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“Annie's Song”

Bob DeGray
December 15, 2013


© 2013, Robert J DeGray,

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This work contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author / publisher.

Annie’s Song

I want to thank you again, ladies, for inviting me to have tea with you. I’ve enjoyed chatting, and getting to know a few of you, and I’m especially grateful for the lovely girls who are looking after little Lizzie while we’re here.

You’ve asked me to share something of my life, my walk with Jesus and how I met and married Lloyd. My Aunt Emily always said that the best thing you can do in an awkward situation is just tell the truth and trust God for the outcome. Parts of my life have been a little awkward, and though I hope to be discrete, I need to let tell you some of that so that you can see the work of God in my life.

I was born in Bristol at the turn of the century. My father, Walter Woodward, worked as a clerk at the Portbury dock. My mother is also from Bristol. She’s known as a very quiet person and it has often been joked that the longest public speech she ever gave was the “I do” at her wedding. But if you can make her say something, you will find it thoughtful and gracious.

In addition to his work, my father was junior warden of St. Paul’s, one of the most famous churches in Bristol. As junior warden my father oversaw the maintenance of that old building. He was first there in the morning and last to leave at night. It began, I hope, out of love, but it always came across as a dreary frustrating burden.

In fact, if I can say this carefully, our family’s whole life lacked joy. The religion that bound our home was not the joyful life in Jesus I have since known, but more like a list of rules and duties. My older brothers and I were held to a high standard, and discipline was harsh if we fell short. Because of his position in the church my father expected us to be model children, perfectly behaved, and perfectly polite.

It’s not that my father doesn’t have good qualities. He works hard and is a faithful husband, and in his way really loved us. You should also know that in recent years he has changed a lot, and is learning about grace, joy and expressing love.

But when I was growing up those things were not very present. Oh, we were children, so there was a lot of childhood joy in our lives. I loved my brothers and they loved me. They looked after me at school and we loved holidays together, especially the ones spent with my Aunt Emily, my mother’s sister. My dad got almost no time off work, and had to be at church on Sunday, but Mum would take us up to Purton, near Swindon for two wonderful weeks every summer.

But at home, from the time I was little, I was made to feel guilty and ashamed for every wrong I did, even if just childishness or awkwardness. I remember the time my father sent me for his paper, and when I reached up I didn’t see his tea sitting on it, and pulled it over. I was burned and tearful, but dad expressed his feelings as anger at my clumsy thoughtless breaking of the teacup. So I had a spanking on top of my burned hands and arm, and three hours in the corner instead of breakfast.

My dad rarely admitted he was wrong, or gave the benefit of the doubt. His way was the right way, and he was always the one wronged by others or the target of their malice. I don’t know for sure why this was, but I know my granddad had often been harsh with him. They argued to the very day granddad died.

All this was bound, I guess, to affect my thinking. I loved my dad, but I often didn’t like him. I loved my mum, but I was often angry with her, because she was safe to rage at. Worst of all, I learned to see God as just a larger version of my dad. His rules were stricter, his punishments harsher, his love harder to earn. In fact I felt God hated me, and I knew I deserved it. My father had told me enough times that God could see my thoughts, and they were filled with anger and despair, with plots of revenge and plans of escape. I broke his rules, as often and completely as I could. I tried to look obedient when it served my purposes, but inside I despised my life, and fully believed that God had already condemned me to a merciless hell.

Oh how I regret those years. When I think of the love and comfort and strength God wanted me to know, I cry. When I think of how he loved my dad and my mum and my brothers, I weep for the chains that bound us. I regret the anger I constantly felt, and the shame that drove me to hate myself as much as anyone.

I was 14 when the war started. My older brothers, Eric and Alan soon joined up. My dad was proud of them and spoke more positively of them than he had in years.

Their absence made him focus more on my very real disobedience and disrespect. I now responded to his discipline with anger and screaming, which he took as a challenge, becoming harsher and harsher with me. But unknown to me, there was someone watching out for me from a distance. No, not Jesus, although he was too.

Aunt Emily owned a small bakery in Purton and my cousin Niles was her main helper. Her husband, Uncle John had died in an accident at the rail works. When the war came, Niles joined up, and Aunt Emily managed alone. But then the Army opened a camp near Purton, and her business boomed. She needed help, and she also knew of the tension I was causing in our home. So she and mum persuaded dad I should live with her, so I could help her before and after school and Saturday. Dad gravely announced this to me one morning and I gave him the biggest hug I had in years. Soon I packed my things and Mum took me to Purton on the train.

