Made for Community: An Afternoon with Alpha

 

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Life was never intended to be lived alone; community with God and one another was always the plan. The desire for community is built into our DNA. – Dan Blythe

 

Let’s talk Alpha folks.

No doubt you’ve seen the billboards around town about it. Or maybe you’ve heard about it from a friend or co-worker. Or maybe you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. In any case, let me tell you about my short but very fruitful encounter with Alpha this past weekend.

My first encounter with Alpha took place last fall at a friends’ house. I was sent an invitation to it via email and was told there would be food (let’s be real here, I had said “YES” before I even read the rest of the invitation) as well as a short video followed by a discussion in a small group.  All we who were invited were told was that we would be learning about the basics of Christianity and that all would be welcome, no matter where we were on our faith journey.

In a nutshell this is what Alpha is: An informal and casual environment for people of all walks of faith and all backgrounds to engage with other people about what it means to be a Christian.

Looking back, it was an incredible experience. The food was delicious, the videos were inspiring and easy to understand, and the conversations we had were thought-provoking, not superficial or mundane. I LIVE for conversations like this! These are the kinds of discussions I WISH I had with my family and friends!

The weeks flew by and I was legit bummed when it was over, but I had gained SO much insight and perspective about Christianity that I had never bothered previously to explore or consider. And did I mention the food???

More than just a random visit

Fast forward to a year later (just about a month ago) and I’m in the midst of emailing a woman named Kathy, who works at a parish in the Archdiocese of Detroit called Our Lady of Good Counsel. I told her I had felt compelled to visit OLGC since this summer and would it be okay to go to the Church for mass one day over the weekend, pretty please?

Before I tell you her response, you may be wondering why *this parish? It’s actually a long story but I will say most TOB-addicted peeps such as myself have most likely heard of the pastor, Fr John Riccardo. I would encourage you to visit their website or their YouTube page and just explore. Guaranteed you’ll find something that makes you think, “Whoa. What did he just say? That’s different.”

Back to my email convo with Kathy…

Can I visit? Well the answer was of course affirmative. But the noteworthy part was this: There was an Alpha retreat taking place that Saturday and she invited me to join.

I replied back with a resounding “YES! Sign me up!” Clearly, God wanted me there for a reason.  But for what reason exactly, I wasn’t so sure.


Community, Connection and Christ at the Center

There’s not nearly enough space to discuss how the Holy Spirit was moving within me the entire weekend. But let me just say, it was palpable. Much of it was felt at the retreat but assuredly the entire weekend was full of God-incidences.

The retreat itself was less than 8 hours but even in this short period of time, I felt an immediate connection with the people there. While I didn’t have a solid outline of the schedule, I had a general idea of what to expect given the typical Alpha schedule. But I also knew we would conclude with the opportunity to have people pray over us individually, which is such a unique and powerful experience.

In fact, my first real experience of someone praying over me occurred at a retreat just a few months ago. The gentleman who did it? An OLGC employee. Hence, one of the many connections I felt to visit this place.

After introducing myself as the “Clevelander just visiting,” I immediately felt welcomed by a table of 7 other folks. Normally, I’m pretty outgoing and can be quite chatty, but I felt a sense to just observe and quiet myself. I did talk, but only when I felt the Spirit calling me to. I mostly heard the Spirit say, Just listen and allow these people to teach YOU something. You are here for a reason. Let me reveal it to you.

When the Holy Spirit talks, you listen.

Just as my first experience with Alpha went, the conversations were profound and insightful. Just a few things of what I heard:

  • The significant growth individually and collectively in just the 7 weeks this particular group had been meeting
  • Their struggles with having faith and raising a family in our current culture
  • The difficult of having friends and family members who don’t agree with their particular views
  • The suffering and sickness of family members and children and how they were able to get through it
  • The balance of marriage and career and as well as being an example of the faith to their children
  • How to pray to the Holy Spirit for wisdom, for knowledge and for the right words to speak and the right actions to take in order to lead others closer to Christ

One word kept coming back to me as I listened: Community. Here in front of me I had the privilege of observing community in action. I’m not sure if they realized it, but they were essentially evangelizing to each other by sharing all of these stories. And this was just one afternoon!  I think they’re on the verge of calling each other friends rather than just acquaintances. And isn’t that what forms a community? People who may be on different parts of a spiritual journey but have a common goal of sanctification and living in eternity with God?

By the end of the weekend, I truly feel God called me there to be something that I have failed at for the past year:  A witness. A real live, public witness. I talk a good game, but in the end, do I really live this out? Do people look at me and talk to me and think, “That’s a witness. That’s a person unashamed of placing her trust in God.”

I hope I showed this in the small amount of time I was there. But I distinctly felt that this Alpha retreat was supposed to prompt me to engage with others in a more concrete way.

I think this was God’s way of saying: You’ve done a lot of work this past year growing in your faith, and acquiring “data,” as Fr. Riccardo would say, but now I need you to really move and to speak up and be that living example I have called you to be.


One last word about Alpha

Alpha is a program you need to experience for yourself. If you are lost, join. If you are seeking, join. If you are confused, join. If you are prideful like me and think you know it all, join. You can find one near you here.

