Gavin and Anne Calver's new book Stumbling Blocks reads like the journey of modern-day psalmists - in 12 poignant chapters they chart the faith-breaking challenges many people face. Intrigued and moved I talked to them both about why they wrote it.
At the heart of the book is a chapter entitled 'When life is bad.' The main faith-breaking challenge they faced was being told a couple of years after getting married that it was unlikely they would ever be able to have children.
Although this was horribly painful, miraculously Anne conceived and Amelie was born. A year later Anne was pregnant again, but the up was followed immediately by a very painful down as they lost the baby.
After some soul-searching they decided to try again. Anne fell pregnant again, but the experience stretched them to the limit as baby Daniel experienced repeated and risky blood-transfusions in the womb from 18 weeks.
'We wrote the book,' says Anne, 'because of the pain of the pregnancy with Daniel. We know that these sorts of things come up in people's lives which stop them walking with God or even encountering God. When these things happen lots of people ask, "Why has God allowed this?" We wanted to write about those stumbling blocks that cause people to give up on their faith.'
'We wanted to allow people to bring their questions whilst keeping going and not giving up,' adds Gavin, a Baptist minister who heads up Youth For Christ.
'Had a go at faith - and given up'
So who is the book written for? 'It's for someone who had a go at faith and gave up,' Gavin tells me. 'The book is for someone who's tried Christianity and church and turned away, or a prodigal, someone who is antagonistic to it all.'
I feel it is important that they wrote Stumbling Blocks together. Anne tells me why. 'Going through the painful journey of my pregnancy with Daniel, we both realised we had a different story to tell and a different perspective, but our faith was integral to everything.'
Even when they looked at other stumbling blocks, like scepticism and cynicism, hating church, broken dreams, not having time and quick-fix Christianity they realised that they could bring different stories and perspectives.
'This is an angry message from me,' says Gavin, 'and Anne's contribution makes it a broader message and an equal message.'
Indeed, anyone who reads the book will be struck by how personal, open and honest Gavin and Anne are in each chapter.
'We have a real hunger to allow people to be real,' says Anne. 'People often leave the church or give up on their faith because they haven't felt they can talk to somebody about their struggles. We wanted to write an authentic book where we both openly talked about what we have battled with.'
One of Gavin's heroes is the British 400 metre runner Derek Redmond and the inspiring story of how he reacted when he got injured in the semi-final of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Only 150 metres into the race he tore his hamstring, falling to the ground in agony. Instead of staying down Derek got up and limped his way over the finishing line.
'Derek Redmond is injured but he keeps going,' says Gavin. 'Ninety-nine out of a hundred people would have stayed down. I want to say to people, yes you're injured, but keep going, you're not alone. Most of the feedback we get from young people is that Christians come across as perfect and have got it altogether. It's not ok to admit problems.'
Life is messy. Things go wrong. Yet it is possible to find a way through. It is not about the false message you can only get through life with God if everything is ok.
'Culture,' says Gavin 'tells us that if you don't get instant satisfaction with Jesus then run away. We're saying rubbish happens and you can get over it, and this is how it feels, but hold on to Jesus.'
Dealing with Pain
How people deal with pain is an integral part of the psalm-like journey they have been on and the message they have to pass on. It's clear they went to a traumatic and vulnerable place.
'After the first two experiences of getting pregnant and the pain of that the thought of getting pregnant again was terrifying,' says Anne. 'There was a lot of fear. But a little voice in my head kept saying 'do you really want to make a decision based on fear?' So we decided to try again.'
What happened next with Daniel's rare and life-threatening condition was a real valley of the shadow of death experience, and not just once but many times.
'When I saw that Daniel was barely moving at 17 weeks and the panic of the amazing medical staff and heard the news he needed a blood transfusion in the womb I was completely undone,' recalls Anne. 'Afterwards I just sat in the car... in pieces. How can this be happening? How are we going to get through this? In that moment I had a choice to make, to choose God or not. I chose him, but like the psalmist I got angry with him'.
Anne prayed a simple but profound prayer. 'Lord if we are going to walk through this together can you please make me and not break me.' She wanted to deal with the reality of this terribly uncertain life-and-death knife-edge every step of the way and not press it down inside or deny the truth of it.
'I felt desperate at the moment...all the way through...completely vulnerable but I also experienced God closer than I had ever felt him before.'
As I listen to these words the room is very quiet. It's like being taken back to that profound moment of crisis.
'God held my hand,' adds Gavin. 'Like I hold Daniel's hand now, God held my hand then. All I could pray was 'Lord Jesus if the baby lives you are good, Lord Jesus if the baby dies you are good.'
As I listen to the lament and refrains of faith that are being echoed by Gavin and Anne I hear the still small voice of God. When we feel most inadequate and weak, and acknowledge that, somehow He is there.
The Most Terrifying of All
The moment that was perhaps the most terrifying of all was when the hospital couldn't pick up a consistent heart beat for Daniel. It was 28 weeks into the journey. The hospital staff began preparing Anne for an immediate Caesarean.
'I couldn't believe this was really happening,' says Anne. 'Surely there was no way they were going to deliver the baby at 28 weeks.'
In the midst of this seeming unreality two of her friends from church came into the hospital room. This was unprecedented with an operation imminent. Again, strangely, the staff went out to get the epidural equipment for pain relief and Anne's two friends were able to lay their hands on her stomach and began praying for Daniel.
'Suddenly this heart beat appeared on the monitor...it got stronger and steady. In that few moments of prayer there was no longer any need for an operation'.
If you know someone who is going through a crisis of faith, who can no longer hear the heartbeat of God in their life - then buy this book for them. It gives us a real Jesus and a simple and profound theology of living life.
'The book of Revelation tells us that one day in the future there will be no more pain, or tears or suffering,' says Gavin. 'That means we will experience those things here and now. The great heresy of our time is health, wealth and prosperity, that we can have it all now. We want to get across a different message.'
You may be on the floor but this book has the power to get you back on your feet because it has been written from the soul and the heart. In their story Gavin and Anne have had many times they could have given up, and turned back. But they kept going, because they were holding on to someone. His name is Jesus.
Stumbling Blocks is published by Monarch and available from Amazon and all good book shops (ISBN 978 0 85721 200 9)
The Revd Shaun Lambert is a Baptist minister based in Stanmore, North West London.