but there were no other adults I could trust and after I didn’t feel that I could talk to AuntyV about the way I felt when she had participated too. Even today, almost fifteen years later, I still don’t believe that there was much to be gained from the repeated ‘slaying’. I thought at the time that some of them were addicted to it and that this addiction was not good, a view I still stand by.
In spite of my feelings about the ‘Toronto blessing’ and the youth group members being ‘slain in the Spirit’ I realise now that God was working in my life at that camp. I refused to go for prayer for fear that I too would wake up on the floor when I didn’t want to, but God still found a way to touch my life. Maybe through the love of the people in the church our foster-parents had been part of and the love of AuntyV God had found the door to my heart opening, ever so slightly. My bitter, stinging anger at God seemed to melt while I was at camp. I was still upset that my brother, Grandma and Granddad were all in Heaven and not with me but I didn’t hate God for it any more. I was more open to the idea of a God who loved me and after the camp started going to the church our foster-parents had taken me to on a regular basis. In some ways that camp was the beginning of my path out of the shadows.
I realise that ‘Toronto blessing’ and ‘slain in the Spirit’ may be phrases you have not heard before, but you have an advantage over the fifteen year old girl that was scared for these younger girls she watched falling down repeatedly. You can Google them and find out what is meant by them. I had no resources, no way of finding out what was happening. Maybe if you don’t understand you are a bit closer to where I was on that farm.
Even now, after so much time has passed and I have a level of understanding of these things, I still feel my stomach churn if someone in the same room as me is ‘slain in the Spirit’ and I find it really hard to stay in the room if it is my brother, sister or a friend who is on the floor. I have never been, nor do I desire to be, ‘slain in the Spirit’. I can still live a Spirit-filled life as a Christian without falling on the floor to do that, or condemning anyone who has been ‘slain in the Spirit’. God touches different people in different ways and I’m quite glad he has never knocked me down.