Although I knew the direction my life should take, that didn’t mean it was easy.
Disentangling myself from my school persona took time and effort. Some of my friends didn’t want me to stop doing the things I did. Saying ‘no’ to the temptations I had embraced was hard enough, but telling people why was an even bigger challenge. Some friends tried to understand, but others just wrote me off as a religious nutter – the sort of person you don’t want to be around.
The school’s overwhelming emphasis on competition and academic achievement had a darker side. There was a correspondingly inadequate emphasis on personal growth and development. It was ideal for potential investment bankers, lawyers and captains of industry, where winning is what matters. Where it fell down was in responding to anyone who was different. Sarcasm and derision was the standard response to anyone who didn’t fit the mould. Now I found that I was the object of this ripping sardonic wit.
At home, I stated reading the Bible every day. I joined a home group where we worshipped, prayed and discussed the scriptures together, while hoping for the spiritual gifts which we had seen in evidence in the big meetings we went to. The Bible started to make sense to me in a new way. I did not approach it uncritically but as I asked my questions, I found that the overarching meta-narrative made sense. It held together with a coherence which surprized me.
Then one evening at the home group, I experienced what I had seen others receive – Baptism in the Holy Spirit. It didn’t happen in the over-hyped, noisy atmosphere of a big rally but in a time of silent prayer among half a dozen friends. I began to feel a warmth in my heart of a kind I had never known. It grew and grew until I felt I couldn’t contain it in my body anymore. I thought I was going to burst with a sense of God’s love, more real than anything I had experienced before, with waves of gentle power washing over me. It was electric.
In the middle of this, I sensed God prompting me. “Now speak in tongues.” It wasn’t a voice, but it was real. With more than I little trepidation, I remember doing the only thing I could think of. Under my breath, I counted down. “Five, four, three, two, one…” As I reached zero, I opened my mouth and to my great surprize, found I was speaking out loud in a language I did not understand.
I don’t know who was more surprized, me or the other people in the home group. I was only 14. After I finished we waited in silence. A few moments later another person in the group gave an interpretation with God’s encouragement for us all. I can’t honestly remember a word of it – I was still in a kind of shocked rapture. My heart was on fire and I felt like I was plugged into the mains.
If I still had any doubts about my new direction in life, this laid them to rest. At school, I responded to the sarcasm with an even stronger resolve to follow God.
|Benny and Chris in our Sunday best!|
There was one thing that bothered me though. When I had realised that God was real, I remember worrying about a part of my personality which I thought would be at odds with following God. After shaking off my childhood fear of authority, I now hated being told what to do and what to think. Authority in and of itself had no authority as far as I was concerned. It had to be earned. If there were no reasons for the rules, the norms, the expectations, then I was more likely to rebel against them. I had discovered my rebellious side and I remember asking God, “Does following you mean that I have to stop being rebellious?” The answer surprized me. “Not at all – you just have to be rebellious for me!”
That was something I could do.
At school, when I was called names or shunned for my newfound Christian commitment, I rebelled against this mindless conformity. In fact, it strengthened my resolve to follow God. I started wearing Christian badges, putting Christian stickers on my exercise books, and smiling a people who insulted me.
I learned some years later that this led to concerns among my teachers about ‘religious mania’. Apparently, my name came up regularly at staff meetings. I didn’t fit the school’s secular mould and was definitely seen as non-conformist in more ways than one. Fortunately, I was saved in the staff room by the fact that alongside my growing Christian faith, I was also improving academically. I was moving up the class in English and Maths to the point where I was fast-tracked with others, going on to get grade A’s in both O Levels a year early – something which would have been unthinkable 12 months before. It is hard to fully explain this, except to say that alongside a growing confidence in faith, there was a growing sense that nothing was impossible, including school work!
Of course, I must have been insufferable at times. Being filled with a belief that God can do anything doesn’t make you as sensitive to the needs of others as I would now hope to be. My life had certainly changed though, and I thought there was no going back. There was however, another way in which my growing commitment to Christ could be undermined. One which I didn’t see coming.
I first met Carol at the village Christmas fair. In fact, she deliberately tripped me up to get my attention.
Being at an all-boys school meant there wasn’t much opportunity to meet girls. I felt awkward around them like any teenage boy. I didn’t know how to talk to girls, especially if I ‘fancied’ them. It was the normal mixture of tongue-tied embarrassment, with the self-defeating desire to run away as fast as I my legs could carry me.
Carol was different. She was from the opposite end of the village to me. I lived in a big house, an only child. She lived in a council house at the wrong end of Whitehall Lane with her mum, step-dad and eleven other brothers, sisters, step brothers and step sisters. It was an overcrowded house full of shouting, and the loudest, most aggressive voice usually won. At 14, she already had a probation officer who she had to see every Thursday. Her last boyfriend had been a local gang-leader. She knew how to get what she wanted, and for some strange reason she wanted me.
