Today I’m excited to talk with Tanya Marlow author of Those Who Wait: Finding God In Disappointment, Doubt, And Delay. Years ago Tanya asked me to guest post for her God and Suffering series. (That series, by the way, is a gold mine.) Over the years, Tanya and I have become friends, real friends. We’ve never met in person, but you can see why I’m drawn to Tanya, she doesn’t dodge the questions many wonder about. Read to the end for a surprise. Without further ado, my conversation with Tanya.
Tell us a bit about your background. What did you dream your life would be like?
I was a typical good-Christian-girl, wanting to live my life for God and serve God in full-time Christian ministry. As a kid, I thought my calling was in cross-cultural work overseas. (This may have been because it was viewed as the ‘highest calling’ in Christian circles, with maximum holiness points. Although my motives were relatively pure in wanting to serve God, they may have been tinged with little compassion-competitiveness….!)
I didn’t end up overseas, but by my twenties, I was happy. I was living my dream of working fulltime as a Christian minister, lecturing in Biblical Theology, happily married to someone also in Christian ministry.
Then chronic illness struck me, and my life was turned upside down.
How has the whole issue of waiting featured in your life?
In 2010, I gained a baby and a disability. I have Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), an autoimmune condition which affects every cell in my body, like a giant faulty battery. Before, I was active and fit – now I can barely walk around the house, and need to lie in bed 21 hours a day. Before, I was seeing people all the time, speaking and pastoring: now my ministry has morphed into the few words I can tap out from my bed in a week.
There’s no real treatment for ME, and the illness is underfunded and under-researched. There’s a very slim possibility of full recovery, and I could deteriorate further, like so many other bedbound ME patients.
A new Oscar-tipped documentary, Unrest, tells the story of what it’s like to live with ME. Your life becomes an eternal semi-colon, stuck on pause while the world continues around you.
I wait for improvement, I wait for deterioration. I’m stuck in the middle, living in uncertainty.
For seven years, I have grieved my old life. Often I have felt laid aside and rejected, and I’ve railed at God for my new prison.
It’s been hard – excruciatingly hard at times – but I’ve discovered something of God’s hidden kindness in barren places.
Why do you think the issue of waiting is particularly pertinent for people living overseas?
Although I never quite made it to overseas work (and ended up marrying a Church of England vicar in my native Britain), I still have the most respect for those in that sector, and have long been an enthusiastic supporter of those called to serve abroad.
To be in cross-cultural work is to be in-between, always. A life overseas is a continuous state of waiting:
- to feel settled,
- to return home,
- to be able to understand the language instead of feeling stupid,
- to stop crying at night from homesickness,
- to feel like an intelligent person again who has something to offer society,
- for the kids to be happy,
- for fruit to show
- for letters and emails to arrive
- for the money to come through
- for a home and place to belong.
Waiting is hard. To be in a liminal, in-between state for a short time is discomfiting and exhausting. To be in a season of waiting for decades can be soul-crushing.
Because Those Who Wait is honest about the reality and discomfort of waiting, I hope it can be a source of encouragement for those who feel exhausted with living in an in-between state.
Why choose the four heroes that you did? Why not others? What drew you to these four?
I was drawn to the liturgical season of Advent, particularly the lightning of the Advent candles.
The first candle stands for the Patriachs. I chose a ‘matriarch’, Sarah. Through her story, we deal with disappointment and bitterness, waiting for joy and fulfilled promises.
The second candle represents the Prophets, so I chose Isaiah. We rarely think of him as a person, rather than just a prophetic mouthpiece. I wanted to explore the personal cost of his truth-telling, and through that how we with delay and frustration as we wait for justice and peace in our land.
John the Baptist is the next candle. Through his story, we explore our struggle with doubt as we wait to live out our life’s calling.
And Mary, mother of Jesus’ story is the story of all humanity – dealing with disgrace and isolation as we wait for Jesus’ coming.
Advent is a season that celebrates and marks the discomfort of waiting, as we consider how the saints waited for Jesus’ appearance, and how we long for this world to be restored at Jesus’ second coming.
Advent gives us permission to name our deepest longings, and lament that this world is not as it should be. Those Who Wait can be read at any point, but the Advent season really speaks to our waiting journey, and the book is structured in 24 short chapters. Many readers of Those Who Wait are saving their books to savour through Advent.
I wanted to explore these issues through story, like an engaging novel, because it’s through re-entering the story God can speak to our souls in new ways. It’s always good to remember that our revered Christian heroes are actually human – and the Bible is more honest than we are about the struggle of waiting.
Which section did you enjoy writing most?
Like your own children, you’re not supposed to have favourite characters. (But mine’s John the Baptist.)
In any other period of history he would have been revered as THE prophet of God – but he was overshadowed by his cousin, then waited for years in prison before his traumatic death at the hands of Herod.
Where was God in his waiting and suffering? This is the question that drove me. What really surprised me was the kindness of God to John – and to us. Through writing Those Who Wait, I discovered that God is in the waiting with us, groaning with us, being merciful in unexpected ways, if we can only pause to spot it.
What is your hope for this book?
My hope is that churches, organisations and small groups can meet around this book (there are reflective exercises, group questions and even six Bible studies), and that through the journey they will be able to work through their own discomfort, disappointment or doubt that accompany seasons of waiting.
For people long-jaded by the same old sermons and Bible stories, I hope it will reignite a passion for the honesty and dynamism of the Bible..
Most of all, I pray that readers will encounter God in these pages and find it transformational. May it bring perspective, purpose and empathy for weary hearts, and may God always meet us in the waiting place. This is my prayer.
Tanya, thanks for sharing a bit of your journey as an author and Christian with us.
What are you waiting for? Which of the four Biblical heroes can you relate to now? Leave a comment and you might win a copy of Tanya’s book. Winners will be notified by Sunday.