A Confirmation and Baptism service at church today. We're a good Anglican church; we have Baptisms by full immersion and by sprinklings of Holy water. We have affirmations of Baptismal vows both underwater and on dry land. We have adults and teenagers Confirming their faith in Christ, and at other times we have infants Baptised or Dedicated or left to make their own choice later.
It's easy to mock this our muddled church. But, the thing is, it's not about who's right and who's wrong, about what I did as opposed to what she did or what he did and what they say. It's about obedience. It's about the willingness to stand up in front of the congregation, to make a declaration of faith, to reject evil and to turn to Christ. And to believe and trust in God and in no other.
There's a picture on my parents' dressing table. Or there was; it's been a while since I left home and longer still since I was in their bedroom. My father in a smart suit, my mother in a smart set of clothing, and myself as a tiny baby in a beautiful white Christening Gown. Standing as a family outside this my church. And, well, it's been a while since we discussed it, but if I remember things correctly, the Christening played a part in bringing my parents into the church.
And so I grew up, obviously not remembering any part of my Christening, but knowing that I was a child of God, and a child of Christchurch. Sunday mornings spent making fans out of the order of service sheet and leafing through to find page 49 of the mysterious green booklet which had so many pages missing. "And we have sinned against You, in thought, in word, in deed. Through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault. We are truly sorry, and repent of all our sins." And knowing forgiveness, and hoping not to sin again until next week, and then skipping through to various Sunday Schools and "For You gave me a heart, and You gave me a smile. You gave me Jesus and You made me Your child. And I just thank You, Father for making me, me." And pennies in the collection for Tear Fund, and endless colouring in of sheet after sheet of whatever this week's story might have been, and learning that you don't have to close your eyes if you're going to pray in the school playground so the bullies don't see.
And then Pathfinders, and CYFA, and summer camps in wet fields in Windermere with green porridge and collapsing latrine tents and "At the name of Jesus" sung to beyond the point of insanity. And the realisation of the need to make a personal decision, to take this faith and this knowledge and this Jesus and stand firm for myself, not relying on the faith of others to see me through it. It's not about believing - I believe in God as firmly as I believe in mountains and sea and sky, family and friends and the internet. But making the decision to stand up and be counted, to put my trust where my belief already lay.
And so to being Confirmed, at a service which happened to be on my 15th Birthday, and so spending my birthday with the multitude of relatives who had come to see the service, and eating a cake with frosted grapes on the top - elegant but disgusting - and speeding through the day to the evening, to the moment where Bishop Bones would lay his hands on my head, and I would be filled with the Holy Spirit and all would be wondrous and magical and somehow super holy and wise.
Or... to the moment where I would kneel in front of the Bishop, he would lay his hands on my head, and pray, I would whisper my Amen, and feel nothing. No new wisdom pouring in, no conscious realisation of these Companion and Helper and Comforter and Comer-alongside who was supposed to have met with me at this point of Confirmation (and not before). Just the same old God, and me with the same old prayers, the same old faith, but now allegedly a "proper" Christian and entitled to take Communion.
And, setting aside the silliness of teenagers kneeling around a man in a dress, there is such comfort in that Communion. Taking the bread and the wine, as others have done for two thousand years, remembering Jesus and welcoming Him again. And a weekly cleansing from all sin, and renewing a right spirit within us. And knowing that it is indeed right, our duty and our joy, at all times and in all places, to join with angels and archangels and with all the company of Heaven, forever praising You and singing Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of Power and Might. Praying, and having prayers answered, receiving pictures and later walking into the landscapes I've dreamed. But feeling like a dry river bed, not a mountain stream. Cracked and parched, and wanting more.
So on to college. A Christian Union, meeting Christians who were actually Christians and not necessarily Anglicans. And realising the two are not the same. Attending a Baptist church, and being taught that only a Believer's Baptism counts. And wondering if this is it, this is what I've been missing out on. Stepping into he Baptistry, and being Baptised once again in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And knowing that once again, that wasn't quite right, that there was still something missing.
Visiting the Pentecostals. And learning that all believers speak in tongues; therefore, if I do not speak in tongues, I cannot call myself a Christian. Wondering what I am, if not a Christian, but willing to give it a go.
