(From James Grote)
On Sunday at my church, from a dark place, a bright light shone and the waiting was over. This may seem like the end of the story of Advent with the dawning of Christmas, but this is what happened. It was expected and planned. It was a baptism.
John Bunyan Baptist Church, Oxford, where I am the minister, is also the home to a creative arts project called the Ark T Centre. Each week around 900 people use the building for dance, music, drama or visual arts. There’s a café where people gather for coffee or lunch and four artists have studios where they produce their own work as well as working in the community. This weekend was a busy one which started with two of the artists leading a Christmas Light procession in the city centre on Friday night with hundreds of children carrying lanterns through streets rammed with thousands watching. On Saturday we had a craft fair where local artists sold their work – a warm cosy affair where we were surprised by one of the Ark T Centre’s volunteers who came with his guitar and sang throughout the afternoon. He has been a volunteer with us for about 3 years, I knew that he played drums, he had mentioned a guitar but I didn’t know that he sang. He had waited that long. He said he was nervous.
Then on Sunday Louise was baptised. Louise is in her late 20’s and came to the Ark T Centre as a volunteer 3 ½ years ago. Like many of the volunteers in the Centre, Louise came to us to be helped as well as to help (though I could say the same about my work in the church and the Centre). Louise was going through a particularly difficult and dark time. She settled in well and became very much a part of the place. Just over a year ago she started coming to church and six months ago she asked to be baptised. The service on Sunday brought together people from the church who now know her well and love her dearly, her family, friends and many people from the Ark T Centre, none of whom regularly attend the church. Louise gave her testimony in which she told her hard and painful journey to faith, the time she sat in the church one day when she was volunteering and how, at a very scary moment, she clutched the little cross which was given to her when she first came to a Sunday service (we always give a little cross to anyone on their first visit to the church, they are hand-made by people in the church). She spoke about how important the Ark T Centre had been to her as a home and a safe place and somewhere that she felt she belonged. She spoke about friends and family who had loved and supported her through dark times. Today though, the light shone and Louise was baptised.
Two weeks ago we celebrated the 13th anniversary of the Ark T Centre in an exhibition and dance performance. Louise is the first person to have come into the Ark T Centre and, through it, to have found her way to the church and to baptism and to faith in Christ. The purpose of the Ark T Centre is not to bring people into the church or even to bring them to faith in Christ, its mission is broader than that and belongs, for me, in the more complex web of the Kingdom which even Jesus struggled to explain with parables . However, as the minister of the church (as well as being director of the Ark T Centre), I cannot hide from the fact that Sunday was very special. There are many many wonderful stories of people finding (advent) hope through the Ark T Centre, some of whom were also there on Sunday. Louise is one of those but, as a Christian minister, for me her story has a particular significance. A light shone and the waiting was over.