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…

 

 

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…]

 

41 – Just another number?

I turned 41 this weekend.

How did that happen?

The funny thing about that question is that the assumption you probably made when you read it is that I am in denial about my age, that, perhaps, I am going to rail against aging and bemoan the youth that is lost.. etc. etc.

I will not be so prosaic… I hope.

I love being 41.

There! I said it!

Over the past year, it is as though I have passed through a veil into security, confidence, a little more self-knowledge.  I didn’t expect to actually wake up and feel different, you know, the way you think you will on a “big” birthday like 16 , or 18 or 21.. or even 30! Yet, somehow, this weekend, it is as though I really did feel different.  I don’t believe that there is something magical about the actual day, but rather that the introspection this season has afforded me is allowing me to walk in more fullness, more courage, more passion.  I know who I am, I know who I can be and, I am confident that I am on a journey worthy of the telling.

When you are struggling through your 20s and 30s, it seems impossible to hear the gentle voices of secure identity, voices who long to share the joy of freedom with you… you who are so concerned with the way the world sees you…  you who cannot hear the Still Small Voice for the clamor of your life.

Oh, how I wish I could have heard!

How grateful I now am for those dear friends, who planted themselves, gentle and firm, within the whirlwind of my 20s and early 30s. How honored I am that men and women of God stood in the raging rapids of my arrogant proclaiming and anguished wailings and spoke, “Grace and Peace”.  How I treasure brothers and sisters who could see through the maelstrom and steady the quailing, fainting heart within and say to me, “Take Courage”.

Those seeds of Grace, Peace and Courage have slowly, subtly rooted.  They have continued to grow, stubbornly reaching up, through marriage and miscarriage, through babies and on into teenagers, through stifling restriction and joyous release.  They have grown into great trees, and, like the tree that has grown slowly from sapling to beauty in our backyard, I am a little awed by their presence, sudden-seeming in their fullness, in their insistence of their place, in their confidence.

For me, 41 is not just another year, but seems like a beginning of sorts.

Come along for the journey and let’s see where the road leads!

Grace and Peace,

Ally