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…]

 

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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…