I was Only Nine Years Old When I Made the Decision to be Baptised

I still remember very clearly what prompted me to be baptised. I was attending a baptism service for the church that my mother attended. It was less than a year after the raid on the farm we were living on.

The Baptism service was being held in the open air on the bank of the river that runs through the farm and several people were getting baptised. I was standing next to my mother, enjoying the spectacle and the songs. The sound of Zambian voices singing songs of worship unaccompanied is quite something. It was a very spiritual moment.

Overcome by what I was witnessing and experiencing, I turned to my mother and said that I’d like to be baptised. She practically burst into tears of joy there and then. After a brief discussion with a few other adults, I was given the option of joining those being baptised there and then. My nerves got the better of me and I turned that down.

So arrangements were made, and some time later I was baptised, in the same river, in a more private service, where close family friends were invited. I can’t remember exactly how long later it was, whether it was weeks, or a whole school term. I am sure it felt longer that it really was. My mother gave me a copy of Pilgrims Progress, which she had written inside a small note of encouragement, and I still have as a one of my childhood treasures, it reminds me of times more happy.

Of course my father was there with his new woman and since he had travelled some distance to be there, he wanted some time with me. That’s the earliest memory I have of there being a battle for my attention. It made me feel horrid, being with my father would often do this. That’s why I always much preferred being with mum, her attention was always out of love and devotion for her offspring while dad’s seemed like it was to score points over mum. I hated that, hated it with a passion, and it would eventually become a hate towards dad and that woman.

Those First Weeks and Months after Baptism.

My first week back at boarding school I was given a small piece of paper by the headmaster with some key bible verses on it. This I placed in my first bible, an RSV. Its a bible I had owned for some time. I can’t remember exactly when I was given it, but I had already marked several verses on it by that time. I’ve owned several bibles since, but this bible is by far the most battered and scribbled in, and that small piece of paper with the key verses on is still there in the front cover.

I read the verses on that piece of paper many times in the following year. I knew my time at this school in Zambia was coming to an end. I knew my parents marriage was also going to end, I struggled massively with the denial of it. Even now the memories of that torment bring me to tears. I could not understand how or why my once wonderful childhood could be crumbling like this. Life used to be so wonderful and carefree. Since dad had introduced this new woman it had all gone to pot. That’s how I continued to see it anyway. It would be several years before I’d learn more of the truth, but until then all I had was what I saw and what I saw caused me immense upset on a regular basis. Being away at boarding school, with my little piece of paper tucked inside my bible, was my refuge from the turmoil, the hurt and the broken heart.

So I was sustained by the bible and I put a lot of effort into studying it. It was my distraction because talking about my family was, and still is at times, too painful. As my respect and admiration for my father diminished, so my devotion to a heavenly God increased.

Parental Marriage Breakdown

After the horrible events of my mothers kidnapping. The next time I saw my parents was the next school holiday, which just happened to be the Christmas holiday. They were separated and my father introduced me to the woman who would later become my step-mother. It was a lot to take in for a 9 year old.

To my young mind, a near disaster like that should mean a family looks after each other. Yet here what I saw was the apparent abandonment by my father. The truth was much more complicated than that, but my young mind could not comprehend why my parents were separating, why there was a new woman being forced into the situation and how this related to the kidnapping of my mother. It would change forever how I related to my parents, my mother became someone even more special to me and my father lost much of the respect I had for him, from that point on our relationship would be difficult and strained. In my mind he was the villain.

The truth is, neither of my parents were perfect and both had their roles to play in the breakup. It was how they acted post breakup that influenced how I viewed them. My mother would never tolerate me saying anything derogatory about my father, no matter how true. She always behaved with dignity and I never felt unloved by her. The opposite is true of my father, I had to endure much spite against my mother and often felt that I came second place to the siblings of the new woman in his life.

How did this shape my Christianity?

Given that I had no reason to question the validity of the Christian God or the truth of Christianity, it didn’t directly shape it. I never consciously thought that the separation of my parents or the events that led up to it could in any way challenge the existence of God. After all, it is humans that mess up, not God.

My father and his new woman would also continue to go to church, long before they eventually married, even before my parents divorce came through. I couldn’t understand why I had to endure this pain of my parents separation, but it certainly wasn’t God’s fault.

