Rachel Oates reflects on finding God in unexpected places
This article was published in the September to December 2023 edition of Rapport magazine.
Driving home after a recent visit to Lee Abbey, I found myself confronted by two large signs: Road Closed! Diversion! Obediently I turned off the main road, but decided not to follow the signposted diversion route as I reasoned this would be busy with all the other diverted traffic. Instead, I started on a more direct way home that I’d driven once or twice in the past.
Initially I enjoyed this more scenic and peaceful route, but then the lanes narrowed and the potholes began. My pace slowed as I slalomed carefully between increasingly dodgy areas of road surface, until at one point it seemed there was no way around the gaping holes in the asphalt and I just had to drive gingerly through them hoping the car didn’t ground. I began to wonder if I had made a foolish decision, but by then it was too late – if I turned back I would have to negotiate all the potholes again, and options to left or right looked no better. I persevered, grateful that my satnav would ensure I was at least driving in generally the right direction and not going in circles.
Journeying off the beaten track
Sometimes in the journey of life we find that we are no longer able to follow the path we thought we had mapped out. A change means that we are no longer travelling with the crowd on the busy, better maintained roads, but have been forced onto a different track, often alone, with obstacles in the way – and with no, or limited, means to guide us.
Colleagues, friends, family and church can be incredibly supportive, going above and beyond, but often want us to get ‘back to normal’, to re-join them on the ‘busy main road’. But what if the change we experience means we can’t get back to our old version of normal? Rather than exhausting huge amounts of effort fighting against the current to return to where we were, maybe what we need is help and support to learn to navigate the new path we find ourselves on? Perhaps if we had a map and a guide we could learn to ‘live well’ within this new landscape? Maybe we might find it wasn’t so bad after all, that actually God already inhabits this space, has been preparing it for us and is just waiting for us to slow down and find him within it? Maybe there are important things God wants to show us and share with us in this strange land?
This isn’t about giving up on life, our dreams, the possibility of healing or answer to prayer, it’s about God waiting for us in unexpected places. On my self-inflicted diversion I drove through pretty villages and passed flower-filled hedgerows that I would never have seen on the busy main road. When taking scenic routes in life – both literally and metaphorically – I have found that I am more inclined to notice beauty, to spend time with God, to stop and chat or help someone than when I’m travelling in the fast lane.
Life in the slow lane
My first experience of diverting from the busy main road that most of my peers were travelling occurred in my teens when I caught a mystery virus that left me with chronic fatigue. Six months off school was followed by several years of having to be very careful never to get overtired – no clubbing or partying for me! But I was determined not to let fatigue rule my life, and my abiding memory from that time is of constantly working to manage my energy levels so I could live as near to ‘normal’ as possible. Eventually I returned to the main road, and for many years sped along with everyone else, exhilarated by the pace of life and excited to be heading towards my goals in life: the ultimate busy Christian.
Travelling on that main road I often thought how nice it would be to slow down for a while and go at a gentler pace, but there’s a big difference in choosing a slower route for a short while and having one forced upon you for an unknown period. And what if the winding, potholed and lonely single-track lane becomes not just a diversion, but the new direction?
A road less travelled
My second departure from the main road happened nine years ago, when I caught glandular fever. Years later I think either I’m still on a very long diversion, or the satnav has totally reset and is taking me home via the back routes. I suspect that, though I may occasionally hop onto a fast road for a junction or two, I will now mostly meander along the lanes and byways. I want to live this new and different life to the best of my ability, to find the small but numerous treasures God has hidden on the way, and to journey with others who are also negotiating this different landscape. Whether it’s ill health, bereavement, change of employment or other circumstance, we can still have meaningful, fruitful lives – even if they don’t appear successful in others’ eyes. God loves us for who we are, not what we achieve, and perhaps the world might be a better place if ‘normal’ meant everyone lived more slowly and gently with each other and the planet.
Discerning the route
My early diversions off the main road helped prepare me for this part of the journey, but there are still times it is intensely frustrating, and I grieve the ‘old days’; although they could be relentless there was a certain simplicity about running with the crowd. Now I have to work out my own route with little, or conflicting, guidance. I have grown more confident about politely ignoring advice from well-meaning people who want to help me join them on their fast road – it can be tempting, but I know it’s not sustainable. Instead, I try to trust that God is with me, as well as ahead of me – learning that I don’t have to strive to reach him, more tune in to become aware of him. I ask God that my path will cross with others who also travel at a slower pace, or are willing to slow to my speed, so that I may share gentle companionship for a time. Then I pray for times of peace-filled solitude, to recover!
I get angry with God and myself too; I am not always mature enough to say, ‘Why not me?’, even though in so many ways my life is blessed and God has provided for my needs. I experience feelings of failure, as I no longer contribute to church and society to the extent I used to. I need regular reminders that ‘The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ (1 Samuel 16:7b). So I try to look at the heart of those I meet too.
I asked God for strength that I might achieve;Anon but attributed to a Confederate Soldier in the American Civil War
I was made weak, that I might learn humility to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do great things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for – but everything I hoped for;
almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed!’
These words of an unknown nineteenth-century Christian both challenge and comfort me. They remind me that God knows what is best. In giving my life to him every day, I give him permission to refine me however he sees fit. Even if that is sometimes painful and difficult, on good days I trust that his love for me and all he has created means that his work in our lives is done with infinite mercy, patience and compassion for our frailties. Whatever happens on our journeys I pray we will be able to say, ‘I am, among all, most richly blessed!’
Rachel has worked in engineering, helped lead her local church, experienced life on Community at Lee Abbey and now is the manager of Woodlands House of Prayer. Woodlands House of Prayer is a Christian charity rooted in prayer, committed to helping those in need of rest and restoration find new strength and hope through reconnecting with God, each other and nature.
Join Rachel at Lee Abbey Devon
9–13 October (Mon–Fri)
Life can take us in directions that we don’t always want to go, leaving us feeling frustrated, anxious or fearing failure. Friends, family, church and employers often long for us to get back to our ‘old selves’, but what if that’s not the way forward?
This week is an opportunity to explore our ‘new normals’ in non-judgemental surroundings, or to reflect on how we might walk more gently with someone whose life has taken a challenging turn.
With space for honesty about some of the frustrations we encounter, and time to uncover blessings that can sustain and bring joy, we’ll journey in faith and fellowship, delighting in the wonder of God’s creation.