So, there I am, standing up in front of a congregation of supporters, proclaiming my intention to dedicate myself to the service of Our Lord Jesus Christ and realising that it’s the first time in fifty years that I’ve made any public declaration of faith.
You can’t say I rushed into it.
I grew up terrified of being noticed in church. If I thought there might be a shred of a chance that I would be called upon to speak any words out loud, I would curl up inside and psychologically freeze. This generally took the form of hunkering down as low as I could on my wooden chair and crossing my fingers and toes in an effort to keep other earnest believers around me away. It was a tough call as the church I grew up in thrived on words. The 45-minute sermon. The lengthy extempore prayers cast like a fishing net on the waters, gathering in every sore toe, bad throat and backslider amongst the congregation. The unsaved responding to the weekly altar call. The saved then giving lengthy testimonies in meetings as to what the Lord had done for them.
And maybe the Lord had. I don’t want to knock that. I just didn’t have a story to tell. I was quite good at making up stories, but I didn’t want to make anything up and so it was best to stay quiet.
Now in my childhood years, faith was measured by output. It was measured in the number of doors knocked on and wary householders asked solemnly if they were saved. It was measured in the number of witnessing opportunities on street corners and evangelical tracts pressed into unwilling hands. It was measured by the eagerness to stand up in a Sunday meeting or a midweek prayer group and talk about how your life had been on the floor and Jesus raised you up and now you were living in the light.
And all this tied me up in knots.
It would be so easy for me to be cynical and judgemental about these sincere God-fearing people. I really don’t want to be. There was nothing wrong with this committed well-meaning little band of disciples who met to serve the Lord in the little wooden hut at the top of our road. Their home was not of this world and they wanted to make sure they took as many as they could with them to the next.
I just didn’t ever feel included. And as time went on, and I felt further and further away, it became more and more impossible to ever find any words in church. I didn’t want to pretend I had any, because I didn’t. I would have had to fib and God sure didn’t love a fibber, so it was best not to say anything.
Until I reached the age of fifteen and the thorny question of baptism came up. I hadn’t been baptised in our little church at the top of the road as their theology said that infants should be only dedicated to God. Being about six months old when this event took place, I don’t have any recollections of it. I didn’t have any words then either. Probably, according to the family script, just a healthy pair of lungs.
It was left to me to make up my own mind regarding baptism when I had ‘put away childish things.’ Fair enough. But by then I had joined the Church of England and was set to be confirmed with my mates until the vicar realised that I hadn’t been through the waters. He hastily arranged the necessaries. I didn’t object – I wanted bishoply hands laid on me and as I still had niggling doubts all through my teenage years of my salvation, I thought baptism might underscore my application, so to speak.
Now this Anglican church was shall we say somewhat free and easy. It was so low it was bumping along the ground. Preparation of candidates was not high on the charismatic agenda. I turned up to the service with very little idea of what would happen, and stood in the congregation immobilised with apprehension as to what was to come. Someone hissed in my ear, ‘D’you think he’s going to throw the water at you?’ and I was hastily propelled up to the font where the water was sprinkled and the words said and a candle pressed into my hand.
It troubled me greatly that I didn’t feel anything. But now, I don’t think God would mind. Baptism is baptism whether it’s the disciples in the Jordan or a tiny baby swaddled in a generations old lacy christening gown or an awkward teenager who desperately wants a relationship with the source of light and life everyone talks about, but always seems to miss the mark.
So, for the next fifty years, I kept my head down.
Until a week last Saturday when I became a novice in the Third Order of Franciscans and was required to not only say words, but say them into a microphone. My younger self would have run for the hills, but this time, I knew that I was in exactly the right place. And that Christ was standing with me, holding my hand and saying, ‘Well done.’
And I wanted to be there in front of all those people because I meant what I was saying and I even had a feeling to go with the words.
The feeling was joy.
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