AS everybody knows, Easter is about pirates. And what better way to spend Easter, having not-quite-recovered from flu, than to go to a boarding school in Surrey with 60 schoolchildren, dress as a pirate and get covered in paint and flour?
This weekend was the Christ Church Cockfosters House Party, a four-day getaway for the two elder youth groups at the church, a weekend of wide games, gunging and walking the plank, interspersed with teaching, praise and discussion. I was asked to help a long time ago, and delayed deciding for far too long, but was eventually inspired to go, to help in my way. It crept up on me, I missed all of the preparatory meetings because of other commitments or illness, and I entirely misjudged how involved I was expected to be. But on Friday I was on a coach bound for Dorking, for a very different weekend.
For the first day or so I was entirely out of my comfort zone. I’m not used to controlling crowds of people, let alone teenagers who don’t want to listen, certainly not to a softly spoken person like me. I was constantly concerned that I wasn’t fitting in, as I’m not in any way a lad, and I always worry that I couldn’t connect with my group of guys. I always struggle in entirely male company, certainly entirely unknown company - the company I prefer to keep knows nothing about football, and will happily weave science, Monty Python, music and anything quirky into a conversation. Outside of this kind of company I clam up, and haven’t a clue what to say. Outside of discussion and out into the real world I feel equally redundant: I’m the guy who was always picked last for sports teams - I’ve grown up now, but my mind refuses to remember that. Still I’m neither big nor strong. Plus, I’m rather too fond of sleep, and don’t appreciate a hard bed in a room sandwiched between two groups of boys who don’t grasp the concept of ‘lights out’. I struggled.
On Friday afternoon we played a wide game very different to how I remember them in the past. On the plus side, I got to tackle people to the ground and pelt others with eggs and flour (and, being younger than me, I actually stood a chance). I relaxed. I had fun. And I still stand by my tactic of sitting in the enemy’s base for 15 minutes, contemplating my options and letting them waste their attention on keeping me there, even if when I did eventually move I immediately fell over a log and was attacked by four rabid children, thirsty for my life ribbon now deeply buried beneath me in a less-than-comfortable posture, eventually losing my life and the flour ammunition I had successfully won from them. It was muddy, it hurt, but it was enjoyable.
Except when Sorrell bit me in the leg.
On Friday night we ran a quiz, which went well given the last minute writing of questions. The between-rounds challenge also went well, but brought out a side of the children’s imaginations we rather wish it hadn’t, and by pact nobody is ever going to mention it again.
On Saturday we played hunt the leader, whereupon I hid in the centre of Dorking with balloons on my head, at the top of a patch of greenery, pretending to be a flower (or so I could claim, but ultimately, I was a man with balloons on his head). We had a pirate party into the night; a treasure hunt; the next day individual games, including my own ‘cast the anchor’ (nobody died, thankfully); gunging; and a second wide game - this time in complete darkness at night (and not in the woods, because that would have been lethal). This second wide game was particularly scary; at a base, I had the power of the torch (and white paint, just to make things messy), but the scenes were reminiscent of World War II prisons in films, spotlights following those trying to escape. Ghosts would appear out of the darkness, running at full speed towards you, determined to steal your life.
But asides from the activities to which I could help and therefore not be in a state of panic (although I was perpetually in a state of confusion - I should have gone to those meetings!), there were of course daily services, studies and seminars. I jointly led a small group in discussion, and played my guitar and sang in morning meetings. The evening services were based on the Fixed template (the 5pm Christ Church service for students) - there was a loud rock band and screens. It was informal, you needn’t be afraid to dance.
It was at the Saturday service that I snapped out of being uncomfortable, as I realised how selfish I was being. After all, this weekend was not about me. I had to stomach my discomfort, however ridiculous my discomfort might be, and focus on the purpose of the weekend. I sat at the back, and in front of me were two boys (I shan’t name them as they’re wise and savvy and will probably find this blog). Throughout the service they were distracted. They didn’t care. The second they could leave they did. These two boys had been particularly difficult to deal with personally over the past two days, but I suddenly realised that I had to deal with this by making them my challenge.
Their transformation by the following evening was astounding: they sat at the front; they sang. When they could leave they didn’t - they sat, reading the Bible and asking questions of leaders. Around them, the most amazing response was unfolding. People were crying, others were singing almost trance-like. People were in prayer or contemplation. And before you think we did something to these kids - we did nothing. Everybody there was acting of their own volition. I have never seen church like this.
And it encouraged me and affected me deeply. It has been oh so easy to wallow this past year, as I have spent so much time alone. But this weekend I found encouragement among company, among people my age, and those younger than me but so much wiser. I ate, I exercised, I forgot I was supposed to be struggling with flu. I came back excited.