Stepping into the Certain “Yes”. (A Story in Stages cont’d)

(Let’s start at the beginning)

It is 22 years, 1 month and 25 days since I met my Redeemer, my Certain “Yes” among all the maybes, my Home, my Treasure, the One who gives my life purpose. 22 years is a long time, and all together no time at all.

I am, at my core, still that wild, independent, passionate girl who first encountered her Life in an ancient worship-drenched building on a rainy Sunday in Oxford.  I still long for the same things. I yearn for significance, for a life well lived that matters, a life that serves greatly and leaves this beautiful place better than I found it.

From that first day of redemption, walking along with Jesus has revealed over and over how He has crafted us for lives of service. The long, low, slow work of living Kingdom soaked lives that transforms us and the world around us. The low way of Jesus is a paradox of power under control, of love in the face of indifference, of presence in an age of distraction.

Following Jesus will lead you into places where you are ill-equipped, where dependence on Him is your only resource. When you let His desire to let Light shine in the darkest of places, He will join you to the shadows for you to dispel darkness in His Name.

I can almost hear you saying, “Yeah, yeah, but seriously, what does that look like?  How much darkness does he expect us to take? I mean, aren’t we promised life abundant? Where does that part come in?”

I can only respond with my story.

As those insatiable first days of heady gorging began to wane, a restlessness grew in my soul.  A deep knowledge that there were those for whom the banquet was no more than a myth, a fairy story at best, a weapon used to shame and humiliate at worst.  As I was filled up, I began to search for a way to release that which I had been so lavishly given.  For me, a born nomad, this meant the first of many moves, the beginning of a wandering life spanning almost a decade and three continents, 11 homes and uncounted plane rides.

Southampton, the first port of call for this wandering girl, drew me to her. Looking back I can’t really remember how I got there, the city just kind of seeped into my soul as the next step.  Initially without a clear direction, I enrolled in university, as much to keep the parental freak-out to a minimum as anything. There I made great, lifelong friends, played lacrosse, sometimes, and learned to walk in my newfound life.  I joined Southampton Community Church, and showed up, a lot.  Known as Sublime, the student group packed out the church weekly, spilling out of the ancient Central Hall into the city bars, pubs and clubs to invite, to gather, to show Love to a city lost to itself. Monthly we gathered for worship led by Martin Smith and his Cutting Edge Band. We learned how to lean in to the Presence in worship. We danced. We prayed for hours. We longed for depth and Presence.

As I soaked in the Presence of God the pull of my old life began to fade and I began to discover the purpose of a life poured out at the feet of my Beloved. The erstwhile values of “usefulness” and “qualifications” began to fade as I looked deep into the eyes of the One who loved me, wholly, knowing all and declaring More over me. The more I looked deep, the more I meditated on the Words of Life, the less the BA in Marketing I was ostensibly pursuing seemed to be on my path.  My path, once again deviating from the expected, seemed to lead through the deep dark woods, out of the sunshine of societal approval and normalcy and into a dangerous land of uncertainty.

Uncertainty in the eyes of a results driven world is dangerous. We are foolish to squander opportunity. Childish naïveté will lead to destruction, the voices tell us.  Tow the line. Do the expected, be secure, be safe, be normal.

Uncertainty reflected in the eyes of the Certain “Yes” is joyous adventure.   We are wise to drop everything and follow the way of our Servant Saviour. Childish joy leads to discovery, the Living Word tells us. Follow Him. Challenge the expected, be redeemed, be brave, be abnormal.

The Certain “Yes” became my path.  His proclamation over me that he has called me to “preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives” became my identity.   A community of the brave, redeemed and expectant formed in a Year of Training program. We dug in with mentors whose wisdom and words were deeply watered into the dry soil of our souls. Mentors whose words became my roots, my foundation, and ultimately, my wings.   A dozen young men and women from all over Europe were gathered, drenched in Jesus and then sent out; a rag-tag group of no-count servants, with the Certain “Yes” blazing in our souls.

I still remember the fiery passion with which we embarked on our Journeys. The sent-out ones, the ones for whom the Word was enough. The ones with the Certain “Yes” blazing in our souls.

20 years is a long time, and all together no time at all.

… To be continued…

 

 

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Rescued: A Story in Stages – Part 2

(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.

I fled.

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.

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St Michael’s, Haselbech, Northamptonshire.

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…]

 

A Story in Stages – Part 1

Stories are funny things, ethereal and yet eerily concrete, fact-laden and yet totally open to interpretation, to shifts in perspective and the softening of time. My story begins in an Edinburgh hospital, the welcomed, loved daughter of an Army officer and a Scottish speech therapist.  My story begins with a christening gown and a promise made in an ancient church. My story begins with a “normal” childhood, well, normal to me anyway!