There are a few people who have been on my heart that I believe would benefit from Alpha. Please pray for me to have the courage to be a witness and lead them to an Alpha course. 

As I was dropped off at the house I was staying at for the weekend I remarked to my new friend from OLGC, “You all are so unbelievably nice to me. But it’s more than being nice. I feel as if you truly CARE about what happens to me and you don’t even know me.”

He simply responded: “Well, we love you.”

Ahh, I thought. So that’s what being a witness looks like.

May we all strive to echo this same sentiment, love each other as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and be a living witness to everyone we encounter.

I can’t adequately describe how hospitable, generous, and kind every. single. person. at OLGC I met was to me. Granted, you don’t have to travel 3 hours out of state to find generous and kind people. But I’m going on record as saying some of the best people are in Michigan.  (Don’t hate me, Buckeyes!)  Thank you to the amazing people at OLGC parish for your hospitality and generosity:  Mary, Pete, Kathy, Jennifer, Chris, Fr. John, Deacon Dave, Dr. Steve, Mary, Kristi, Heidi, John, Susan, Brad, Lauren and Nicole – You are all in my prayers and I can’t wait until we meet again. 

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Help Me To See

I’m not blind, but I’ve experienced “sight” twice in my life that I feel compelled to share.

The first was when I was taken to the doctor for an eye exam in the 4th grade. I had no idea I couldn’t see the chalkboard; it was my teacher who told my Mom that I was squinting to see it. When it was clear that I could barely read the eye chart at the doctor’s office, we went to get a pair of glasses.

I’ll never forget sitting in the chair at the optometrist. Before he came in, I looked into the holes of the giant machine that he would use to ask #1 or #2, #1,  or #2. (Anyone who’s been to the eye doctor knows all too well this process, it’s kind of comical).

Anyways, I took a peek and I remember telling my mom, “Wow!!! There’s a dog on that wall over there!”  I think she said something like, “Yes, that’s a picture of a dog, what’s the big deal?”  And I replied something like, “But…but…it’s DIFFERENT when I look through this thing. It’s like it’s magic! I can see the dog! I can see him!”

Having never had a need for glasses, she couldn’t understand what I was trying to say. I was trying to tell her that I could see every DETAIL of this dog. I will NEVER forget that dog. The picture is ingrained in my memory forever and the first image I saw clearly.  I recall thinking this machine that I was looking through must have been magic. I honestly didn’t understand the concept of SEEING CLEARLY.

After the appointment we went to LensCrafters to get my glasses. I remember picking out pink frames, thinking they were the “cutest” looking glasses, although I was dreading wearing them. Glasses, at age 9, were not “cool.”

“Do you see what I see?”

I will never forget walking out of LensCrafters to the car. I recall it was fall and the leaves were starting to change color.

Imagine seeing leaves for the first time. I know it’s hard to picture seeing something that you see every day but just imagine never having seen the leaves on a tree.

I could SEE! I could see every single leaf on the trees that we were walking past! And the concrete – I could see that too!

I was literally looking down at my feet walking on the sidewalk and noting to my mother, “I can see!! I can see the sidewalk!! I can see the leaves!!! Do you see them? Do you see that?”

I wish I could remember her reaction. I wish I could ask her if she remembers that day that I got my sight.

But most of all, I WISH I could have every person I know experience this newfound sight. It’s like being born again. It’s like realizing you are alive when this whole time before, you had been dead.

I recently came across a video from a popular speaker named Nicky Gumbel, and he discusses how he got glasses as an adult and HIS reaction is very similar to mine.  (Fast forward to 12:30 to SEE what I mean.)

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

I mentioned I gained sight twice in my life. The most recent time I found sight had nothing to do with a new pair of glasses. It has everything to do with looking at life through a different lens, a different perspective.

This “secondary” sight occurred when I read Theology of the Body for Beginners just 8 months ago. I knew something was happening to me as I read this book and took notes on it, which I have NEVER done while reading any book as an adult. I felt compelled to reflect on these words this man Christopher West, was writing. It was another experience of saying to myself, and sometimes to others, “Wow, NOW, I can see! I see things the way they REALLY are! THIS, this is what is truth!”

It was a few months later in June that “the scales fell off my eyes.” I had heard this expression before but never truly understood it until it actually happened to me. This experience took place during a week-long course through Theology of the Body Institute.. I recall telling myself and others, “I cannot un-see what I just saw. I can’t un-hear what I just heard. I will never be the same person I once was. I can see again!”

Where I once thought I saw love, I see lust.

Where I once saw truth, I now see the lies.

Where I once saw friendship, I now see possession.

Where I once saw harmless entertainment, I now see abuse.

Where I once saw freedom, I now see impurity.

But don’t get depressed and discouraged! There’s Good News to share:

Where I once saw rules, I now see freedom.

Where I once saw archaic teaching, I now see beautiful meaning.

Where I once saw restriction, I see chastity.

Where I once saw punishment, I now see blessings.

Where I saw an aged, celibate, old-fashioned man in Rome, I now see a Saint that I want to embrace in heaven and thank him for helping me to see.

Thank you God for my sight. I never want to be blind again.