As part of my series about sharing my faith testimony, this post is about my experience of attending an Alpha course. I’ve tried to keep it as brief as possible but also wanted to capture the main aspects for readers to appreciate what and why I saw what I did.
Parts of my experience are deeply personal to me, but in many ways that makes it even more worthy of sharing. In fact, I’ve delayed sharing it for five months because it is so special to me, but I know I must (I would also like to do this before my baby arrives as my blogging will likely take a back seat for a while).
Last September, I attended an Alpha course run by my church. I felt confident in my faith, having had the experiences I had with God, like this one, since my daughter’s death in 2013. I felt I had a strong spiritual side, but I wanted to learn more about the factual side of Christianity… the questions we all ask ‘Who is God? Who was Jesus? Why do we suffer? etc.’
A shaky start!
Entering the first session, I thought that there wasn’t too much the course could add to my faith. I was also a little sceptical about a course which I believed, in essence, converts unbelieving people into believing Christians. To me, belief was personal and couldn’t be ‘taught’, but I was open to learning more and hearing others’ experiences, as after all, Alpha has been hugely successful in bringing people from all walks of life to and encouraging them to think about faith.
One of the first questions that people asked of the hosts running the course was ‘Why do you believe?’ ‘What was it, exactly, that made you decide that God, Jesus and the Bible were all true?’ There was a mixed response from the leaders, but each was based on a profound experience or a moment when the truth was simply ‘revealed’ to them, an awakening if you like. For some this happened in their youth, for others much later in life.
While people do come to faith through apologetics and analysis of the facts, it seems that having an encounter or awakening is the point when they really know Christ.
The Alpha course was spread over 12 weekly 2-hour sessions. For the first half of the course I found, rather than deepening my faith, I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the assumptive and the somewhat lack of an impartial approach by both the Alpha materials and the leaders. Even though I understood the course to be an open forum for us to ask whatever questions we wanted, the scope to ask those challenging questions seemed to close up as we got further in.
Despite this, I found that I spent the week following a session reflecting on the key aspect of discussion, which was hugely beneficial. I also started to read the Gospels from start to finish. So I was learning something, just not in the way I expected… but that’s how God works!
Yet, still, I felt my frustration increase with each session. Some of the others who attended were heavily sceptical. They wanted facts and hard evidence and were not convinced by the rather weak ‘it’s just true so you should believe it’ approach of Nicky Gumbel et al. This was understandable initially, but I could see that their views were not changing as the sessions went on. If anything, they were becoming more sceptical, hostile and confused by the faith experiences of others, because they were so far apart with the ‘nothing’ that they had experienced.
I was a quiet observer during the first few weeks, taking my time to get to know the others and whether I felt safe. I had a difficult story to tell about my grief and faith, and I didn’t want to reveal that until I felt it appropriate. I didn’t want people to judge my faith because of my loss. However, it was quite fascinating listening to the others and hearing their good and bad experiences of religion. It was clear some had got wrapped up in the hearsay and speculation of the media and negative history rather than the core elements of what Christianity is and is not. They couldn’t separate the sinful human from the loving God.
I couldn’t help becoming irritated by the sceptics’ desire for hard fact alone, and actually found it quite upsetting. Like ‘doubting Thomas’ they wanted to see the body of Jesus, they wanted to look at a library of books and photos documenting his every move, they could not see evidence of a loving God anywhere in this world. It reached a point where we were debating a minor point for so long that I almost snapped. I shared with them my encounter with God. I shared my daughter’s passing to Him. I wanted them to know that if they were seeking faith in apologetics alone, they weren’t going to find it.
I’m not sure some of the group even wanted to believe. Devoted Christians can seem strange people. They are so convinced by this thing that is, on the face of it, unbelievable yet the love of Christ radiates from them. I am pretty intuitive to people’s feelings and I sensed they felt uncomfortable around those in the group who were more forceful or stringent in their beliefs. While I felt the hosts could have been a little less domineering in their approach, I also understood that once you have deep faith it really is very difficult to accept any other view (which I suppose is why religion in general has such a poor reputation!).
An unexpected encounter
It was at the half-way point that we were asked to attend an away day together, called the Holy Spirit Day. This day takes the course members away from the endless questioning (which really could go on forever) and offers them the opportunity for a more spiritual experience of the faith and to perhaps encounter the Holy Spirit for themselves.