Boarding school would be a regular refuge from this pain and the care provided to me by my teachers would be a constant source of encouragement and strength. At least with them I knew there was a consistency of love and presence. This was very important to me and it was this that continued to nourish my growing Christian devotion.

Coming Close to Being an Orphan

In this blog I am trying to step through major events in my life in a chronological order. The next big event after becoming a Christian, was an event in the late 70’s which is a major factor in any history that involves my family. It not only concerns my family but several others too, its been written about in at least one book, featured in several international and UK newspapers at the time, as well as numerous radio and TV news broadcasts. Its impossible to tell my story without reference to this event, it has defined many things, both directly and indirectly.

In Brief

The event in question was raid on the farm on which my family lived. The raid was by Joshua Nkomo’s Rhodesian ‘freedom fighters’ and was one of several in the area. Despite being in Zambia, many miles away from the Zambia / Rhodesia border, we were not safe. In the months previous a neighbouring farm had been invaded and an elderly lady who lived there disappeared, never to be seen again.

During the raid, 3 people were taken captive, one of whom was my mother; they were all subjected to prolonged unpleasantness.

I and one of my brothers were safely away at boarding school and so all I would know of the event was a letter from my father telling me that Mum had had an accident and had suffered 2 broken ribs. The next school holiday, it seemed that all that was spoken about on the farm was this raid and the various circumstances that saved more people from getting caught up.

The couple who owned the farm were away so they were spared; my father was in town and was stopped on his return by one of the owners and told to turn around. Some other ladies on the farm were mistaken for younger children and left alone. My youngest brother was visiting a school friend so was not around to see anything.

The aftermath

I still remember today some of the many discussions and stories that were told about this event. There was much thanking of God that no one was killed and that the injuries to those captured were not as deadly as they might have been. Yet, some of those who I remember being about at the time I would never see again. The trauma having been too great and they would never set foot there again, some even left Zambia, never to return. So despite the relative ‘good fortune’ that day, the trauma went deep and lasted a long time.

Punishment for Sin?

There is no question that not everything was rosy at that time. There were a couple of families on the farm where one or both parents were having an affair. One adult speculated to me that maybe the raid could have been a punishment for the sin that was going on.

Even as a youngster, I found this idea difficult to fathom. The most critical element being that the people who suffered most during the raid were not those who were sinning most. If the raid was punishment for sin, why weren’t those who most deserved punishment the ones who suffered? Of course I am not saying that anyone deserved to be caught up in that raid, nobody did, it was an horrific experience which I dearly wish I could erase from history.

I will never know just how close I came to becoming an orphan that day and its not especially something that want to dwell on. Its how we hold ourselves after such events that define us.

My family stayed in Zambia. This must have been hard for my grandparents, since my mother was an only child. Despite discussing this event with my grandmother years later when I was a teenager, I do wish I had asked them more pointed questions about it when I had the chance, because now I can’t.

At my mother’s funeral, several people made reference to her dignity in the aftermath of this event. It would be afterwards that I would find an account that she wrote of her experience, it was dated 10 years after the raid. It would be a truly emotional read.

How does it define my Christian life?

To be honest in and of its own it doesn’t define anything in my Christian life. However, the life on the farm was a very Christian life with the majority of people being Christians and Christian passing through. The farm owner was an elder at the main Baptist church in town and we all went every Sunday.

As a child, growing up on the farm was wonderful, it was a fabulous place to explore and my most treasured memories are from those years.

This all changed after the raid. My parents separated and so we spent less time on the farm. As the affects of an unpleasant divorce sunk in, life became less happy and the farm became a symbol of the joy that once was. The raid became the full stop that marks the end of a chapter.

Life would definitely not be the same again.

Where does a Child’s Theology Come From?

The most obvious answer would be, from the parents, but who else could have such an impact on a child in those early year that they shape the child’s beliefs for so long?

As part of the process of moving from Christian to Atheist, I spent much time pondering on where my firmest beliefs came from and what triggers, if any, there were in seeding them.

Since my entire school life was spent at boarding school, many of the beliefs I formed and were influenced, not by my parents, but by my teachers and the other children I went to school with.