And so began the revolution in my life. Whereas under my father I had been angry and discontent, with the help of my Aunt I began to see what contentment, peace and joy looked like. You see, Aunt Emily was also a person who took religion seriously. But in her case it did not come out as rules and expectations and shame, but rather as kindness and love and caring, as joy and love for beauty. My father had little patience for beauty and stomped on most of my mother’s attempts to appreciate it. But Auntie enjoyed it all. She loved the sights and smells of the bakery and the joy her products brought to others. But she also loved natural beauty: the flowers of spring, the swaying fields of summer, the colors of autumn, the snow covered hills of winter. She had beloved walks all over the countryside, and would often calm my anger by taking me on one of them, by day or by night.

Another source of beauty, in her life and soon in mine, was books. There was a sweet little library almost next door to the bakery, and I often studied there. Books opened my eyes to a world I had never imagined in Bristol. I had not been allowed to read Shakespeare, or Dickens, or the old classics, because Father thought them worldly, and said that the Bible was the only book we needed. He was right, but it was literature that allowed me to plumb the depths of what the Bible taught.

These things made me yearn for and to some extent appreciate beauty, but could not change the anger in my soul. I really don’t know how Aunt Emily put up with me. I complained about everything and everyone, got angry or sullen whenever anything didn’t go my way, and used language that would burn a sailor’s ears. I was out of control. I would often flee the house and run out into the village and the surrounding hills. But Auntie was undaunted by this. She would give me a little time to cool down, and then come and find me and gently help me talk it through.

Her words and her example drew me to faith. She said she too had been an angry person, especially after the death of Uncle John, but through the ministry of Reverend, Veysey, she found forgiveness for her anger and comfort for her loss. After mourning came joy, joy in God and joy in all the beauty that surrounded her.

Gently and quietly she taught me that God was not the angry tyrant I thought I knew. She assured me that a relationship with Jesus wasn’t about punishment or fear, but about something my father rarely mentioned: grace. She told me stories of Martin Luther, and John Wesley and George Whitefield who found in the grace of God the only answer to their sin and God’s justice. She said that God’s anger was real, but that Jesus bore God’s wrath on the cross, turned it aside so that I might be rescued and receive the love of a loving Father and the presence of a living Son.

And did I meekly accept all this lovely truth? Of course not. I fought against it, I fought against her, I grabbed for every weapon I could find; anger, reason, doubt, history, the failure of God’s people, the pain and suffering of the war, anything to deflect the flood of God’s love from reaching my soul. But in the end I gave up and turned to the love and forgiveness Jesus offered. I needed his cleansing so badly. I remember clearly walking on the little hill above the Purton Cricket Club that day and being overwhelmed by the comfort and strength he poured out.

I would like to tell you that my anger and rebellion disappeared all in that moment, but I would be lying. I can honestly say that was the turning point. With Auntie’s help, and through others at St. Mary’s church, I began to find peace and direction for my life. The rector, musically inclined, persuaded me to join the choir, and my newfound faith was able to express itself in a newfound beauty of song. The Bible began to come to life for me, and I was amazed to find that it was not all rules and punishments. Much of it, especially Jesus’ life, was about the undaunted love of God for his rebellious people. Over and over I returned to John 8, to the image of Jesus standing between the sinful woman and the stones of her accusers.

I was not, of course, completely cut off from my family. I went to Bristol often, especially when either of my brothers was home from France. Both were wounded at different times during the war, but by God’s grace even Eric, who was gassed, returned to almost complete health. And by God’s grace our family grew healthier too. Having sons in peril mellowed my father and deepened his prayer, and the changes in me made a difference for him as well. I think he now sees himself a little more as a recipient of God’s grace and less a slave of God’s law.

Back in Purton, once I was able to get past some of my own hurt and anger, I was also able to become friends with some of the girls in the village. I was closest to Mary and Rose Shields. Mary was my age and Rose a little more than a year younger. Like my Aunt, they were joyfully outspoken about loving Jesus and the beauty around them. We formed a little reading club and devoured together the works of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell and many others.

The Shields family were non-conformist, and attended a Free Church in nearby Swindon. I went with them a few times on Sunday, and often to their Wednesday Bible Study, and enjoyed that church immensely. It wasn’t near as beautiful a building as our St. Mary’s, nor was it much larger, but on a normal Sunday there were over three hundred congregants, and the Bible Study was always crowded.