Despite my prior experiences of hearing and feeling God’s presence, I was particularly – and stubbornly – sceptical about this day. The cynics in the group didn’t want to go at all, they were very uncomfortable about spending a day in worship with ‘fanatics’ when they were not nearly at a stage to believe themselves. I understood this, but as we had become friendly I found I myself encouraging them to go, explaining my own reservations but that I also felt it important to see the entire course through. With Christianity, you can’t pick and choose the bits you like, it is a package. Apparently over 27 million people around the world (including notable celebrities) have attended the Alpha Holy Spirit day, so I felt we really should go, if anything to see what the ‘fuss’ was about. We wouldn’t know if we simply stayed home.
At the same time I felt protective of my previous personal encounters with God. They were special to me and my situation. I didn’t see how the Holy Spirit would suddenly turn up on a prescribed day to convince us of His being, least of all me. It seemed too controlled by us, impersonal and not led by Him at all, almost as though we were testing Him to show Himself. But these were Christian and non-Christian friends of mine, so I knew I would be in very good and safe company.
So it was with some reluctance and curiosity that one Saturday I went to the venue with one of the members of the group who I had become friends with. I went hoping more that she would get something out of it, as I was much further in faith than she was. I so wanted the others to feel what I felt. To soften the hardness in their cynical hearts.
The morning started with an interesting discussion and I learnt a great deal about what the Holy Spirit is, and is not. The others seemed to relax as they clearly enjoyed the safety of the informal debate. After lunch, we reconvened and were led into worship by our vicar. I wasn’t expecting this, not singing! We sang a hymn, which I knew well, but I sensed my friend was becoming more uncomfortable. She wasn’t ready for this at all. It was almost as though if she sang, she was committing to something she wasn’t ready for. As a result, I found it impossible to achieve any depth of mediation seeing as I was so aware of her discomfort.
After the hymn, we had a quiet period of prayer, this was when we invited the Holy Spirit to come. One of the leaders came over and prayed over me. There was nothing strange in her words, she simply stood in front of me and asked the Holy Spirit to fill my life and bless me, or something along those lines. It was an unusual experience. I felt a warmth inside. I felt kind of tired and also like emotions were being pulled to the surface. I suddenly felt quite vulnerable, yet safe.
She moved on to someone else and I found myself sitting down with my eyes closed; my mind felt empty but I tried to use the time to focus. It was then that I saw the most striking vision! It was of Jesus on the cross, at a side angle. The cross was a bright blue and Jesus was dead.
It wasn’t a frightening image at all. In that instant I had an overwhelming sense of comfort.
I felt love like I have never known. Unconditional, constant love.
I felt utterly forgiven – and that I understood what ‘forgiveness’ meant.
I felt a deep and sincere sense of calm and peace. The vision was showing me that Jesus died for me and that no matter how I felt – how I had sinned in the past, how I beat myself up about not being good enough, how I held in my emotions because I was scared, how I tried to fight what I believed in – that Jesus loved me and always, always had. I felt the overwhelming peaceful ‘power of the cross’, of what it meant for Jesus to die. Ultimately, it was not sorrow, it was all love!
(This vision was five months ago, and I finally got round to drawing what I saw. It is just an amateur sketch as I’m no artist, but I always felt I should try to draw it. I still see it vividly today. Jesus was real, with blood and sweat all over his hair and body, the wood of the cross was split and bleached blue… it was a lifelike image rather than an illustration.)
I found myself suddenly sobbing, to my great embarrassment! I simply could not stop the tears. Tears of love and release, fear and wonder, thanks and submission. I’m a deeply private person, an introvert, yet despite the room full of people, this still felt like a deeply personal moment. I could just as well been at home in my room.
My poor friend beside me must have wondered what on earth had happened! She and many others knew about my daughter so presumed my tears were for her. I couldn’t speak. I just needed to pour out my heart to Him, to go with this awesome vision.
My friend was quite glad to comfort me, I think it helped her to find something to do among all these people acting oddly (I wasn’t aware until after but a couple were lying on the floor absorbed in prayer) and there was me sobbing like a child! But I was thankful for her support and knew I couldn’t fight it and pretend I was okay this time. It was nice to have the human and spiritual comfort.
