Wow! People are singing songs, dancing, waving flags! Everyone has a smile on their face and they’re so welcoming. They actually seem to want to be here and they appear to be enjoying themselves.
Hang on. It’s not supposed to be like this. Churches are dour, stern places. There shouldn’t be noise. You should be able to hear a pin drop. It should be dark, threatening even. Have we come to the wrong place? No. We were in Headington Baptist Church.
Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Yes, I am talking about me. Yes, I was inside a church. And yes, I know, I wouldn’t have believed it either. Let me retrace my steps a little and explain why. It started off being purely mercenary, cheap child care for the kids whilst my wife Liz and I worked. We were wandering around the Headington Festival in the summer of 2008. Someone thrust a leaflet into our hands about Powerpack, which was a children’s holiday club at Headington Baptist Church for a week during the summer holidays. So they might have to listen to a bit about Jesus and God but for £10 for the three of them for the week I could live with that. It didn’t mention the all-age service on the Sunday at the end of the week that the children (and hence the parents) would be encouraged to attend. I didn’t do church. It held no interest to me whatsoever. The only time I stepped inside them were for weddings, christenings and funerals. My parents weren’t Christians, they weren’t religious at all. My father had sent me and my brother to Sunday school so he could watch the football in peace. We hated it! We’d have much rather been watching football with him. Churches were horrible places.
We came to church on the Sunday morning. This is when I had my first ‘Wow!’ moment. These people didn’t know us, yet they wanted to talk to us, they wanted to hear our stories, they were genuinely interested. This wasn’t a church experience like anything I remembered, it was pleasant, interesting, even fun.
We came to the church again the following week. Our three children enjoyed the children’s clubs. We came again the following week, and the next, and the next. You get the picture. We got to know more people. I started thinking more about God, Jesus, and Christianity, and then I started reading the Bible. It’s a book and a half to get your head around, and I found myself asking the question, ‘Where do I start?’ There were many people in the church only too happy and willing to point me in the right direction.
In the autumn of 2008 the church started advertising Alpha. Alpha is a course exploring the Christian faith, asking the questions ‘Who is Jesus?’ and ‘Why did He die?’ ‘Hang on; that’s just what I need,’ I thought. Over the course of the next 15 weeks questions were asked, answers provided, thoughts were provoked, tears shed, and decisions were made. During this time my family and I continued to attend Headington Baptist Church every Sunday that we could. The ‘wow!’ factor still persisted, but I was getting used to it. I even started to join in with the singing, dancing and acting – although I won’t be winning any Oscars!
The weeks of the Alpha Course passed and my understanding grew. Things were becoming so much clearer. The 9th session of the Alpha Course involved what was termed an ‘away day’. Those of us on the course were invited to a priory just outside Boar’s Hill for a day of talks, discussions, prayer, and lunch. The talks were to be on ‘How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?’ The away day was on November 22nd 2008. It’s a date I will never, ever forget. All the talks went well, lunch was simple but delicious, and there was plenty of friendly conversation. Mid-way through the afternoon the leader, Chris Band, gave us all a sheet of A4 paper. A black line divided the sheet through the middle. Along the line at equi-distance were 5 phrases that referred to where we might be on our faith journey. I only remember the middle one.
I’ll explain why. Chris asked us to have some personal quiet time and reflect on the piece of paper given to us and the phrases it contained, asking ourselves the question, ‘Where were we on our faith journeys?’ I slipped it into my back pocket without much thought and went off for a wander in the priory grounds. From the priory you can see right over the dreaming spires of Oxford. I found myself in tears for no apparent reason other than the absolute splendour of it all. I remembered the sheet of paper Chris had given us. I took it out of my back pocket, opened it and wow! (Yes again, wow!) A much, much bigger wow! than before. I could only see one of the phrases, it seemed to be illuminated by a ray of light; the other phrases were dark but the phrase I could read was ‘I want to become a Christian’. Yes, I know, far-fetched isn’t it? I wouldn’t have believed it myself a couple of months previously, but it was true. I was shaking, but not with fear. I was shaking with excitement, I guess, and the tears were really flowing now. I absolutely knew then what I had to do. I went back to the priory building and asked one of the Alpha Course helpers, Andrew, to pray with me. That afternoon I committed my life to Jesus Christ.
That’s not the end of the story obviously. No, that’s just the beginning. In the Bible, the writer Paul says, (this is in my own words) ‘when you become a Christian you become a new person. They are not the same anymore for the old is gone. A new life has begun.’ (2 Corinthians 5, verse 17) I’d often heard the phrase ‘born again,’ and I’m sure you have too. I’d always thought it was a bit cheesy. My brother had used that phrase when he’d become a Christian more than twenty years ago. But that was seriously what it felt like. I felt like a new person.
So what had changed? What was the difference between the old me and the new me? Simple: I felt that my life was complete. Here’s a quote from the newspaper columnist Bernard Levin which pretty much sums up how I used to feel. He wrote, ‘… people have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it … it aches.’ That could have been written to describe how I used to feel. I had a wonderful wife, three beautiful children, many friends, a home, two cars, all the latest gadgets, and yet I always felt that there was something missing. There was a gap; I was always trying to fill that gap, buying things, keeping busy, always on the go.
Do you do jigsaws? Have you ever done a jigsaw only to get to the final piece and discover that it’s not there, that it’s missing? There’s just a gap. The missing piece of my puzzle was Jesus Christ. Has my life changed? Yes, undoubtedly. I have an inner peace now that I had never experienced before, it’s a peace brought about by the knowledge that God loves me as one of His children, that He will be beside me guiding me all through my life. I know that because of my faith, because of my belief in God, life will be eternal.
The Alpha Course was instrumental in the start of my journey as a Christian. It was an excellent forum for hearing about all aspects of the Christian faith. The environment is non-threatening, the speakers and table leaders are very welcoming and knowledgeable. Questions can be asked, answers discussed, and opinions aired in a relaxed atmosphere amongst individuals who are often asking the same questions that you want answers to! When Headington Baptist Church started its Discipleship Groups in the summer of 2013, the Alpha Course Discipleship Group was the only one for me. I wanted to give something back. I had already done the catering for the autumn 2012 course and it was a thrill to see others start their faith journey. All the while knowing that my journey with God continues!
I am Wayne Thomas, married to Liz Thomas and we have three children, Rebecca (17), Joe (13) and Nesta (11). I moved to Oxford in 1987 post graduation from Portsmouth Polytechnic. Liz and I married in 1989 and settled in Oxford. We moved to Headington in 1997 and started attending Headington Baptist Church in the Summer of 2008. I am a Principal Research Scientist working in drug metabolism.