I can tell you the exact time and date that I became a Christian: 10.47am on Thursday 4th October, 2001. I was thirty-one years old and lying face down on my bed, there was no one to witness it. No choir of angels, no blessing from a Bishop and no huddle of tank-topped, Jesus-sandled do-gooders waiting to welcome me into the happy clappy club. It was simply a conviction, a prayer and two phone calls; job done.
It might come as a bit of a surprise then, if I tell you that I’ve been going to church on and off all my life. The thing is, and it took me an awful long time to realise this, but going to Church doesn’t make you a Christian, any more than going to Burger King makes you a Bacon Double Cheeseburger. But surely I was? I possessed a Bible, went to Church regularly and believed in ‘all that stuff’. What more evidence do you need?
It took a house move and an invitation from a friend to her church to show me that I was completely and utterly wrong in that regard. I wasn’t a Christian, I was just a Church-goer. I’d go to church in my smart clothes, I’d say the words, I’d sing the hymns, I’d daydream during the sermon, go up for communion, stand around drinking coffee and making polite conversation, slipping away before anyone asked me to go on the tea rota. Repeat ad nauseam.
I went through the door of my friend’s church and I suddenly realised I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. As I’m writing this on what would have been Judy Garland’s eighty-eighth birthday, it seems an appropriate analogy to use. You know that moment in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the door of her black and white house to reveal a world in glorious Technicolor? Well, that’s essentially what I’d found here. Life, in all its fullness; but, not a parading-about-in-your-best-clothes-and-making-out-we’re-all-fine, life either.
No, this congregation came with real owie bits; real hurts, real pain and a genuine willingness to help and support people. I’d never seen anything like it. What was the difference? Why did my previous church feel like it was doing the dance of the dying swan and why did this one fizz and sparkle with life and energy? They both take their beliefs from the same book but they had very different ways of putting it into action. The best way I can differentiate is by saying that one is head knowledge and the other is heart knowledge.
When you love something with all your heart you respond in a different way to simply knowing about it. I know about Casualty and I’m quite happy to dip in and out occasionally, but I absolutely love Doctor Who, I never miss an episode or the opportunity to chat about it to other people. I suppose, in Facebook terms, I’d click the fan page of Jesus. Thankfully, unlike the Spandau Ballet fan club where the benefits were rubbish, the Jesus fan club benefits are immense – eternal life; what’s not to like about that? Woohoo!
It took me seven months of being in this congregation to get to the point where I could make that commitment. One day I realised that all that head knowledge was now heart knowledge and I found myself lying face down on my bed, opening the door of my heart and letting Jesus and all his Technicolor glory into my life.
I completely understand why people think Christianity is irrelevant to their lives if their only experience of it is boring, meaningless services led by grey men in floor length robes, or reading about splits within the church over doctrinal differences and legal action against abusive priests. The Vicar of Dibley wouldn’t have lasted five minutes as a TV programme if that was its portrayal of Christianity. But think of the character of Geraldine Granger, how we warm to her, how we laugh with her (and at her), how we love her and that’s exactly the sort of Christian I’m now surrounded by. Flawed, vibrant and genuine people who are that rare triple whammy: committed to their faith, committed to each member of the congregation and committed to reaching out to everyone else in the world.
Fair enough we don’t all have Sean Bean hanging next to Jesus on our walls, but the Christians I’m surrounded by watch Desperate Housewives, go bird watching, go to the pub and spend Saturday afternoons at Stamford Bridge watching football. They’re all committed to Jesus and they’re real people. It’s just that their focus and motivation comes from somewhere else.
Why would I not want to commit to something like that, that blows every pretension out of the water and replaces it simply with love? Love is very attractive when it flows out naturally, spontaneously and with total authenticity. That’s possibly why we’re bursting at the seams. People like what they see, they try it and in most cases they end up doing what I did, making that commitment for themselves in their own time and becoming part of something increasingly rare in this day and age: a community.
For all our broadband connections and umpteen ways of being able to get in contact with Auntie Mavis now living in Tasmania, many people barely know their next door neighbours and will admit to being quite lonely. We’ve been conditioned to be fearful of people, to lock our doors, to not let our children play out in the street and to regard our homes as our castles pulling up the drawbridge once were inside. We are all getting increasingly isolated and leading increasingly separate lives from one other. I spent the previous five years up to 2000 living in Evesham, Worcestershire and at the end of it I moved away knowing barely anyone. I am separated by 200 miles from my own family in Lancashire, but amazingly, here in this Bedfordshire town I have a big network of people who choose to be my family.
Are there downsides to all this? Yes, there’s a big one if you have couch potato or ostrich tendencies. Doing nothing is not an option. Once you make that commitment and become a Christian you can’t sit on the sidelines and coast along, you have a part to play. I’m not cut out for healthcare work in the Sudan, but I am cut out to be an administrator and to play my part in the smooth running of our congregation. I can’t sit by the sidelines anymore and ignore people in need. I can’t fix global poverty on my own, but I can do my bit to ease it and if we all do what we can then problems are solved. God isn’t going to wave a magic wand and make it all go away. You may think he looks like him, but God is not Albus Dumbledore. Sorry to disappoint you.
I don’t consider myself to have a religion. A religion for me is a set of strict rules and Jesus doesn’t really do rules, more a set of guidelines. I have faith in Jesus and my love for him means that I see the world through different eyes now. I find it hard to abide by rules, but as you can’t go far wrong if you use love as your yardstick, I tend to go along with that.
Oh, and guess what? Slightly ironic considering my aversion to them, but last autumn they needed some more volunteers and I went on the tea rota. It’s funny how things work out.