"Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest." Mark 6:31
Those words formed part of the opening address of what became for me a life changing retreat exactly twenty nine years ago.
The "me" was actually an "us", a missionary organisation I forget the name of. A man called Peter Anderson, along with a singer called Dave Pope, headed it.
The "yourselves" consisted of me and my best friend, Judith, another girl, Penny, we knew from school and a friend of hers, Frances, from the church they attended. The rest of "yourselves" formed a house-party of teens and twenties.
The "quiet place" was a private school in North Wales. It was a large building with turrets and towers situated on the top of a hill. The grassy fields all around were brown with burnt grass and baked soil that split into a jigsaw pattern of uneven cracks. It was 1976, one of the hottest summers on record.
I had just left school that year and was about to enter teacher-training college. I think it was the first ever holiday I had spent away from my family. I had earned the money to come by working weekends as a chamber-maid in the posh five star hotel built on the edge of our village.
The "rest", I wasn't prepared for, was a manic programme of prayer meetings, worship sessions, seminars and sermons. My attendance had been secured under false pretences. I thought we were four friends, saying goodbye to childhood before the serious growing up phase of university kicked in. I didn't expect to be asked about which church I went to. I can still remember the gleam that lit up someone's eye when I said I didn't go to church. Looking back I must have been mentally pasted with a bulls-eye right over my heart, as people pulled out the arrows of bible verses ready to loose at me.
I had been brought up in the Roman Catholic faith and been steered through first confession and first communion. I believed in God, but my picture of him was of someone quite remote and detached from me, and always angry and threatening to hit me with bolts of lightning. I had always known a fear of God that crippled and haunted me.
For the most part, I would have to confess that "the rest" was aimed well over my head. I quite liked singing, so the worship sessions were not so bad. I didn't have, a still don't have, a long attention span, so the seminars and sermons were endurance events. God's word may have been spoken, but it was making any connections in my heart.
My first real inkling that God was something other than what I imagined came through the prayer meetings. I was used to a distinct switch in the tone of voice when the priest prayed in chapel. It told me that he was addressing the Almighty. I was also used to a certain phraseology and content that told me the kind of things that concerned God and the way to approach His throne. One morning, as I was sitting underneath a polished oak table - the room was crowded - I realised that I was listening to something entirely different. It was intimate and natural. It was real and it birthed a desire inside. What these people had as they shared their conversation and concerns with God was something I had always been longing for - intimacy. I yearned to know that I mattered to God, that I wasn't just another collection of chemicals and minerals tumbling randomly through life.
Like a fisherman and his collection of feathers and twinkling metal dangling and glinting in the water, God had caught my attention. I don't remember saying the "sinners prayer", or anyone explaining sin and salvation. In that moment God simply breathed on me - a quiet, gentle breath, that found the its way into my heart that at that moment was open so wide. There was no Damascus road blindness, no falling on the floor in a dead faint or choirs of angels singing a Hallelujah chorus. Later on I felt robbed, when I heard the testimony of my friend Judith who also found God that week.
There have been times when I have tied to close my heart to God, but the door is stuck. I have tasted His intimacy and felt His breath and I am changed forever.
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