And speaking to my Saviour, Lord God, in English and in tongues, praying and praising, but knowing this is also no different somehow to the relationship we have had all along.
Moving again, and picking a church by the timing of the morning service, knowing I must start my shift at noon on a Sunday. A brief fling with the United Reform Church, long enough to be visited at work (in a boarding school) by the minister, thus ensuring 18 small boys would run up to let me know a man in a dress was looking for me.
A new job, a new location, back to the Baptists and some lovely women's fellowships, and bowling nights and beautiful services and genuine Godly friendship at difficult times.
And then home, back to Abingdon, and back to Christchurch, but to a church which seems to have transformed itself in the years I was away. New friends, new relationships, new orders of service, altered liturgy and a new ministry team. And the same old reliable, faithful, trusty, God, still present, still waiting. And God who speaks, through His word, through friends, through the church. And God who maps out my life so much better than I could. And me, still pushing, still searching.
And God who is there when my children arrive, and God who is there when my daughter dies, and somehow sees me through it. And God who is there as I give evidence at the inquest, and God who is there as we hear the court verdict, three long years after her death. And me, dry.
And another daughter ill. And me knowing and believing absolutely that there is no safer place for her than to be under God's wing. And yet the realisation that I could not leave her there, that actually I quite liked my plans for her life and I was afraid God's might be different. And an impasse.
And then, New Wine. And a friend who was able to listen, and who, in a very brief conversation, was able to move on from "this was not your fault" to "then you need to forgive yourself". And a change of heart. And then God. And a seminar, and a "please come forwards for prayer" and a pressing forwards for prayer - and then too many people coming forwards for prayer and not enough time, and yet another missed encounter and more disappointment. And then God. And more prayer. And come forwards not in a nice small safe little side tent full of strangers, but press forwards past everyone you've ever met. And watch as the woman next to you is clearly filled with the Holy Spirit and taking three pray-ers to contain her and keep her safe, and feel that you've been missed out again - and another stranger grabbing an arm and saying "Stay."
And staying. And standing. And feeling very silly, standing and standing, with someone coming back every wee while and repeating "Stay." And then a woman with a big long love letter from the Lord, reaching out through the clutter and the contempt and getting to the heart of things, speaking into my fears and my frustrations and not just breaking down the barriers but removing them completely. And then surrender, and the hand of God on my shoulder, pushing me down so gently. And I stay down, and I know that this, this is what it is all about. Not anything I can do - I can at this point do absolutely nothing. But about finally accepting there is nothing I can do.That all my own efforts count for nothing, and that it is all God. And I go to get up, and the hand on my shoulder tells me to Stay Down. And so I rest for a while, and then stumble back to my feet. And write down what I can remember, and wobble back to the tent with a friend who has waited. And I haven't had the words to explain it until now, but maybe she's reading and it'll make a little more sense. Or not.
I could leave it there. On top of the world, at the foot of the cross, and pretend it's all been bliss and simplicity ever since. But in the interests of honestly, let me say I'm a failure. I'm rubbish at this. Thankfully, God is not. And I don't have to wait until Sunday, and say the right words (which is just as well, because they've changed again and I stumble over them), and I can trip over a hundred times in an hour and need forgiveness another hundred times. And that's ok. Well, obviously it'd be better if I didn't stumble and fall at all, but I'm still working on that. Some days go better than others.
Tonight I watched my friend's son stand up and make a public declaration. I watched him enter the Baptismal pool, I watched the Vicar and the Bishop Baptise him, and then I watched him drench the Curate as he climbed out of the pool. Because God has a sense of humour too, and just loves to cut through the solemnity at times. And I remembered my Confirmation, and I remembered my Baptism, and I remembered all the pushing and the running around and the dry times. And I remembered that peaceful, quiet surrender, in the midst of the rumble and thunder of a rattling good Praise and Worship session,and I know that it was all planned out that way.
And so when the Bishop invited the congregation to reaffirm their own Baptismal vows I dipped my fingers into the water and asked Jesus once again to rule my hands, my heart, my head. And I know I'm not perfect, and I know I rely on His Grace and Mercy every moment of every day. But tonight I'm just thankful for His love. And praying that all those who stood up for Him this evening will remain under His protection all the days of their lives.
I believe and trust in Him.