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God will never let go

Prison chaplain and radio presenter Sharon Grenham-Toze reveals how she discovered that God holds on to us through all situations

Sharon Grenham-Toze learnt this truth during a very difficult time in her life

In recent years I’ve discovered a love of sailing, and try to take every opportunity to get out on the water. There’s something about the sunlight flashing off the water, like a thousand sparkling diamonds, that fills me with simple joy. Even on the grey and rainy days, it’s exhilarating to hear the wind whipping and snapping in the sails towering above me, a reminder of the untamed glory of the natural world.

Next to my desk at home I have a lovely picture of myself and my two younger children, looking very sporty and cool in our sunglasses and lifejackets, sitting on our boat against a blue sky backdrop. The picture makes me smile every time; we all look so happy and carefree.

That picture’s also a marker for me, a statement of how far God has brought me, and what a journey it’s been over some very rough waters indeed.

Because, 16 years ago, the wind wasn’t metaphorically dancing about me. Rather, it was howling mournfully, as I struggled in the depths of a depression so severe I twice made an attempt on my life.

In 1998, my first marriage didn’t so much crumble as fall like those chimneys you see being demolished on TV. Alone with my two older children, then only seven and five, and with a legacy from my own childhood that left me quite unable to regain my balance, I simply tumbled. No matter I was a few months from being ordained. No matter my lovely little ones needed me. No matter I had an education, a home and my youth. The tempest unleashed simply overpowered me, and before long I found myself in a locked ward in a frightening and demoralising psychiatric hospital.

I’d like to say that it was while I was there that I had a revelation of God’s love, a sense that all would be well. I didn’t. Looking back from a great distance I can certainly see now what I couldn’t then – times when God ‘visited’ me in the actions and concern of others. There was the hospital chaplain, who didn’t patronise or avoid me, but sat and listened to my incoherent rambling. The fellow patient who gave me a dressing gown when I didn’t have one. The nurse who encouraged and befriended me. But I couldn’t see those things at the time. I didn’t rail against God, didn’t question and shout and cry out “why?” I just, somehow, existed, and not very much more.

Then one of my fellow students came to visit me. Denise was older than me, married; she’d always seemed very secure in her faith. But she came, and as we sat together she began to tell me of her own struggles. And then she gave me a present. It was a small wooden ‘holding cross’ – smooth and shaped so that it fitted comfortably in the palm of my hand. “You don’t need to pray,” she told me, “not in words, or even in thoughts. I’ll pray instead, every day. All you have to do is hold on to this cross. Just hold on.”

I can’t say it all changed for me that day, but the fact that Denise didn’t judge me for ‘failing in my faith’ (as some had); the fact that she didn’t turn away (as several did); the fact that she understood my limitations and offered to carry for me in prayer what I could not carry myself – all of this helped me indeed to ‘just hold on’. I couldn’t have told you at the time what I was even holding on to, but that little cross kept me afloat as surely as the lifejacket which now keeps me safe each time I put out to sea.

And as the light dawned again, and as I began to see a path into the future, I still kept up the habit of holding onto that cross. Even today I still have it, and like that lovely picture on the boat, it’s a reminder of God’s promise to be with us always and work in everything for our good.

I’ve also come to understand that, as hard as I was holding on, in fact God would never have let me go. In John 10:28 Jesus, who has described himself as the Good Shepherd, says of his sheep, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish: no one can snatch them out of my hand.”

“No one can snatch them out of my hand” – Jesus, holding onto me, more firmly than I could ever cling to him. “Hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered.” Those same hands, scarred by sacrifice, and stretched open wide in love and welcome, holding on to me.

Now all these years later I’m very much recovered – life is good, and I’m working hard as a prison chaplain. In some ways I could not minister where I do without those awful experiences years ago. So often, I meet men whose lives have fallen apart, their own sin and wrongdoing only compounding years of confusion, grief and rejection. They know they’ve messed up, they know they should be punished, and many long for forgiveness and a way forward. Often that way seems dark and unclear.

And as we sit together, and I listen to their story unfold, I promise to pray for them, and I tell them how much God still loves them, how God will never let them go.

It’s something we can all do for one another, and something we can remind ourselves of. Wherever you find yourself, whatever your story, whatever your situation, when the wind is howling and the waters are rough, remember this: no one can snatch us out of his hand – so hold on, just hold on.

+ Sharon Grenham-Toze is managing chaplain at HMP Bedford and a regular presenter of Radio 4’s The Daily Service and Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on Radio 2.

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