Rose was an ageing friend of the family who I never got to meet. Up until I was about ten years old, there would be presents from Rose, every Christmas, for my two sisters, my brother and myself. Nothing big, but dutifully chosen every year, reliable as rainfall. Until she died…
I never saw a photograph of her, but I used to picture her with sensible old-lady-shoes and thin, knobbly ankles, in a printed cotton dress and a pink hand knitted cardigan. Don’t ask me why I imagined her like that, it’s just the way it was. I knew she existed, because I had to write a ’thank you’ letter to her every January – but that was where our relationship ended.
Distant, unknowable and would probably have liked more contact from me had it ever been offered.
And now, having regularly said that I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a Christian, I realise that up until I was about fifteen years old, in spite of calling myself ’a Christian’, my relationship with God bore remarkable similarities to the one I had with Aunt Rose. I was pretty sure that he existed – with a fairly classic image – old man, long white hair and long white beard, blue ankle length gown, sandals and staff – a kind of Gandalf with a throne and lots of angels. .
I also had definite experiences of His presence in times of dire need; I had some comprehension as to the nature of faith, and I liked what I knew.
But, if I’m honest, I didn’t really ’get’ why Jesus had died, or that Jesus IS God, and what that meant to me. I found Good Friday thoroughly moving, without ever experiencing the joy of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday was about chocolate eggs.
What a muddle.
And if I hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as the saviour who gave His life for me, then how could I call myself a Christian?
But no one had ever told me that.
And don’t even go there with The Holy Spirit. I was an old fashioned Anglican and no one had ever even suggested that gifts of The Spirit were anything other than theoretical outside Pentecost and the book of Acts. Maybe I thought that He was something weird that happened up near the alter – probably involved incense – either way, I was certain He didn’t involve me.
But somewhere along the line, I got involved with other Christians from other churches, who talked about Jesus more often than at Christmas and Easter, and The Holy Spirit has got involved. At nineteen, I was told by some friends that it was time for me to baptised ’properly’, and was thus lovingly dunked, fully clothed into a bath in Oxford. Somewhere before that, I distinctly remember my first experience of praying in tongues. I discovered that without Jesus Christ, and without The Holy Spirit, a relationship with God can be uncomfortably theoretical. Uncomfortably close to ’religion’.
There’s been more over time. Rich years, lean years. People that I’ve loved and lost, all sorts of personal difficulties and life events; some ups – some downs. Times when God was so present as to seem physical, and other times when there has seemed to be an unbridgeable void keeping my prayers from being heard. Through some of those lean periods I had brief moments of feeling His presence, but more often, I just felt the loss of something that I knew I missed and longed to feel again.
Learning that there can permanently be something more has taken yet more time. I used to stand on the sidelines watching enviously as my friends seemed to bathe in His presence, wondering if they were being ’real’ in their joy. But now I’ve learned to pray every day to invite The Holy Spirit to fill me again. I stand amazed at how remarkably small my daily steps toward my Father can be, in order to feel the full richness of His joy and hope filling my every waking moment.
Strangely enough, my visual image of God has faded as time goes by, and any number of hunts through family albums have never turned up a photograph of Aunt Rose. But whereas, with the absence of regular Christmas presents, Rose has become more distant, and perhaps, less relevant over the passing years, my father God has become closer, and clear enough in my heart that it doesn’t matter what He looks like any more.