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 Feast for the Soul

Men and women, bearers of the Imago Dei, have five main senses. Senses which are heightened in times of joy and pain, compensate for each other in loss, and allow us to experience the depths and heights of human existence.

A view of a majestic mountain, tranquil beach or dazzling skyline can take our breath away in wonder. A scent wafting on the breeze can transport us to other times and places, bring vivid memories to life and draw our deepest feelings to the surface. The touch of a loved one’s hand can instantly comfort and encourage.  Music has the power to describe and elicit the most powerful of emotions. When we feast at a table spread with earth’s bounty, drinking fine wines in the company of other lovers of God, we experience a depth of community unmatched outside heaven.

A rich life, a life lived vividly, is one that engages our senses as well as our minds, a life that fills our soul with glimpses of the Glory of God and prompts us to wonder and worship.

So why, then, do we confine our practice of our spirituality to a single sense? Why do we neglect the fullness of experience in the one place where we should engage the whole of our bodies, where we should be filling the temple with the praise of our maker?

Last weekend, I had the privilege of making new friends, friends who, for our first meeting, invited me to join them at their little Anglican church for Sunday Eucharist.  As we sang, and listened and reflected, I looked around. I looked at a corrugated steel warehouse transformed into a place set apart for the meditation on the love of God. The vestments, chalices, reverential sounds of liturgy and the taste of the wine and wafer all drew me in to the contemplation of my Saviour.

The beauty and richness of an icon, the lovely rhythm of a chanted psalm or the waft of incense can engage our souls in a way that merely listening to a sermon and singing along to a chorus cannot.

I find myself wondering if, in our desire for clarity in understanding God, in our struggle for our minds to be made new, we haven’t backed ourselves into a sterile corner, a place where words are our primary medium and the remaining senses are seen as redundant?

What if we didn’t see the practice of our faith as something only for our minds to engage with? What if we engaged all our senses in worship? What if we embraced our historical roots, roots in which the Church was the fountain of artistic expression, where the greatest artists and composers found not only inspiration but audience for their works?

Sometimes, simplicity isn’t enough. My souls longs for richness.  In re-embracing a liturgical and sacramental tradition, I am rediscovering the joy of communal worship as a feast for the soul.

A Symphony of Worship.

Is there a “right” way to “do church”?  What are the non-negotiable elements of Christo-centric worship? There are thousands upon thousands of pages of erudition directed at these questions and I shall not try to duplicate them here.  Instead I want to challenge the assumption that there can even be “right” way.  I want to draw our conversation away from theory and ask ourselves if we should even be placing ourselves in that seat of judgment?

We have all heard accusations leveled at churches that express themselves differently than us;

“They are entrenched in cultural practices that are not reproducible.”

“Liturgical services are bound in traditions that oppress and stifle worship…”

“The X church is just an institution propping up a dead religion that hasn’t changed for hundreds of years.”

“Worship by rote isn’t authentic, it is lifeless and cold…”

“They are too loud, too relevant, not solemn enough …”

“They are idolatrous, with all that gold and tapestry and incense…”

Most of us, if we are honest, have said things like this. I know I have.

It grieved the Holy Spirit when I besmirched His beloved Bride with words full of spite in the name of “objectivity”, when I participated in the evisceration of His Church to further an ideology or preference. It grieves me to recall my words, words flowing from a judgmental heart and critical spirit.

Because, Beloved, we are created One in Him. He has made us holy. He has declared us righteous, not by our own acts of observance but by His beautiful Sacrifice, and when we lose sight of that, when we decry our differences as divisions, we lose a part of ourselves.

I have belonged to, grown in and loved many different expressions of this wondrous Bride of Christ. I have been blessed by the richness this has afforded me in my walk with the Lord.  The ability to worship him in many streams has kept me alive in some of the deepest valleys of life. But, in my reflecting over these past years, I have found myself distressed by one commonality across all streams; that we, the body of Christ, seem to be unable to love the way we do things without denigrating other preferences. We default to the position that the way we express our adoration to our King, is the way, the best, the most Godly, the most theologically correct.

 “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.  If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”

Galatians 5: 14-15

The problem this presents, for a unified, beloved Bride of Christ, is that, rather than celebrating the beautiful symphony that God is creating and perfecting in us, we insist that the section in which we sit is the most important.  Insisting that only woodwind is worshipful, and that the oboe is obsolete, the trumpet is too traditional, the triangle is superfluous at best, downright ridiculous at worst, may reflect our passion in our pursuit but, ultimately, it causes us to lose sight of our greater purpose.  Our problem is one of perspective, for we cannot hear the fullness of the sound to which we are contributing. We are perfecting our part and will not experience the full symphony until we are around the throne of Heaven, and yet, each instrument, under the direction of a master conductor, contributes to the full expression of the sound the Composer has intended from the very beginning.

Perhaps we should not take another’s endorsement of a particular style or stream so personally?  What if it isn’t about us? What if, instead, we ask our King for His vision, for His desire for our communities? Would we then be more willing to experience the breadth of the body without feeling threatened?

You see, I adore loud congregational worship, hundreds of people singing their loudest and most ardent praises to God fills my soul with fire and joy. Yet, paradoxically, I choose to worship in a liturgical setting. I choose to still my soul to the rhythm of sacred words, to recite aloud the goodness of God, to pray in the communion and bring my sin to the cross before I approach the banqueting table. Life is loud, clamoring for attention and my soul cries out for stillness, for space to listen to the still small voice of God. I need the rhythm and stillness that a liturgy provides.  I need to be reminded to come to the table with a heart refreshed by repentance.  I need very little encouragement to jump and shout and sing!

In this season, he is leading me into still waters, rooted in a liturgy that runs deep and nourishes my soul.  Where is he leading you and how can we play our parts together as fellow members of the beautiful symphony which only Jesus could conduct?