Thank-you everybody who has turned up, especially those who don't usually set foot inside church buildings, I greatly appreciate it! The major question I probably need to answer up here is not 'why I am doing it full stop', though I will answer that too, but 'why now?'
I've sat in this church and others and listened to a large number of testimonies over the last 30 years, and while they've all touched me emotionally in some way, most of them have been irrelevant to me, because a lot of the people I have seen baptised have had a major spiritual turning point in their life, whether it's just a realisation that this is what they were missing, or whether they were complete horrors before, who have had their lives turned around. However, one baptismal testimony that has stuck in my head for years is the one given by Carole Church, which is why she's getting wet again to help me out in a few minutes. Hers was about a long life of being a Christian, but not getting dunked in water, which rang a bell. She's been pestering me ever since, for which I am extremely grateful!
I am what, for want of a better word, I am going to call the luckiest person I know. I have a loving family, a whole raft of wonderful friends, some terrific close friends, a nicely varied job with good colleagues, a house, just enough money, and a whole range of useful skills. Whenever I truly need something, it always turns up in one form or another. When things seem to be going wrong, something happens to put it right. Above all, I am contented, I am happy with what I have, I find life fascinating...in fact, as a few people might have noticed, I'm happy pretty much all the time, and that's genuine happiness chaps, I'm not pretending!
Now, the problem with all this good fortune and happiness (and I stand by this description of my life even if it all crumbles to dust tomorrow morning – 30 years isn't bad going!) is that they are actually poor conditions in which to become a vigorous, baptised-type Christian.
Quite a few people have said that it is harder for people brought up in the church to become enthusiastic Christians, because, in a way, there is nothing amazing about God being there for you when you've known it since you were a baby. It's even worse if you're happy! There are plenty of sermons and books on piling all your troubles onto Jesus and letting him deal with it and take away the pain. There aren't very many on what to do when you've already been doing that all your life and actually have very little in the way of personal pain and suffering to let him take away.
It makes it tricky to maintain the strength, not of faith, but of acknowledgement of what God has done for you. Your need for oxygen is much more apparent when breathing is difficult, but breathing easily does not negate the fact that you still need the oxygen to be there.
I grew up in a family with one Christian parent and one atheist parent, which is generally considered to be a difficult and challenging state of affairs, but I am so glad of it. My mum, who brought me to church from the first Sunday I was alive, taught me my Bible stories and my prayers, and introduced me to a variety of great and not so great Christians. She managed somehow to keep me going to church through the dodgy bit in my teens when I didn't feel like attending, simply by silently giving me the knowledge that she would be upset if I stopped going.
Meanwhile, my dad, while never interfering with my Christian upbringing, has always been clear that he did not believe, and at various times has given me logical-looking reasons why not. I am almost more grateful for this, because I think it could be very easy, in a totally Christian household, to get baptised just because it's what you do. My dad's influence means that I've considered very carefully whether I believe and what I believe, and it's an informed choice. I know I'm not doing it for the wrong reasons.
However, I have always believed in this God. I'm not even sure why I would possibly want to believe that we were on our own here and might just die and become nothing and be utterly pointless. I cannot deny, nor have I ever been able to deny without feeling suddenly terrified by my own idiocy, the existence of God, his goodness towards me all my life, and the things he has done for me.
Whether we're talking Jesus dying on the cross so that all the tiny and huge things I've done that fall so short of God's standards are irrelevant, because that single action has put us all right with God forever; or whether it is my needing X hundred pounds to afford to go on a mission trip to Kosovo, wondering where the money's going to come from, and then having a couple of people phoning me up the next day with extra work that just happens to pay exactly the amount of money I need.
Despite this fundamental faith, I have had some issues I wanted to sort out. I have had niggles with some aspects of Christianity that I've now managed to sort with a bit of help. People who attend Barton regularly will have heard Richard go on about Don Carson, and with reason: he's worth a listen whether you believe or not, just for the quality and intelligence of his speaking, and his moments of comic genius. He taught me to understand prayer better, and he is slowly teaching me to like Jesus, which may seem an odd thing for someone getting baptised to say, but I have always had this little problem.
I love Jesus, I love who he is and what he did for my benefit, I love his perfection. But I've never liked him much. I'll admit it freely, because I can't be the only one. Baby Jesus is utterly inoffensive, and end times apocalyptic Jesus is majestic and fiery and magnificent and still the innocent lamb with it all; but earth-bound Jesus in my head is almost unshakeably the not-quite Biblically accurate one I learnt about in Sunday School, the weirdy beardy one with the too-gentle face and only possessing normal get-up-and-go the couple of times he got angry and hooshed the traders out of the Temple. That is not the real Jesus, but it's tenacious, and I don't like it.
God knows that's a problem for me, and I'm sure put this material in my path. Don Carson presents, with full Biblical backing, a much more intelligent-appearing man, with a sarcastic bent when occasion demands. I like that Jesus! I like a bit of well-placed sarcasm. For me as an English type, it gives wholly human, wholly divine Jesus more humanity in my eyes.
Some people get baptised almost the minute they believe, because for them it is a revelation. I never had that, so I started thinking seriously about doing this a couple of years ago. The church in general, does hold, either across the board, or more patchily, some opinions and beliefs with which I have a problem. Richard has been incredibly helpful in suggesting books and websites that actually answer my questions, rather than skirting around them as many sermons seem to do.
The research I've done to prepare for taking Bible Class once a month has been better than a whole lot of reading with no goal; after all, they could ask me anything and I want to be prepared! I also read my Bible cover to cover, which I had never done, and realised that a lot of the things that bothered me were only because I had never been taught the full story, only the edited, rather badly abridged version that you tend to get in most Sunday Schools and church services.
By the second time I'd read it through, I had come to a simple conclusion: If I believe in God as implicitly as I do, and I believe that the Bible is telling the truth and God is good, then all the things that I do not understand, or that seem wrong to me, are largely a problem of interpretation and understanding.
They are my problem, not God's. I find it immensely frustrating that we are unable to understand what God is up to, or even, a lot of the time, what he wants us to do. I am annoyed by the variance of languages, split up by God at the Tower of Babel, which means that we are left with God's word in the Bible written in very old, and in some cases extinct languages, which have to be translated by humans, who make mistakes and cannot express quite the same idea as the original in every case.
That drives me up the wall. But, I've come to understand that whenever I come across something like that, the error is mine, or the church's, or some translator's or commentator's. The error is not, cannot be God's. I can still yell at him and read stuff and try to understand, but if I don't understand in the end, then the ultimate answer comes down to what sounds wishy-washy when you hear it in a religious context, but is actually the firmest foundation you can hope to have: Trust.
Finally... It is also true that there comes a point when you know what you believe, when not getting baptised is just plain disobedient. For me, it was the point at which the answer to the question 'Why haven't you been baptised yet?' changed from 'I have a lot of questions which are not just unanswered, but incomprehensible, and until they're just unanswered, I don't want to do that,' to 'Because argle fargle bargle...'.
That said, this is not a grand finale or a change of direction. You don't get baptised because you have found all the answers. No-one needs to do this in order to become a nice person, or in order to get into heaven or whatever. It's just me admitting publicly that I know I owe everything to God. It's me doing what I am clearly told I am meant to do in all things: following in Jesus' footsteps.