I grew up in the sheltered, rarified, Downton-Abbey-esque, English upper classes.  I went fox-hunting, attended boarding school, played polo and watched a lot of cricket. Home was safe and warm and laden with promise. Summers were filled with holidays in Cornwall and the sun drenched beaches of Malta and France; winters drew in around roaring fires warming ancient halls; spring was heralded by the glimpse of bluebells carpeting a beloved wood and the promise of long days on horseback or in the garden.  School was endured. Told, as we were, that it was just as hard on our parents as it was on us, we children crafted survival identities within a Lord of the Flies hierarchy that adults knew not of. We survived, building “character”  and “independence”, expression of which was generally unwelcome, non-conformist as it’s expression generally is in the young.

In many ways unremarkable, my childhood and adolescence pointed me down a path unchosen, expected. I would have thought this path not the slightest bit noteworthy had I stayed within my culture and family circle and married a soldier or a country lawyer. Had I stayed the path, eventually it would have been me packing my  children off to boarding school with a heavy heart and an empty wallet. Had I been less restless, less longing, less… less me… I would have gone about my days arranging pony club camp, cricket teas, and school runs, ignoring the deepening ache within my soul.

My family tree is rich with strong women and heroic men, with suffering and hardship borne with grace and a stiff upper lip.  My school years passed in a blur of miserable terms at school, sharply counter-pointed by wonderful holidays spent galloping over beloved countryside, digging vegetables and drinking gin and tonics with my indefatigable grandmother. I was loved, am loved still, by a family that is delightfully diverse in life choices and yet extraordinarily capable of community and grace.  I didn’t always see that grace, and perhaps seeing the community is part of that perspective shift we gain with distance.  At the time though, Granny Cecily, my father’s mother, often seemed to be the only port in a storm, my rock, my safe place.  A far better writer than me, Amber Haines, in her beautiful book, “Wild in The Hollow” writes, of her own grandmother, the words I lived in my Granny’s home:

“She had the strength of one anointed, one who could claim you. She kept the shame out. It would snarl at the door, but inside was safe. maybe that’s why we rebellious ones always clung to her.  She wasn’t our favorite because she was lenient toward us. She was our favorite because she was a reprieve. There was something of the rest of Eden in there, something of my Jesus”

excerpt from “Wild in the Hollow” by Amber Haines

Never very good at expectation, I hated feeling like I didn’t measure up, and as is so often the case for young women who blossom too early, (according to whom, I wonder?) I never felt like I fitted in. I absorbed the words said about me, the bullying and criticism, the insecurities of others foisted upon me to keep the fear at bay in themselves, and lost myself.  The wild-haired girl who galloped bareback over hill and down dale was buried by conformity to a meeker, shallower girlhood, one for whom the word “supposed” became a straight-jacket.

I slogged through my school years laboring under the weight of an identity I hated, the belief that I was unacceptable to my peers and unloved (or unlovable) by my family,  pervaded my worldview until I found myself at the brink of a life wasted.  My gap year (a British convention whereby after graduation, young people take a year out between school and university to explore the world, serve others and hopefully, grow up a little) was a revelation.  I spent it in Brazil, teaching and traveling and discovering myself outside of the context of my family name.  I was, for the very first time in my life, not someone’s daughter, or sister or cousin.  I suffered no comparison, labored under no expectations and encountered in myself a young woman whom I actually liked!  This made homecoming all the more painful, the old clothes didn’t fit, the shoes were uncomfortably restrictive and I didn’t know how to squash my rediscovered personality into my old life. No-one else had changed, but somehow I had begun to discover that the straight-jacket was really made up of fragile post-it notes, stuck on me by others, and, devastatingly often, by myself.  I had shed so many that I no longer blended in and it was scary, as freedom often is.

The promise of continued freedom at University was for a while, at least, enticing. But, even though the school-days names had finally stopped following me, even though I was, momentarily, free from the family Name; the hedonistic culture of university life pushed in on me. Since I didn’t feel like I fit in anyway, I decided to reinvent myself as a “bad girl”. Let’s be clear, my expression of “bad” was pretty tame, and since I was still the very definition of posh and  well brought up, even a bad girl had standards!  I was still broken, however, and looking for confidence and approval in all the wrong places.  I took up with all the wrong people and tried to attain the world’s version of “cool”, “sexy” or “beautiful”. Six months passed in a blur of caffeine, booze, parties and lectures I have zero recollection of. When I returned to Oxford after Christmas, I found myself home-less, broken-hearted and friendless, with a serious marijuana and alcohol problem, and desperately praying that second pink line didn’t appear and lead to a trip to the nearest clinic…

In short, to quote Rachel on Friends,

“… it’s like there’s rock bottom, then 50 feet of crap, then me.”

Now, I am not so naive to think that I couldn’t have picked myself up, dusted off the bruises on my heart, and, perhaps my liver 😏 and moved along.  After all, my lineage had some pretty incredible examples to follow.. a grandmother who divorced her first husband for lying … another grandmother who parachuted into Mussolini’s Italy during WWII… a mother who had survived raising me (no mean feat!) and achieved her Masters degree at the same time. But that was not my path.

... click here for part 2…