Sowing Seeds

I have already mentioned that the first seeds of creationism were planted when we were told to cross out a paragraph referencing evolution in our text books (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/let%E2%80%99s-start-at-the-very-beginning/). This event aside, I can remember no other moment when either creationism or evolution was specifically spoken about by a teacher, either at missionary school in Zambia or at secondary school in the UK. Conversations with fellow pupils I can remember, but no specific teaching on either subject.

One specific conversation I can remember was as a young teen at school in the UK and asking a friend to try and explain where we came from and where our ancestors came from etc.. we ended up at fish in the sea, at which point I burst out laughing. So its clear that by this point I was utterly sold on creationism. What puzzles me is that I am fairly sure that evolution should have come up in science classes at some point in the UK curriculum of the 1980s. Yet I can not remember any references. This could be because the school in question was a Church of England Secondary school. However, I doubt very much that any curriculum specification would have been ignored. So I wonder if any evolution references were too mild to cause my creationist values any problem and so they were simply forgotten.

Certainly I never had any discussion with my parents on the matter, in fact school work of any description very rarely came up with my parents due to the boarding school life.

What about other theological points?

Given that I went to two boarding schools which had a major emphasis on Christian teaching. What other things in my life come from those roots?

It would be too much to try and list Christian theological points and try and find the source for each on in my upbringing.

I recall very few specific theological points being taught as a young child away at school. Though, there was a very real Christian ethos everywhere, story time was often in a parable style, with the story and then how it referenced Christian teaching. There was a weekly walk to the local church. Daily assembly had prayers, songs and other Christian anecdotes. All this extra curricular Christian teaching was done by the school teachers, with occasional guests from the local area, or another students parent. When at home, I would of course go to the Sunday School, while my parents remained in church. So again basic Christian teaching and theology was being planted in my young mind by people other than my parents. The only decision my parents made was who was doing it, due to their decision on where they sent me to school or where we went to church.

All these lessons would form the background to my later beliefs. By the time I was old enough to be able to pay attention to a sermon, many of my Christian values were already in place. A sermon would either reinforce those early opinions, where they matched or cause some confusion, where they didn’t. Confusing messages would be ditched and that usually meant the longer held belief won over.

This is something I would see in later life when I spent time as a youth volunteer working with teenagers and giving them information that conflicted with their already held views.

Cause for concern?

When put in this context and looking back, its concerning, that my early and impressionable mind was fed important information that led to me forming incorrect opinions that would take years to undo. Objections about the truth of Christianity aside, should people, untrained in Christian theology and teaching, be left to tell young children the stories that lead to them forming their opinions, before they get the chance to hear the authoritative versions in a sermon?

I think specifically about my own child, going to Sunday School while my wife and I sit in Church. I am an adult and can make my own decisions; I can choose to filter out what I hear from the pulpit. My child does not have that same ability and is too young to be able to determine the questionable from the acceptable. The Sunday School teachers are enthusiastic church volunteers with no training other than the mandatory child protection training that the government has mandated. Even if I were still a Christian, how do I know that my child is learning what I want them to? Do I even know when questionable theology is being fed to my child?

Throw out the Baby with the Bath Water?

One thing I certainly am thankful to my early teachers for is the respect and consideration for others that has been so ingrained into me. This is something that my parents certainly backed up and something I would want my child to have as well. Okay, good behaviour does not require Christian teaching to enforce and encourage, but it does come as part of the package.

Now I need to be careful what I say here so as not to be misunderstood, ‘Christian behaviour’, as an ethos is a very desirable thing in people. The ‘doing onto others as you would have done unto you’ way of behaving is something I still strongly hold as an attitude that people should adhere to they interact with others. This specific policy, though, is only something I have encountered in Christian circles. Now I am not saying that non-Christians have lower standards of behaviour or poor morals, just that this specific message of behaviour is succinctly put and one I think Christians do a good job of promoting.

Yet despite those good points, the sad fact remains that in our Churches (and in my case schools too) young children are getting a basic grounding in Christian theology by people who could be unwittingly seeding ideas that in the future could become platforms for incorrect belief that could prove hard to correct. This is not just because I now reject the Bible and the concept of God, but also because I have a lot of friends who are Christians and I see their children going to Sunday School and I wonder, do they actually know what their child is getting told in there? I know I don’t