I was about 35 years old when I first discovered the Good News of Jesus Christ. Seeing as I’d been a Christian for around 31 years and was already some way through the vocations process towards becoming a Priest, some might say it was a bit late! I would say, better late than never (particularly recalling some of the faces I have seen in churches over the decades. Some good news there would be a really great thing…! 😉).
I was brought up in a very conservative but charismatic Baptist Church – male headship, conservative theology (I think that might be where I was told I needed a ticket for the ‘angel train’. Gutted to discover there is no angel train in scripture. I was really looking forward to that), but lots of singing, good music, a great junior choir, a weekly memory verse in Sunday School and some wonderful people who still walk the same path as me today. In this church I learned that God was angry, so angry in fact that Jesus had to die so that God could even *look* at me. There was a lot of talk and singing about ‘the blood’ and I became terrified of going to Hell. I also learned that, if I had sex before marriage, (i) EVERYONE would know and (ii) I would be like a piece of chewed gum or used sticky tape or half-eaten apple core, and nobody would want to marry me, ever. I followed Jesus because he was going to save me from all this, and because he wanted to be my best friend. The best friend bit was pretty good news, but it didn’t feel like it was Good News I wanted to share with my friends (capital G, capital N). I thought they were probably better off not knowing that their particular train was heading to the fiery furnace. FOREVER. Zero chance of escape. 😩
When I came back to faith, in 2001, I went to the church at the end of my road. It was near and convenient and meant I could still party hard on a Saturday night and make it there in time for the service on a Sunday. Worship-style-wise, this church was probably middle of the road, fairly typically Anglican, with a mix of hymns and songs and with a very mini worship band that formed when the organist left. Theologically it was fundamental (no fun, and absolutely mental) and abusive. In this church I was taught that if I wasn’t in church on a Sunday morning my life was in danger because I was “outside the banner of God’s protection”. I learned that no matter how hard I tried and how hard I worked, how hard I prayed or how much I gave up, I wasn’t ‘assured’ of salvation. I could only hope for it. The more likely outcome was that I would be separated from God and could just watch Him from a distance and spend eternity wishing I’d done better. I also learned there were demons ‘behind every blade of grass’. Yes really. Years of therapy* later, I also learned a huge percentage of this theology was bullshit. And God didn’t hate me. The chance of me inviting friends to this church was NIL – mostly to protect them from the abuse and fear some of us went through. It wasn’t just that there was no Good News here – there was buckets full of Bad News, Dreadful News. And yet, somehow, in that place, God called me to ordination (but that’s a story for another day).
I escaped that church (fortuitously by being called a scarlet woman, once again!) and was ‘placed’ in an Anglo-Catholic church – verrrrrry traditional, bells and smells, robed choir, an adoration to Mary, bowing and kneeling, organist, sung liturgy AND liberal theology. I was told that I was to go there ‘to learn’, as part of my vocations process. It felt like punishment. I did not know when to cross myself (and was always a few seconds behind everyone else, doing my head-tummy-shoulder-shoulder tap – think about it – at a million miles an hour, and kicking myself when I missed one!). I didn’t know the words to the Hail Mary, apart from those that my catholic-educated niece tried to teach me, and that was something about the ‘lime man Jesus’, so I guessed that was wrong! I went to one service of Adoration and Benediction (you can read about it here if you don’t know what I mean https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benediction_of_the_Blessed_Sacrament) and was fuming we didn’t get to eat the host at the end. But my priest was amazing, and a super great friend and supporter. She gently and humorously talked me through things whenever I said, ‘what just went on there?!’ and she suggested I read this book, called Take This Bread, when I began to sense that this holy communion (or ‘the mass’ as she called it) was onto something. You can find it here – https://www.amazon.com.au/Take-This-Bread-Sara-Miles/dp/0345495799
I consumed this book (sorry!) in 2 days flat and to say it changed my life is no understatement, genuinely. It led me on a journey that blew apart my theology, that gave me a new understanding and devotion to the mass (it comes from the word MISSION, and SENT, did you know?). It took me to San Francisco to work with the author at the Food Pantry she set up. And it told me, showed me, and shaped me around the Good News of Jesus.
Without any spoilers, it talks about a committed Atheist, Sara, who is also a photographer, chef, journalist and lover of food and people. Whilst away from her home city of San Francisco, a new church opens there (https://www.saintgregorys.org/). It begins to win awards for its amazing architecture and artwork. Do check it out; the awards are well earned! Sara comes home and wants to get some photos of this new place so wanders in. Midway through her photographing a service begins, and not yet finished, but not wanting to be rude, Sara stays put for the service. When it comes to the mass, the congregation make this holy dance to surround the altar, and everyone is invited to receive. On her first taste of the bread and wine – the body and blood of our Lord, Sara writes, “It changed everything. It was like a radioactive pellet inside me. Eating Jesus, as I did that day, to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned, and work I’d never imagine. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer but actual food – indeed the bread of life.”**
This book, this church ‘placement’, this liberal theology where nobody finds themselves on the outside but all are welcome, this realisation that we meet around a holy table to eat the Christ and then are sent – refreshed and refilled – to feed others; this was Good News. This IS Good News. This realisation that Jesus is obsessed with the poor, and with food; with eating with those who others say should be left hungry and then enjoying their company and learning from them. This was my radical conversion. And it changed me and is changing me.
It took me on a journey from conservative fundamentalism, bowed low with fear and anxiety, ashamed and without any sense of real value, to a place where I know the Good News of Jesus. I know, that just as Jesus says in Luke Chapter 4, so that same Spirit is also upon me and She sends me to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives (that took me to India!), comfort for those who mourn. She sends me to tell others that this, here, is the year of the Lord’s favour. God isn’t angry! It took me from Coventry, through theological college (where, thanks team, you all helped me unpick some more awful theology and pick up some foundational truths!), to Hartlepool, where God, through us, fed hundreds of people who others might count as ‘on the margins’. And now the journey leads me here, to Australia, to see what holy mischief we might get up to next.
And that is Good News! 🥳
*despite being a reluctant therapee (is that what you call someone who goes to therapy??), I am now the hugest advocate of talking therapies because it saved my life, healed my soul, rebuilt my heart and strengthened my ministry. Thank you Tony, you are a true saint…
** Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (London: Canterbury Press, 2012) p. 59