My name is Noémie and I live in Swindon with my husband, where we attend Swindon Evangelical Church.
I can already imagine a few raised eyebrows as you try to pronounce my name! Noémie is a French name, and France is where I was born and spent the first eighteen years of my life, surrounded by the vast fields and red-brick villages of the Flemish countryside.
My parents came to France in the 1990s as missionaries; my father was asked to take on the leadership of a small but growing French-speaking evangelical church.
Living in a humble, rural town, our family stood out! For starters, we were British (foreigners were a rarity at the time). I was one of four girls (our little clan was easily recognisable in the streets), and we belonged to a strange ‘cult’ – or so most Protestants were perceived by the French.
Society around us was, it seemed, deeply conflicted in its beliefs. On the one hand, rampant atheism, stemming from centuries of secular social philosophy, permeated our literature, arts, and politics.
On the other hand there were stringent Catholic rituals, fulfilled in the worship of Mary and of the saints, prayers for the dead, and other superstitious practices.
In contrast, our house was always full of joyful family prayers, animated bedtime Bible stories, and fascinating missionary stories from Asia and Africa.
It was a happy childhood filled with laughter, music, the outdoors, and even a golden retriever!
My sisters and I attended a private Catholic school, and most of my friends dutifully performed the expected stages of catechism, communion, and confirmation.
We clearly stood out and from an early age I had to explain and justify my family’s faith.
Every week I could hear my father teach from the Bible, lifting Jesus’ words as a beacon of truth against the confusion and darkness around us.
As I grew older and began to read the Bible by myself, I became aware of my own heart, my tendencies to rebel, my selfishness, and the anger and guilt I would then feel.
I listened to what was said in church, and to the Christian CDs that would be played in the car during long drives.
I remember occasionally breaking down in tears, overwhelmed by my sin and by what the Bible claimed God had done for me.
Finally, when I was thirteen, I approached my parents and said I wanted to get baptised. I began a small baptism course with my father, thinking about different questions to get me ready.
Suddenly, at the age of 49, my father died in a mountaineering accident in the Alps. He was fit, healthy, and relatively young. We’d only completed one session of the baptism course together.
The trauma of his death wrecked me. It felt as though I had lost my anchor – my father, my pastor. For many months I experienced total denial. I hadn’t begun to process the death and would often wait for him to come back from work every evening.
Eventually the denial turned into realisation and horror. I went through cycles of grief which shaped what I believed, going from disbelief and anger against God, to bargaining with God to prove his existence, to finally, and for a long time, complete despair and brokenness.
The depths of my sadness consumed me and I was swallowed up in dark depression. I was numb and broken. I felt old and totally empty.
Slowly, and after several failed attempts to take my life over the course of four years, I reluctantly surrendered to the acceptance that I was ‘doomed’ to live.
Searching for meaning
I now needed to find meaning. It was obvious my sadness and existential anguish were not giving me life, so I started listening in church again.
I researched different religions, and quickly realised that the Christian God was the only one who came close to providing substantial answers to life and death.
God slowly and gently healed my heart to hear his voice, and I tentatively started to move towards him.
When I arrived in the UK for university at the age of eighteen, I was overwhelmed by the Christian Union and the student church I went to. I had no idea that there were so many Christians my age in England – I’d never seen anything like it!
Those years fuelled me and embedded the foundational roots of my faith. Though still prone to frequent doubts and pangs of melancholy, I gladly became the CU rep for my college and steadily grew in my faith – amid a rocky start and many mistakes.
After two happy years in Cambridge, I lived in Germany for a year to study abroad. Though I joined a church and made Christian friends there, I succumbed once more to frequent and lengthy periods of spiritual doubt and existential questioning.
Being far from the hype and popularity of student events, I was forced to recognise that I needed to keep up my faith by myself. I realised I was living two separate lives depending on whether I was surrounded by believers or not.
When I came back to England for my final year, I was weakened and discouraged. I never quite felt I had reconciled my cynical awareness of our fleeting human condition with the joy and ‘positivity’ which the Bible taught.
I felt like a hypocrite, tormented and pulled in different directions. I decided to give up my faith once and for all.
As I readied myself to announce my decision to my friends, my church simultaneously launched a sermon series on Ecclesiastes.
In his perfect timing, God allowed this series to speak directly into my heart, into my experience. While my friends came out of the sermon deflated by what they’d heard, I came out rejoicing.
Everything suddenly made sense – the scales had fallen from my eyes. I no longer had to park my existential (and what I thought to be sinful) ponderings – they were right there in the Bible, and I could rejoice!
It felt like physical chains breaking off – my heart was lifted. Life only made sense with God. I was free at last.
I realised that it was precisely my brokenness and the futility of my life (as I knew full well) which pointed to my desperate need for a Saviour. Christ died to give me life, hope, and meaning.
The Lord my Rock rescued me from the depths of despair, from death! He filled me with his Spirit and I knew I was his. My doubts were gone.
Since that moment, I’ve seen God at work in my life. I’ve seen him change my heart, my nature, my inclinations. I can look back throughout my whole life and testify that he is good.
Life has taken me to various places since – I’ve lived in Ireland, and now I’m in Swindon, but I know that God called me out of darkness and he has restored me.
‘Whom have I in heaven but you? I desire you more than anything on earth. My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart. He is mine forever’ (Psalm 73:25-26).
By Noémie Foster