We were going out together within 2 days. I fell head over heels in love with Carol almost instantly, with all the intensity of a first romance. My parents were horrified, especially when her last boyfriend’s gang knocked on the vicarage door summoning me to meet their boss. The more my parents tried to pull me away, the stronger my determination to stay with her. The relationship quickly became sexual and although I didn’t stop going to church or reading my Bible, my faith was soon taking second place and my relationship with my parents was becoming very strained. I became manipulative, deceptive and sometimes goaded them into losing their temper a little too much, knowing that they would feel guilty in the morning and leave us alone for a while.
Nor was Carol a bad person. She had many admirable qualities. She simply wanted to escape her predetermined path and live a different life. Carol came to church with me and even joined the choir. I went with her to see her probation officer each week.
But something wasn’t right.
Over the months which followed, our relationship became unbalanced. Our physical chemistry became overwhelming and put in the shade all the other elements of a healthy partnership. I became aware of the damage this was doing to my Christian commitment and my relationship with my parents. As they got better at holding back, I got better at seeing that we were not a good fit for each other, but I was also scared of what would happen to her if we split up. I began to feel trapped.
My salvation came in the form of a Mission to Manchester led by David Watson, vicar of St Michael le Belfry in York, a well-known Anglican Charismatic Church. I went twice during the week and then, at Salford Rugby Ground on Saturday 10th June, 1978, I knew I needed to go forward as an act of commitment. I needed to repent of the things I knew I was doing wrong, and put God back in the driving seat.
I had never felt the need to do that before. After all, God had always been there as I grew up; there was never a time when I didn’t know him. In that sense I had always been a Christian. And yet now I knew I had to make my adult commitment to God – a formal declaration, a definite decision. I needed to grow up, and take responsibility for myself before God. In the words of the classic ABC altar call, I ‘Admitted’ my sins, ‘Believed’ in Christ, and ‘Committed’ myself to be his disciple.
The next day, as painful as it was for both of us, I broke up with Carol and I promised myself that I would never again go into a relationship which had the potential to undermine my relationship with God.
Sometimes I hear people saying that if you are not ‘right with God’ then you will find your spiritual gifts drying up and God becoming distant. Behind it, I suppose there is a theology which says that you have to be living a holy life to be used by God, or be close to God.
I have to say that is not what I have found in life. While I was with Carol my faith did not dry up; neither did experiencing spiritual gifts in my home group, prayer life and church. Despite becoming aware that this wasn’t what God wanted for me, despite being decidedly ‘unholy’ in my dealing with my parents, despite realising in time, that it had the potential to undermine my relationship with God, I continued to grow as a Christian.
Later in life, I saw this in Hong Kong too, working with heroin addicts in Jackie Pullinger’s ministry (but more of that later).
God doesn’t come close to us because we are holy. He comes close to us because we need his holiness and grace. We can never make ourselves holy enough to experience God. No matter how hard we try, there will always be parts of our lifestyle, attitudes, or relationships that would disqualify us from God’s power or presence.
God draws close to us simply because he loves us. What opens the door to God in our hearts and lives is not our paltry, pseudo-holiness – it is what Jesus Christ has done for us.
As Isaiah says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6)
The miracle of God’s grace is that he comes to us, and sends his Spirit to us, even though we are unclean. As John says, “This is love: not that we love God, but that God loved us, and sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10) and he goes onto say, “This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: he has given us of his Spirit.” (vs 13)
There are two dangerous mistakes in thinking that particular sins can close the door to God in our lives. The first is when we think that God won’t have anything to do with us if we stray from his way. Falling into that trap means we assume God will be distant from us at the very time when we need him most! Time and time again, I have found that it is God who sticks with me no matter what, not the other way round. And when I am lost, he comes after me like the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep on the hillside while he searches for the one who wandered off.
The second danger is that we try to use our sense of closeness to God as a kind of spiritual barometer for how well we are doing. This is sometime expressed as
“If God is still with me, then the things I do must be ok. My attitudes, my lifestyle, my relationships must be ok if he is still using me and pouring out his Holy Spirit on me.”
I cannot think of a single verse in the Bible which would back up that kind of twisted theology. It is the sort of theology which results in TV Evangelists using prostitutes, or church leaders abusing children.
It also makes ‘successful Christians’ less willing to examine their attitudes or prejudices towards others – whether in racism, homophobia, or social stigma. Just because God is blessing us, doesn’t mean that we have got it right.
It was through God keeping close to me when I was going wrong, that I became aware that I was going wrong. The challenge then, is to respond in a way which continues to build our relationship with God.
So that is what I began to do.