I’ve suddenly acquired a new friend. This is not an habitual occurrence with me. For one thing I rarely go out of the house; if you don’t count food expeditions to Sainsbury, the occasional walk to the corner shops or a daily walk to the local castle (temporarily on hold due to stiflingly hot weather.) I used to go looking for new friends, many friend-searching moons ago, when I was the sole carer to three little sprogs, living miles away from extended family and feeling entirely shut off from the world. And what a stressful, soul destroying exercise that was. A bit like job hunting. I’d join mother and toddler groups, stand around outside the playschool, and the school playground, trying to make socially acceptable chit-chat (made excruciatingly difficult by the stammer.) If anyone so much as responded, in a reasonably encouraging manner, I’d turn up on their doorstep, just to get out of the house for a bit, hoping they’d ask me in for coffee and a convivial chat. And the chat would feel kind of like an interview. Am I saying enough? Am I saying the right things? Does the stammer put you off? Do you want to hire me as your BFF? But there was no reciprocal turning up on my doorstep; no signs that I’d found anyone as desperate as I was to find the friend equivalent of a soulmate. Like love, you can’t go looking for the kind of friendships that last – they either happen or they don’t.
And now I don’t bother. I’m over it. But, just as I no longer need to get by with a little help from my friends – several, like buses, have suddenly turned up at once.
My new friend is a fellow choir member and a Christian, and the capital C is required, because she’s the most Christian Christian I’ve ever met. On first acquaintance this was not so clearly apparent. The new friend seemed very ‘home counties,’ very ‘in charge,’ very capable but also immensely approachable and helpful – like a posh mother hen. Show me an approachable, motherly person and I’ll hone in like a heat seeking missile. After about 18 months of weekly acquaintance and the occasional overheard chat, I realised that the friend appeared to be involved in a very personal relationship with God, the kind where you probably have his number on speed dial. Upon asking if I went to church, I had told the friend that I was an atheist – ‘that’s ok I forgive you,’ she’d graciously replied and nothing more was said. And to be honest there wasn’t that much interaction, being that the choir set up didn’t really allow for one-to-one in depth discussion, the kind I favour over scary group settings.
Then rewind to a couple of months ago and the friend announced that her church, which happens to be my local medieval church in the local medieval castle grounds, was putting on a series of weekly summer concerts, to give local, young musical talent a chance to showcase their performance skills, in front of a guaranteed-to-be-appreciative audience. ‘Would I like to go?‘ the friend enquired and we rapidly exchanged phone numbers. On past record, concerning people’s inability to stay in touch, friendship-wise, I wasn’t expecting a text or a phone call, so was a tiny bit amazed to receive a text some weeks later, saying the friend would pick me up on the first concert day and we’d go for tea and cake afterwards, in the church tea shop. ‘Might as well give it a go,’ thought I, whilst recoiling in horror at the thought of the tea shop; as long as there’s no requisite religious shenanigans involved.
And so I found myself entering my local parish church, built in 1120, for the first time in 26 years. I’d forgotten just how nice it was, how shadowed and cool; how quaintly small and narrow; how full of ancient stonework, dark oak pews and a couple of imposing stained glass windows – you can’t beat stained glass for engendering a sort of childlike religious awe, particularly when the sunlight is flooding through each ancient pane. And we bagged a really good pew, quite near the front. The new friend chatted on (mercifully, so that my role was mainly that of interested listener and not hesitant stammerer) and the concert began.
A young Chinese lad magically appeared, from behind a large stone pillar in front of the altar, and played a selection from Bach and Beethoven on an old grand piano set up on a frame with casters. He played very well and had all the right concentrated, intent moves. The dramatic raising of the hands, poised above the keys; the closing of the eyes; the raising of the head to the ceiling; the deep intake of breath indicating that Messrs Bach and Beethoven were about to transport him, and us, to a higher realm. We were then brought rapidly back down to earth with a jolt, when his younger brother appeared and bashed out a tune on the violin, in which every note managed to be just ever so slightly off key – but it was all lovely, just the same. They both took low, sweeping bows at the end and the friend rushed me off to tea, to beat the crowd. A crowd made up exclusively of retired people and church members.
In the tea shop, built onto the side of the church, we got a re-fillable pot of tea, for two, and a slice of homemade cake, all for an impossible £2. ‘This is unbelievably good value,’ said I, and the friend agreed, showing obvious pride in all things churcherly. ‘It’s run by volunteers’, she said, ‘they make all the cakes and supply the tea, coffee, cups and plates, and it’s open all day to anyone.’ As other people began to file in it became clear that the friend knew everyone. There was much Christian hugging and chat about Sunday services and godly gossip. The friend was keen to let me know, in between mouthfuls of cake, that her life was in God’s hands and that he always answered her prayers. His modus operandi appeared to be engineering serendipitous meetings with just the right person capable of solving the friend’s current problems. Thus, the friend would pray for a sick friend and then happen to bump into her doctor, who she hadn’t seen for ages, and regale him with the details. This was not a coincidental encounter but God directing people’s every movement from above and all in favour of the new friend. This rather took away from the idea of free will but then some godless Physicists are known to believe in determinism.
It seemed to me that her prayers mostly got answered because she was a very proactive person who couldn’t see that she was mostly sorting out her problems herself. I gave the atheist opposition view, pointing out that why was God so intent on helping out his first world, middle-class, well-fed followers when clearly the starving, war-torn developing world could go to hell. The friend is very gracious in religious discussion and invited me to perhaps turn up one Sunday and sit right at the back, just to listen to the word of God where all would become clear, and escape out the back door if it wasn’t to my liking. Clearly the friend feels I’m in dire need of saving; or do Christians win brownie points for each conversion? Apparently this ploy had worked before and I got a potted history of just about every church member’s journey into the Faith – mostly via the roads of alcoholism, mental illness, death and disease.
Which begs the question – why do some of us turn to the Lord in times of dire need but most of us don’t? Because we’ve all got a story to tell haven’t we? We’re all mostly in the same unsteady boat, rocked about by Fate and bad luck.
What I did learn is that going to church, or this church in particular, is like joining the best all inclusive, non-cliquey club that ever there was, still……. I caught the undertones, the slightly critical gossip, the hints at inter-church rivalries. But, like the friend says, Christians aren’t special or perfect, which doesn’t matter, because God will always welcome and forgive – as good a get out clause as I’ve ever heard.
Last week’s concert featured a young female violinist studying for her PhD. She was brilliant. The violin sang and echoed in the rafters. Her repertoire was just long enough so as not to induce mind-numbing boredom. Again it was followed by tea, cake and heavily God-based chat, this time for 3 hours, which is a tea time stretch by any standards. And tomorrow we’re off to see an organist with an international reputation no less – you can’t beat the sound of a church organ (check out the Interstellar sound track for confirmation of this.)
But really, the purpose of this exhausting 1669 words long post was to attach a Disney song, which seems to fit my current concert going relationship (except for the last minute conversion.) The song is I’ll Try by Jonatha Brooke featured in Peter Pan Return to Neverland and is the bestest Disney song ever imho – go listen to her version to hear an actually good singer sing it the way it should be sung. Audacity has been playing up and my laptop refused to detect the USB microphone. This has been hopefully fixed and, in the fixing, I realised that my two other Audacity projects were recorded on a mic that didn’t actually work properly. The husband also informs me that laptops are a terrible recording medium so basically, cover-wise, I’m stuffed. If you bother to press play then wear earphones (as I keep on saying) as this will make the whole sound at least presentable. The song is aptly named being that the recording of it was a very trying experience still, here’s the song.