A couple of months ago I signed up for the Alpha Course. I am doing it in the neighbouring town of Wymondham about 20 minutes drive away. It has been running once every two weeks in the evening.
I got interested in it because I have been seeing these ads for Alpha for years but never dived in. I was brought up by Communists so though Christened no attention was ever paid to my spiritual development. I got introduced to Christianity at school and through friends. I dabbled a bit but didn’t completely get involved. At university it was the same. I went to a few prayer meetings in my Hall, attended Church a few times and then abandoned it for other things. I have always been quite spiritual though and returned sporadically to exploring. I have dabbled in Paganism, witchcraft, the occult in a New Agey way, Spiritualism, Hinduism and Buddhism. The Buddhism was my most recent foray and I really liked it. I have been to the Norwich Buddhist Centre and learned to meditate. I still wasn’t sure which one was for me.
So I decided to learn more about Christianity. The Alpha Course is supposed to be for non-believers, agnostics or new Christians and is an introduction to the basics of the faith. I hoped I would get answers to my questions like the problem of evil in the world and why God made the world.
When I arrived at the hall I found that everyone there was already a member of the charismatic Church which used the Hall. I was the only vague one. I hadn’t expected this. What struck me the most was how pleasant everyone was. It was very welcoming. The pastor and leaders didn’t wear any particular clothes. It was very casual and relaxed.
Each session takes the same format. There is a meal prepared by the Church members and then a video headed up by Nicky Gumbel the founder of Alpha. Then we break into groups and discuss the topic. There is an accompanying booklet. I was hoping for some intellectual discussion but this didn’t really happen in my group. Everyone was already a true believer so they just believed. Sometimes I asked questions nobody could answer such as why the Old Testament is in the Christian Bible when there is a new promise of the New Testament. The leader who was incredibly sweet looked it up on Google for me the next week. They all seemed to take the Bible literally as the word of God so didn’t question anything. I realised I wasn’t going to be converted by clever arguments.
One thing struck me from the very beginning. They were all incredibly open and honest. Most had had life traumas which they discussed candidly. The Church was for broken people. At least this one was. I would fit right in. I warmed to them over the weeks though I often felt awkward and didn’t know what to say.
One week I finally cracked and cried as I thought about how sinful I had been and how I hadn’t come to Jesus properly even though he had given me plenty of opportunities.
The first few sessions were about what it meant to be a Christian but it swiftly turned into a conversion course. I didn’t mind this but I could imagine some people would. In fact I wanted to be converted. I really need something solid in my life and I know the pick and mix spirituality is never going to work.
I felt I was on a roller coaster ride and I really was confronting my past and my failings and being honest with myself. I often went home in deep thought but I was enjoying it. I worked my way through the New Testament though I have done this many times before. The group leader behaves as if I am a complete atheist but I have actually read the Bible many times. I like the core message but I find lots of it confusing and contradictory. I still had lots of unanswered questions. I knew I wasn’t going to get them answered. If I wanted this I had to just go with it in my heart.
So I girded up my courage and prayed the conversion prayer recommended by Alpha. I repented and asked Jesus into my life. To my disappointment no Damascene miracle happened on the spot. Slightly sadly, I went out to walk the dog. In the church yard glebe at dusk I saw a huge white barn owl with wings outstretched hunting over and over on the same patch of ground. It was completely unconcerned by my presence. As I stopped to watch it I was aware it looked a little like an angel. I took this as a sign. Maybe it was a very weak sign and just a coincidence but it was something.
The following week at Alpha there was a Holy Spirit day which was on a Saturday in the Church. For some reason I had a total foreboding about this and nearly didn’t go. When I got there it was all set up for a service. We watched no less than three videos in a row which were building up for the Holy Spirit experience. We had a short discussion and then the experience began. We all stood up and prayed and started to sing a hymn. We asked the Holy Spirit to come. The leaders went around and prayed for people. My group leader came to me and asked if I wanted to be prayed for. I said yes. Already I had started to feel quite strange even before this. My nose was running and I felt hot and shivery. She prayed for me and put her hands on my head. Then she started speaking in tongues and asked me to copy her. As I started I felt incredibly hot in my forehead and shivery but not cold. Then I felt like a great force came into me and something went out of me. I screamed I think about three times. Bizarrely, I can only compare it to orgasm. I am embarrassed I had a very loud orgasmic experience in front of a lot of fundamentalist Christians. Joking aside it was quite an incredible happening. I was also crying and my cheeks were wet when I opened my eyes. This was the Holy Spirit in me.
I sat down for a while afterwards feeling completely strange. I was different. One of the other leaders came over and asked if I wanted to learn to speak in tongues. I was inclined to say I had had enough for one morning but he was quite insistent so I agreed. He laid hands on my forehead again and spoke in tongues. It sounded like Ancient Aramaic. As I repeated it I had the hot sensation again and lots of lights were appearing under my closed eyelids like little fires. He said the Holy Spirit is upon you and carried on chanting. I found I could chant away on my own these strange words but I had no idea what I was saying. The same hot feeling was there but it wasn’t as intense as the first time.
Later on a few of us joined in a circle and spoke in tongues.
I still feel in shock a few days later and I don’t quite know what to make of it. I do know that something profound happened to me and there was definitely something supernatural in the room. My rational mind has tried to make sense of it but come up with no explanation. I feel like there is something different in my mind. When I meditate or pray my brain feels different.
So I think I have become a Christian. I have been praying and reading the Bible and going about my usual tasks. The inital high has worn off but I still know I am changed. I have prayed in tongues and found it just flows out of me but I don’t know what I’m saying.
There are still a few sessions of the course to go but I feel like I have converted. It has taken me fifty years to fully accept Christ but here I am.
I don’t want to give up my daily meditation but maybe I don’t have to. I have a lot to learn but I have started the journey.