The group were lovely with me afterwards (as I was the only one who had such a dramatic reaction!). I felt quite confused by it; all I could say was that it was most definitely not about Abi. To my surprise, this experience had nothing of my daughter in it, which felt odd to admit to as, if anything, I was expecting that. In the vision, I had the sense that because I was loved, so was she.
After a brief chat, we went home. I was suddenly thrown back into normality, with the chatter of my children and things to be done. I felt what I can only describe as numb. I had cried so much and was utterly humbled by what I saw and felt. I was scared in a way. I now understood what it meant to be fearful of God, I’d always wondered what ‘fear Him’ meant, and it’s a good fear! I was ‘lost for words’ as I was not expecting anything like what I experienced, especially as my cynicism had been growing along with the others.
I felt numb for a few days. I thought I should feel joyful, so this reaction troubled me, but I realised that it’s normal to feel like this after an intense encounter.
I didn’t tell anyone about it for some time, and I’ve only told a few people from church who I feel would understand. What could I say? I would be seen as totally bonkers! Brainwashed even! As time passed, I tried to find reasons for the vision, but couldn’t. I thought perhaps my brain was recalling another image I’d seen, like when you stare at something and close your eyes and it’s still there in your mind. There was some modern abstract Christian art in the room but otherwise it was very neutral. I don’t recall seeing an image of Christ like this, especially not at this unusual side angle. I didn’t feel I was led into this vision by anyone else in the room or by the hymns we sang.
The rest of the course was about living out the faith, presuming that people were convinced by the Holy Spirit day… my friend dropped out.
I felt sad that she didn’t get anything out of it but was more excited by the fact that God was still very much with me! That I did get something from the course, that He is interested in me, that it is all true and He really wanted me to know that. Perhaps it was more useful to Him that I have an experience rather than my cynical friend, because I am now glad to share it with others through my writing? Who knows?
I don’t know why not everyone gets a direct Holy Spirit encounter… perhaps they do, but they miss seeing it? There was a faithful woman in my group who had never heard or seen God, despite praying for it all her life. She so longed to see him. She didn’t go on the Holy Spirit day so I’ll never know if she would have received something then. But then it’s not my concern. I remember being struck by this quote when reading The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis: “Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.” It made me aware that I shouldn’t worry about what God is doing for other people, he’s got it covered!
It took me a few weeks after to feel the joy of my experience. I wasn’t sure if what I encountered was correct. Of course it was, but I wasn’t sure what I was feeling – my practical mind tried to convince me I’d made it up. But I just knew what I felt and importantly what I saw. Again, as in other my encounters, my mind was ‘closed’ and distracted when I had the experience. I wasn’t seeking an encounter, in fact I was rather afraid of it in a room full of people and was more aware of making my sceptical friend feel comfortable. I felt I had become the sceptic again, yet God came and literally showed me the cross. My eyes were opened. I finally understood the cross, what it really means to give your life to Christ (up to then it seemed like nothing but a phrase).
Since then, I felt it important I document my faith journey. I’m not expecting my experience to convert anybody to Christianity. It will be interesting to some but a relationship with God is personal so, if you have one, it will be very different to mine. Most importantly, I cannot – and should not – forget these encounters and also how God is working in my life.
I don’t have all the answers – far from it! I still have much I want to understand, but now I do less doubting and questioning and instead seek answers in faith.
I’m probably the most surprised by what Alpha gave me in the end, having had such a shaky start, but I will always be glad that I bothered!
When I consider my journey to and in faith thus far, I can see that I don’t have just one testimony, I have a few of them – from my youth, my early married life, my eldest daughter’s death, and now this. That’s quite something and shows me that God is constant and always will be. I wonder what’s next?
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
be all else but naught to me, save that thou art;
be thou my best thought in the day and the night,
both waking and sleeping, thy presence my light.
Be thou my wisdom, be thou my true word,
be thou ever with me, and I with thee Lord;
be thou my great Father, and I thy true son;
be thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.
Be thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight;
be thou my whole armor, be thou my true might;
be thou my soul’s shelter, be thou my strong tower:
O raise thou me heavenward, great Power of my power.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise:
be thou mine inheritance now and always;
be thou and thou only the first in my heart;
O Sovereign of heaven, my treasure thou art.
High King of heaven, thou heaven’s bright sun,
O grant me its joys after victory is won;
great Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
still be thou my vision, O Ruler of all.
Irish, ca. 8th century; trans. Mary Byrne (1880-1931) versified, Eleanor Hull (1860-1935)