Much as I loved the grace and joy of St. Mary’s, I found myself growing attached to Swindon Chapel and the exciting life of knowing, serving and sharing Jesus that I saw there. Their pastor, Reverend Jacobson had a deep respect for Scripture and an abiding desire to lead others to faith. Mary, Rose and I started a Girls Group in Swindon and together with our students grew in grace and knowledge of the Bible.

When my cousin Niles returned after the war, it became inappropriate for me to stay on with Aunt Emily. I was sad to move out of her home where God had done so much for me, but she helped me get a job at a bakery in Swindon, and I moved there in 1920. Mary and Rose also moved, and the three of us roomed together and gave our time to the work of the Swindon Chapel. We started a choir, which the Chapel had been lacking, and expanded our Girl’s group.

One of the things I did not do was allow any of the boys to pay attention to me. I was past the worst of my anger, but I had sworn I would never get married, and that vow was still strong. I gave the cold shoulder to any man who even tried to talk to me. In fact, as I think about it, the only men I thought safe, or allowed to influence my life were the rectors at St. Mary’s and the pastor at Swindon Chapel.

So it will come as no surprise that the one man who ever got past my hostility was also a pastor. In 1925 Lloyd Robins returned from his studies in Canada, hoping to find an experienced pastor to work under for his first few years of ministry. His friends in Birmingham knew that Swindon Chapel was growing and encouraged Rev. Jacobson to take him on as an assistant. Lloyd jumped at the chance.

At first I took no notice of him. After all, he was older than I, and much more educated. But although I didn't notice him, I'm told that it was not very long before he noticed me. Don't ask me why: I'm sure it wasn't my face or figure. I hope it was my devotion to Jesus. He says it was all three. Lloyd has a fine voice and soon joined our little choir. Pastor Jacobson also put him in charge of the Boys and Girls groups, so Mary, Rose and I met with him occasionally. I could tell he was one of those who know Jesus by grace. Not that I expected differently, but I didn’t trust someone just because they were religious. And when Pastor Jacobson allowed Lloyd to preach, I found his sermons very thoughtful, organized and encouraging.

And that’s as far as it went. I could see he might be interested in me, and my habit of rebuffing such interest was strong. I avoided eye contact, left the room when he entered it, and refused group invitations that included him. I couldn’t avoid him entirely, but I did my best. Yet to my surprise I found that my avoidance somehow fanned a flame of anger in me. I began to have flashbacks to my childhood and its hurts and found myself waking from nightmares crying out to Jesus for peace. I don’t know why this happened, but it did not endear me to Reverend Robins.

Then my father visited the church. He was, of course, Church of England through and through, and though our relationship had improved, he was not happy I had joined a dissenting chapel. Lloyd preached that day, a wonderful message of grace from Isaiah. But my father was barely civil as he greeted Lloyd at the church door and began to criticize Lloyd and Pastor Jacobson and the church loudly just at the bottom of the steps. And I was furious. All my anger roared back, and before I knew it I was screaming in my father’s face. He yelled that I couldn’t speak to him like that. I told him he just hated the truth. And he lost it. He slapped me hard in the face, as he had when I was a rebellious teen. I collapsed to the ground, but got up at once and ran to the garden, tears mixing with the blood from my lip.

Several minutes later Lloyd found me there. I don’t know how he had done it – maybe it was his background as an Army officer – but he had managed to walk my father away from the situation, calm him down, and, in Lloyd’s words, “tell him just what a wonderful daughter he had.” My father accepted this in something of a daze, finally dropping his gaze and mumbling something about ‘I don’t want to be this way anymore.’ When Lloyd found me in the garden he spoke gently to me, and loaned me his handkerchief, but told me I needed to apologize to my father. I knew he was right, and so I went and found my dad. But before I could apologize to him, he apologized to me, and we ended up in a tearful hug.

After that all my defenses against the attention of Mr. Robins were dissolved. We began to court at Christmas in1926, and I loved getting to know this kind and gentle man. I love his heart for people and ministry, his love of the Word, and the peace God has given him. When my anger flares up or I become inexplicably hard hearted, he hears me out with patience, and says just enough to reset my course.

We married in December of 1927 with my father’s approval, and I have loved almost every day of our marriage. Now that we have the added joy of parenting Lizzie, I know I need Lloyd more than ever, but I look forward to sharing him with Stokely Free Church if you call us to minister here.