For me Alpha was a mistake.
I had a strong religious upbringing and I recognised Christian values as an ideal way to bring up my children, and with that in mind attended St. Bart’s with my family. St. Bart’s has its fingers in a lot of pies, producing a lively and vibrant community, the people are friendly; and surely; if you’re going to go to church, that is what it’s all about.
My son was at the age to be confirmed; making some enquiries Ben said it would be part of the Alpha course starting in the New Year. January came round and my wife was putting on her shoes to take our son to the church. She said she would stay with him for a couple of weeks just in case there weren’t any other teenagers there. It didn’t seem fair to let him go without some support, and so, seeing as there was nothing on TV, I went along too!
I was there by mistake. It wasn’t me looking for Spirituality. I had fixed views on the subject of religion. I knew what I believed. I was happy with the world I had created for myself and my upbringing meant there was nothing new to learn here.
Revd Ben greeted us as we walked through the door, genuinely pleased to see some unexpected faces. In the Warm Surroundings of the Oak Room we were offered a drink and cake and an opportunity to have a chat. Not really knowing anyone that well, my son and I talked whilst my wife did the socialising! We took a seat amongst the large group and were given an accompanying handbook to go with the course entitled “Explore the Meaning of Life-The Alpha Course” The chatter faded as Revd Ben presented the first couple of sections, “Is There More to Life Than This “and “Who Is Jesus?” Ben’s charismatic delivery, knowledge and enthusiasm made for a very entertaining, enjoyable presentation and the half hour talk went so quickly.
Ben split us up into random groups. Young teenagers to be Confirmed had a separate group from the adults. My group had a good mix of people from all ages and religious backgrounds. We had a group leader who it turned out (as with the other leaders) were only there as a guide and to keep the discussion focused on the topic for the night and not to teach the Bible. We were all there to learn something new.
So how can you discuss a topic without a teacher? Well as it turns out, extremely effectively. Each person would offer their point of view about what they did or didn’t believe... You don’t believe Jesus was anything but a religious teacher? That’s fine! You don’t believe the bible is a true story? That’s fine! There was nothing that was out of bounds. There was no such thing as a stupid question, and for a group of random people we had some very deep theological debates! The first session ended with some satisfying conclusions but opened even more unanswered questions. In short, I was hooked. The chance to talk about religion with no one dictating a list of rules to obey or what we should think was exciting and left me wanting more.
Sitting at home comparing the evening’s events, I was reminded of a poem that was told at school called Footprints In The Sand. The basis of it being about God showing someone their life and them being upset at the times God had not been there when needed most, indeed I thought, where is God? Who is God? Is it Jesus? What about other religions? So many questions and a whole week to wait!
The internet is a wonderful thing. The amount of information that can be found on any subject is overwhelming, and so my research began. As each week went by I became more and more fascinated with the subjects that Ben gave us. I would Pre study the next weeks discussion and play devil’s advocate, raising questions that mirrored my own thoughts that I had found on atheist forums and approached the main themes of the night from a sceptical view, keeping us there till well after 10 pm! Revd Ben was on hand to answer the Churches view on anything but when asked a question like “Christianity...It can’t be the only way to God” he would reply “Well I think it is, you will have to make up your own mind”
The poem that I had thought of at the beginning of the course had intensified in my mind to such a degree I couldn’t stop repeating it over and over. As each week went by I learnt a little more of Christianity and I would substitute a word or two to in the poem to make it personal to me and relevant to the course but annoying questions still remained. Where is this Jesus when you need him? The poem says he is always there. Where’s the proof?
We were half way through the course. The next session for Ben to present was “Why Do We Pray?” this was a real troubling question for me. I set to work researching prayer. Does prayer work? Is there evidence? The character in the poem had looked back over their life in times of hardship; I tried to do the same, thinking about times that I had prayed and the outcome. I read about other people’s experiences and the effect that prayer had in their lives. After many hours trawling the internet one evening, I had to admit there was some suggestion that prayer did give us the ability to focus positive thoughts. There are unexplained occurrences unanswered by science. So maybe prayer could work...
...That is when the Holy Spirit hit me.
One second I was feeling pleased with myself for finding the closest thing to an answer to my poem, and the next second I was in tears with the profound knowledge that God has always looked out for me. I felt incredible guilt, as if someone had given their life for me, and I had taken it for granted. And then, just as the pain of loss and remorse was getting unbearable, I had a sense of extreme happiness wash over me and a feeling of being reunited, "Its alright; you're with me now." a voice seemed to reassure me.
Through sleepless nights and arguing with my thoughts about what was logically real or not, I kept the madness Silent for a couple of weeks until a brave person stood up in front of the Alpha group and gave their testimony...Wow! It was so similar to my experience. I knew at that point, deep down, in all truth, it was real.
As I think back now, the exhilaration of that time has stayed with me. My renewed love of God has improved everything in my life. It seems strange to write about it without sounding crazy. In fact my old sceptical self would have scoffed at this story. But as I have found out, I am not the only one to have had an "Alpha" experience which gives me the courage to put it in print here.
The Alpha Course was the best mistake I ever made.