Among the presents I received for Christmas was this:
You might be wondering why someone would give a 48 year-old man a Beano Annual (although if you know me you probably won’t be at all surprised). It was from my sister.
And it was a gift in response to something I did many years ago, and which I confessed to via Simon Mayo’s Radio Show on BBC Radio 2 in November 2015. You can listen to it here. For those who don’t know this feature, people write to Simon Mayo (calling him Father Simon, or something like that) and tell of past misdemeanours, and ask for forgiveness from the team.
If you are not in a situation where you can listen to the MP3 file, then I will put the text of the confession below. (There are a few differences between the text I sent in and the one that was read out, but I assure you that no goldfish were actually harmed (or consumed!)). This is what I wrote (changing my sister’s name to Beth).
Dear Father Simon and the Confessional Collective
I am writing to unburden myself about an event that happened many years ago, when I was about 5 or 6, but which may have been foundational to what I do today.
As a small child I loved comics. Not the American superhero-type comics, but proper ones like The Beano, The Dandy, Whizzer and Chips, the Beezer and so on. One of my Grandads contributed to this passion by providing us with a new comic every time we saw him. Much as I enjoyed all of the characters in the comics I was particularly drawn to the mischievous characters like Beryl the Peril, Minnie the Minx and of course Dennis the Menace and Gnasher. In my heart of hearts I was drawn to their cartoon capers and imagined myself one of them. I did ask if I could join the Dennis the Menace fan club but my parents, fearing the worst, refused to let me.
On the fateful day in question my comic-giving Grandad and Grandma had come to our house to stay while we were going away on holiday. They brought comics with them and I read mine while my parents packed the car, so menacing was in my mind. When the time to go arrived my sister (we’ll call her Beth) and I went into the back garden to say goodbye to our goldfish who lived in a pond that was usually covered by a layer of green weed and slime. Beth got to the pond first and bent down to see if she could see any of the goldfish in order to say her ‘au revoir’, and I followed along behind.
As I approached the pond I was confronted by the sight of my sister bent over in front of me, facing the pond, and the mischief-maker within took over.
“I’ll push you in!” I said, in full menace-mode.
“Don’t you dare!” shouted Beth, but it was too late.
For a few blissful moments I was starring in my own comic as I shoved her into the pond. The sense of joy and delight was almost palpable, made all the better as Beth emerged from the pond covered in slime and weed. But the elation was cut short by the blood-curdling scream that Beth gave – a shout that brought me back to reality with a bump: “Muuuuuum!”
At that moment I knew I was in trouble that was even deeper than the pond. There was nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide and even “You dared me” was no defence to my actions.
Mum came running in response to Beth’s scream and was confronted by a slime-covered screaming swamp-monster and her rather sheepish little brother, ready to face the music. Beth was taken into the house to be cleaned up and I was severely chastised in such a way that sitting in the car for the long journey on our holiday was going to be uncomfortable (different times). Beth was convinced that she had swallowed a fish along with the rather large gulp of stinky pond water so she had to go back and count them: a task made more difficult by the fact that the traumatised fish had swum to the bottom of the somewhat opaque pond in order to recover.
Father Simon, I am now a Regional Minister in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and a significant part of being a Baptist Minister is pushing people under water, so I wonder whether this event has been formative for me in some way. I don’t seek forgiveness from my parents or my sister as I have already paid the penalty for my menacing misdemeanour. I don’t even seek forgiveness for traumatising the goldfish as they will have forgotten about it within a matter of seconds. But I do seek forgiveness from my Grandparents who had come to our house for a quiet break which began in such a traumatic way. In particular from my Grandad who, it has to be said, had a highly developed sense of mischief himself and must have almost done himself a mischief trying not to laugh at what had happened when he saw the screaming slime-covered swamp monster and heard what I had done, for to laugh would have vindicated my actions.
I throw myself on your mercy
Yours slightly less mischievously
Nick (you can call me Tom if you want to change my name)
Interestingly this generated some social media chatter from Baptists who were listening, trying to work out which Regional Minister had done such a thing. None of them suspected me (I know, unbelievable!).
And delightfully my sister (who works in a hospital) told her colleagues about it and they all listened to it. For the rest of the week she was known as ‘Swamp Monster’. Hehehe, the Menacing continues.
So now you know why my sister gave me a Dennis the Menace Annual for Christmas. Sadly there was no application form for the Dennis the Menace Fan Club included in the annual – I have since found out that the club is now closed to new members so I can’t join now, even if I wanted to, but that’s probably a good thing.
But I think there is something significant in all of this. Not my story, or even the gift (I have enjoyed reading it). But the act of confessing to someone else, having someone else to whom you are accountable. Protestant Christians seem to eschew confession as a throw back to the Reformation and as a rejection of all things Roman Catholic, but in doing so I think we have also lost something significant.
Protestant theology says that it’s important when we have fallen short of God’s standards that we confess it to him, ask him for forgiveness because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and seek his Spirit’s help to make a fresh start. We can do that directly to him, we don’t need an intermediary. But we can also benefit from having a confessor, someone who can hold us accountable, help us, pray for us, encourage us, support us, understand us, and help us to move on. It may take a bit of courage to admit to someone else that you have failed. It involves taking a risk. It is important that you find someone who will keep your confidence and not share your secrets with others, and whose relationship with you will not be adversely affected by it. It may or may not be your partner. It may or may not be someone in your church. But confession is good for the soul.
Be blessed, be a blessing.