(Part 1 is here)
Sometimes the paths laid out for us don’t make sense, sometimes we deliberately run off into the thicket just to feel the thorns.
My path, it seemed, was to be no dance through the bluebells. On a cold, typically rainy January morning, my carefully constructed life of worldly goals came crashing down in a storm of infidelity, recriminations and broken glass.
Rain-soaked and grieving a life I didn’t even like, let alone respect, I rode my bike into Oxford town centre to take solace in the one place I could count on; the pub. Exhausted, wet-through and broken, I had neglected to notice the calendared fact of Sunday morning and the total absence of open pubs. Shelter from the rain took the form of a church, the only building open that promised, at least a warm place and the potential for a cup of tea.
My history with the church had been varied. From an early age the smell of aged stone mixed with polish and flowers, the feel of dented kneelers and straight-backed pews brought a kind of quiet to my maddened soul. Sunday mornings spent kneeling next to my creaking, faithful, grandmother whose very faith mirrored those pews; straight-backed and resolute in its permanence, brooking no disagreement but asking for little more than the solace of communion. Saturdays spent mowing and weeding and flower-arranging spoke to me of a sense of place.
To this day, St Michael’s, Haselbech has the power to still my soul, the generations’ worship washing over me like a baptism.
During the torturous years at boarding school, church was a blessed reprieve, a Sunday morning spent buried in a hymn book, or eyes lifted to painted arches. Where, despite not knowing the true Presence of God; I sensed a depth, a Shalom in the rhythm of ancient words and songs. Briefly at fifteen, during a retreat weekend for those preparing for Confirmation, I sensed the Still Small Voice grow clear in my soul. The invitation to More, to Deeper was there, gently insistent that joy and grace were available – drowned out once again by the loud voices of bullies and peers calling me back to the here and now.
A church had always been something of a sanctuary, a place of solace in ancient words and songs, and not least significantly on that rainy Sunday, a place with good heating and no people! Perhaps a granny with a tea urn, a good biscuit and a few hymns sung feebly from the front was just what the doctor ordered. Perhaps…?
The particular church I found myself in was indeed warm, but not really on account of the heating, rather on account of the population, definitely more than a granny and a vicar. St. Aldate’s, Oxford, looked the part, cloistered by Pembroke College, another spire amongst the city of dreaming spires. And yet, as I was drawn in, my Eyeore-like cloud of personal despair was interrupted by the sight of a building packed to the gunwales with 400 students, all worshipping, praying and enjoying God. Through the eyes of my brokenness, though, what I saw were 400 clearly insane people, 400 people who, despite the evidence to the contrary, must have been bullied, bribed or cajoled to be here, clearly this was not normal!
As I pressed myself into the farthest back pew and attempted to be invisible, I encountered the tangible presence of The Invisible God Himself. It was as though I had hit a brick wall and God was saying to me, “Alexandra… I AM”. There was nothing else, I recall no finely crafted sermon, no impassioned songs and no reasoned response, only the overwhelming, overpowering Presence. And He was asking me to follow Him, to trust Him, me – an insecure, alcoholic, nicotine-addicted, mess of a human, full of selfishness and self-loathing, and He wanted me! He didn’t ask me to change, He just said, “Come”.
I vaguely remember stumbling over my fellow back-pewers, and shuffling up to the front during the prayer time, and mumbling something about wanting to become a Christian. And wondering why the prayer team had gone from smiling to grinning like idiots! Then it was six hours later and I was made New. I spent my first six hours as a follower of Jesus totally engrossed in a vision of Him, flat out on the ancient stone floor, being healed from the inside out and freed from addictions and oppressions that had held me for so long. I do remember walking out into the rain and across to the parish hall and meeting all these students who, like me, had been transformed by the love of God.
I met my best friend that day. We have walked together for 21 years, through marriages and miscarriages, through births and deaths, through divorce (hers), and bankruptcy (mine) and we have survived, with grace and, hopefully, humor. We marvel at those idealistic kids, and we rejoice in a friendship that is so uniquely Church, so bonded that oceans and years separate us and yet we are still, in some wonderful ways, home for each other.
Over the ensuing months, I wallowed deep in joy, in freedom, in grace and truth. I was a starving beggar suddenly given unlimited access to a banquet, and I gorged. Every time those great old doors creaked open, I was there, face to the weathered stone floor, drinking in the words of life. I was insatiable and every new revelation was hungrily grabbed. I have mentioned that I am not necessarily given to moderation, by temperament, that is. When, deep down, I deem something worth my attention, I am “all in”, no holds barred and something of a whirlwind. Now 21 years later, the power of that first encounter with Jesus still takes my breath away. It has been a beacon in the darkest of storms, whenever the arguments over this theology or that orthopraxy threaten to overwhelm me, I remember that broken girl, drowning in a life unlived, and I remember my Rescuer. My King in shining armor, who sat in the mire with me and said my name, who lifted me up and redeemed every part of me, who gave me gifts and words and passions and vision.
I remember the Rescuer.
[to be continued…]