St Peter’s Ladies Advent Dinner Talk

I had the great privilege last night of speaking to the wonderful women of St Peter’s Lutheran Church at the annual Advent Dinner. I talked about what has been saving my life in light of my recent visa issues and extended ‘sabbatical’ in Canada.

Ladies Advent Dinner
St Peter’s Lutheran Church
24/11/17

Hebrews 10:35-39
Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings great reward. For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
For yet, ‘in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back.’
But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.

What is saving your life right now?

I have been reading Barbara Brown-Taylor recently and she begins her book ‘An Altar in the World’ with that question. I think it’s a good one. I’ve asked myself – What does my life depend on right now?

I currently live in England – have done for the last 10 years. I have a life there, a home, friends, a job, I’m studying for a degree in theology, a car, a ministry as an ordained minister in the Church of England (Anglican).
What allows me to live there – aside from the call of God in this season – is a visa. My visa situation has been quite straightforward – I had a grandfather born in London which means that I can have an Ancestral Visa to live, work, travel freely and go to school – basically anything I want (as long as I pay!) It is a lovely thing to have! This visa expired in April of this year. I looked at what my options were and thought I was doing the right thing by applying for Citizenship in the UK and so I applied in March.                                               But this was the wrong thing to do!

I made a big mistake!

Not to bore you with the details – but there is another visa that I needed to apply for first – before Citizenship. This meant that my application was refused. I found this out at the beginning of August.

Total shock! Completely unexpected. Completely my fault! I didn’t seek any outside advice. I thought I knew what I was doing. I read what was on-line but clearly not all the right information. The refusal of this application meant that I did not have a valid visa to stay in the UK. I was an illegal immigrant!
I then contacted the HR department of the Church. This set off a whole series of events – such as having my license to officiate temporarily suspended, being fired (at least on paper), my degree course had to stop, I stopped getting paid and I couldn’t live in my house as it comes with the job.

Job, house, school, money all gone! Because I made a mistake!
This has been my life for the last few months.

Yet – despite having the contents of my life turned inside out – I have learned some valuable things that I will share with you… the things that have saved my life.

Confidence – I would describe myself as a confident woman. When something new comes my way – my first response isn’t ‘oh no – I can’t do that! Or I couldn’t possibly do that!’ and then list all the excuses and reasons why I can’t. My first response ‘do I want to do that?’ ‘does this interest me?’ I think about competency and commitment later!

I also like to think that I am organised, intelligent, know what I am doing – or so I like to think – most of the time. This confidence of mine took a hit in all of this. Confidence in myself, my abilities and particularly in my decision making.
Confidence is something that we all have to some degree. Confidence grows – I remember that I wasn’t the most confident little girl – I struggled in school – especially with Math, wasn’t a great athlete (still am not), was just okay musically (mostly because I didn’t like to practice), I don’t inhabit the body of a super-model. I’m not married, don’t have kids. I am not actually convinced that these things in and of themselves give confidence. I think that they help to grow confidence through the lived experience. They can also have the potential to rob us of confidence if we are not careful.

Fortunately growing up, I had parents who loved me very much and encouraged me – pushed and pulled me at times; set expectations that were achievable and then moved the bar. They weren’t afraid to let me suffer at times.

All of this helped to foster and grow my confidence and resilience.
I had my sister Jenn read the passage from Hebrews at the beginning because it has been important to me over the last few months. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is begging them not to give away their confidence.

Little history – The Hebrews were likely a community of 1st century Jewish Christians that had been established for some time. This community had been persecuted, some members had been put into prison and they were generous to fellow Christians in need. Yet there is something wrong in this community. The writer is telling the people to imitate its former leaders and get along with the current ones. This suggests they were inclined to go their own way. They were following ‘strange’ teachings (13:9) and had stopped meeting together (10:25). But worse was that they had stopped growing as Christians (5:11-12) – the writer accused them of lazy discipleship (6:12). He begs them to persevere (10:36), to hold on to hope (10:23) and to not drift away (2:1) or shrink back (10:37-39) in their faith.

