On the face of it we had everything: a nice house, good jobs, two beautiful children. People would look at us and think, “They aren’t searching for anything.” But we didn’t realise that we had a gaping, faith-shaped hole.
Then at Christmas last year, I was on my way to work in my role as a family support worker for people with substance use issues. As I was walking through Peckham Rye station in south London I heard some people singing – it was the choir from the local church. It was 8am and I was in a rush but I felt compelled to stop and listen for a few minutes; it was really, really beautiful. I felt so moved and, as I left to get my train, I popped a flyer for their carol service in my bag.
A few weeks later, my husband and I took our two children to All Saints Church, Peckham, for carolling. We weren’t expecting to feel any different from how we normally felt after going to a standard church service at Christmas time – it was just another part of our annual festive tradition.
But when we arrived, the choir was singing ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ and somehow we heard the words in a way we never had before. We’d never been to a church where people were really worshiping. We’d been to churches where people stood there, dutifully singing hymns. Those hymns sounded beautiful but the congregation weren’t singing from their hearts. When we got home that night my husband and I both decided we wanted to go back to All Saints for their Christmas Day service. At this point, we were the kind of family who only ever went to church at Easter, Christmas and for weddings.
Encountering the Holy Spirit
When January rolled around we felt an inexplicable urge to keep going back to church, and on the first Sunday of the new year I spent the whole service in tears. It was a feeling I had never experienced before and I just knew I had to keep attending. Looking back, I realise it was the Holy Spirit at work. I went up for prayer a few times in those weeks and I felt my body physically shaking. Every time I was prayed for the same thing happened: it was as if everything was vibrating. Equally, when I was singing, I felt an emotional outpouring.
I remember really crying, singing “I surrender”; I was thinking: “Can I really say these words and believe them?” Seeing people with their hands in the air, truly expressing their love for God, was quite a strange experience for us, but it wasn’t scary.
At the same time as I was encountering God, my husband was wrestling with different issues. He was really intrigued with this new expression of church; one that he hadn’t seen before. How different it felt, how people were expressing a really intimate relationship with Jesus. But he had hang-ups with the idea of going to a happy-clappy church and it all being a bit full-on. We wanted to feel we could dip our toes in and then run away if we didn’t like it.
For me it was more of an emotional experience, which then became cerebral later. But for him, he’s much more in his head; he needed to understand it and intellectualise it first. He went on the Alpha course and got a lot from that.
In the light
We had been going to church for a month when my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I really believe that God took me by the hand and brought me to the space I needed to be in before I heard that news. If we had started going to church after that point, I would have felt that I was grasping for something, looking for a crutch to get through difficult times, but God revealed himself first and so instead I was able to process what was happening.
Even now, with my dad being unwell, I feel really blessed. I used to feel anxiety the whole time. I probably wouldn’t have called it that, but I used to worry all the time about everything. But through prayer and worship I just don’t feel that way any more. I know that God knows all of the good and bad in me and loves me anyway, and because I know I’m not on my own, that anxiety has gone. I feel much more able to approach everything.
My relationship with my husband is better too. We communicate more effectively and my husband sees life through a different lens. I genuinely think him coming to faith has put a new filter over his eyes. He is so much more compassionate and kind to everyone.
In the past when a friend would ask for advice about a situation where they had been wronged by someone, my natural inclination would be to say: “Don’t let them get away with that!” But now my advice is to feel love and compassion for that person. I remember reading a passage in John about being in the light and it really resonated with me. If you engage with those dark thoughts, those evil thoughts, it takes you into the darkness and, actually, it’s about keeping yourself in the light.
I have been so blessed by meeting with people from church during the week. We read a passage from the Bible and then somehow it pops into my head at just the right moment. There have been so many examples of that. I’ve come to realise it’s a living, breathing word.
I know that this is just the beginning of our journey and the hard work of figuring everything out starts now. I knew I was lucky before, but that all pales into the shadows in comparison to feeling held by God. I feel so blessed now. Life is so much better when God is involved.
Amy Butterworth was speaking to Premier Christianity’s deputy editor, Megan Cornwell
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