I heard the American writer and teacher Beth Moore talk about this passage a few years ago and it always stuck with me – We can give our confidence away. The translation I picked talks about abandoning it. We can let our confidence go or give it up. I think that women are more likely to do this than men.

Who did you give it to? Who did you let have it?

Like I said – confidence grows. You can grow more if you’ve lost it! Another person can’t give you confidence as though it were a thing to have. They can help you grow it – experiences, situations that test confidence are all part of life. Back to the reading – confidence doesn’t come with shrinking back!
Get it back! I have had to grow more confidence in this time. Through this experience I have also had to look at who and what my confidence is in.
I had to clean out the closet of self-confidence as other things had gotten in there – like: arrogance, self-sufficiency, laziness, pride. These things are not confidence! Nor are they confidence builders.

Life-saver number one has been coming to a better understanding of my confidence – how it works, what does or doesn’t feed it and what knocks it and how to protect it.

The second life-saving lesson was learning to graciously ask for and accept the help of others. This is not easy! I was a Registered Nurse before I was ordained – I am far more comfortable being the helper – not the helped.
Being the helper makes me useful and important, indispensable. Can also lead to an unhealthy sense of pride – and not to mention arrogance if unchecked.

We all need help at times – there is no shame in that despite what society tells us. I was offered an amazingly generous amount of help – the little old ladies of my churches offering me a bed to sleep in, tea, meals, loans. I’ve had to ask for financial help from the church – again not easy! But if I wanted to keep the lights on in my house, gas in the car. Whatever I needed I just had to ask and they would do it. It was hard! But it was a blessing both to them and to me to accept the help that was being offered.

What was surprising is that I didn’t feel like I was somehow weak or a failure – nor was I ever made to feel that way – despite the situation I was in was of my own making. This taught me a lot about how to respond to people when they ask for help! To do it in such a way as to not make them feel worse than they probably already do.

I also realized that some of the confidence that was re-growing was the confidence to accept help graciously. Confidence that despite my mistake – I am loved by my neighbours and worthy of help.

I also thank God that I work for the church! In the same letter that I was told about being fired – I was also given money from a clergy charity. This wouldn’t have likely happened in another organization. My position is waiting for me until I get back. I didn’t have to move out of my house but I had to look like I didn’t live there either just in case a Border Agent came knocking.

These were all acts of grace. My imperfections have been magnified – rather publicly – in these last few months. I needed confidence to accept help and acknowledge that I am loved by my neighbours.

Ultimately – my confidence is in Jesus. His love for me is so great that despite my mistakes, my wrongly placed confidence, my stubbornness to accept help, the general messiness of me – I am still worthy of His love.
I find the greatest security in His love – the courage to keep going, the courage to know that when (not if) I make mistakes He will give me the confidence get back up.

But I have needed more than that – because I know there are limits to human love and understanding however well-intentioned. I have needed to know the love of God the Father. Needed to now at a deeper level that I am not a complete mess up. This is what has saved my life!

So what does this have to do with Advent…

Advent means waiting, it is a season of expectation and preparation as the Church looks forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus. Advent also marks the start of the new Christian year.

Forget January 1st – December 3rd is where it is at!

I know many people for whom 2017 has been personally challenging and difficult to downright horrendous. They are counting the days until it passes. For others, 2017 has been great and filled my many blessings and excitement. Maybe 2017 was a fair mix of peaks and valleys. Wherever you find yourself this evening – God bless you! Know that you are loved.

I am waiting for a new start. My new visa is here but not effective until the beginning of December – I wait to go back and resume life in England. I wait to work out the greater purposes of this time, I wait to see what the ongoing consequences of my mistake are.

But I wait with expectation – with love, peace and joy of God. This is what Advent is about. These are really what will save my life.

Author: Sue Lepp

Newly appointed Priest-in-Charge of the Hambleden Valley Group of Churches and will start later in January 2021. Time for a new start at the beginning of a new year. I served my curacy in the Parish of Langley Marish and trained at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Former Nurse in both Canada and the UK. Specialised in Palliative Care, Gynaecology-Oncology and a bit of Orthopaedics (just to keep me travelling). Worked as a MacMillan Nurse Specialist in a few specialities in London.

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