Sunday 28 January 2018

First steps

Crossing the Line - part 13

It’s all very well hearing the call – but what do you do then?  Especially when you are 16 years old and still at school.

There was a lunch-time Christian group at school, but I had steered clear of it until now.  For a start, it didn’t have a very inspiring name.  Most schools and colleges had Christian Unions or Fellowships – we had the Christian Education Movement.  Usually this was abbreviated to CEM which was even less appealing.  It seemed like a name designed to put people off giving up their lunchtime.  It was certainly sterile enough for the secular agenda of the school.  It was safe.

In fact, I was only just old enough to go. 

My school was divided into a Boys Division and a Girls Division.  The two operated as two separate schools, a mirror image of each other in gender, ethos and architecture.  The buildings spread out along Chorley New Road in almost perfect symmetry, either side of a central arch.  On the right were the boys, on the left were the girls, with everything designed to ensure that the two should not meet.  Separate play grounds and sports fields, separate bus stops and separate Great Halls for assemblies, staring at each other across this central no-man’s land.  The Boys Division didn’t want the distraction of girls interrupting the finely tuned exam factory.  The Girls Division didn’t want those annoying boys getting in the way of producing ambitious young ladies.  When I started going out with Lesley from the Girls Division, it was mentioned at her next parents evening as something undesirable for a young lady studying hard.  There was almost no opportunity before 6th Form for boys and girls to meet together yet somehow we had circumvented this prohibition by living in the same village.

Girls Division on the left - Boys on the right
In spite of this division, the Christian Education Movement was a mixed society of both boys and girls, so no-one below the age of 16 was allowed to go.  I had turned 16 a couple of months before my ‘Gotcha’ moment but trying out CEM was something I was still keen to avoid.

I think it was Lesley who got me there one Thursday lunchtime.  She had a close friend who went, and one day she suggested that I should go - and that she would go too.  The CEM met in the Tower Room just above the central arch which divided the schools.  It was the only room in the entire school which had doors that led directly to both the Boys and Girls Divisions.  It felt a little like entering a diplomatic neutral zone – a gendered DMZ between two opposing worlds.

When I got there, about 8 people were holding a Bible study and I saw a group of dispirited boys and girls with heads down listening to someone holding forth about his own views to the exclusion of everyone else.  It was just as I had feared.  On the way there, I had decided not to say anything at the meeting, keep a low profile and drift away at the end; but listening to this monologue dominating the proceedings and getting more and more aggressive, awakened something in me.  I tried to keep quiet, but the more I saw how everyone else had been cowed into submission, the less I was able to remain quiet.  Eventually I snapped.  I opened my mouth and out came something like, “Oh come off it!”  I can’t remember if those were my exact words, but they certainly express the sentiment of what I said.  Everyone looked up in shock. 

At the end of the meeting, the leader announced that they needed to elect a new member to the committee which organised CEM.  Before I knew what wat happening, and without offering, I had been elected.   “So much for keeping a low profile” summed up my thoughts as I went to afternoon classes.

Over the months which followed, we changed the whole feel of CEM.  Argumentative debates went out.  In came more prayer, music and fellowship.   Before I knew it, I was leading the committee, and we were booking more local ministers and preachers as visiting speakers.

Over the two years which followed, more and more people came.  We went from single figures to forty or fifty people on a good day with an exciting speaker or worship leader.  We got permission to start an early-morning prayer meeting each week, with about a dozen of us gathering at 8:15am to pray together for half an hour before school started. 

Who was the only one wearing sunglasses
for the school photo?
When churches in Bolton came together to organise a town-wide mission, I got permission to bring a Christian rock band into the Boys Division for a lunchtime concert in the theatre.  We could have filled the theatre twice over with those trying to get in, and I was invited by the headmaster to speak at the whole school assembly about the mission.  I told the story of meeting a drug addict at the mission meeting in the Town Hall the night before, and how he wanted to change, but didn’t think he could.  Perhaps we are all like that before God, I suggested to 800 of my peers.

It would be wrong of course, to suppose that this was all my doing.  We worked as a team.  God brought people to us.  Then they introduced their friends, and before we knew it, it was unusual to have less than 20 teenagers meeting together in this very secular school.  We met for prayer and reading the Bible together, for worship and for fellowship.

Alongside this, my father had changed parishes, and we had moved from the village at Blackrod into Bolton, close to the school.  There was no youth club or fellowship at the church, and before long I invited the handful of other teenagers to my room in the Vicarage for a kind of Youth Fellowship.  I had no idea what I was doing or supposed to do, but saw the need.  We prayed and read the Bible together and for many months it stayed at about 6 of us, (some under pressure from their parents) and nothing seemed to be happening.

Then I sensed God prompting me to talk about being Baptised in the Holy Spirit, sharing my story and how God had changed my life.  It started to strike a chord and others began to come.  Some were from the Christian Education Movement at Bolton School, but more were from other local schools.  David and Catherine from Smithills School came and started to bring others.  David was very gifted on the guitar, and a natural salesman.  Catherine was the quiet and highly practical person that every group needs to flourish.  Then Neil came and introduced us to 100% Proof – not a whisky but a Christian Heavy Rock Band with a sound like AC/DC!  We started taking other people to their concerts around Manchester and as they shared their Christian faith without compromise, others saw that you could be a Christian without being a wimp! There were others too like Janet, Tim, Robin and Douglas – too many to mention.  We all grew in faith and learned to encourage others in theirs.

100% Proof in Concert
In time,  St Margaret’s Youth Group grew out of my room into the Vicarage dining Room.  Then it out-grew the dining room and took over the living room.  When finally we could not squeeze anyone else into the Vicarage, it had to move to the new Church Hall and continued to grow, with David leading after I left home for a gap year before university.

St Margaret’s Church was in a fairly ordinary part of Bolton surrounded by traditional streets of terraced housing and the old cotton mills for which Lancashire was once famous, now empty and silent.  The church had a problem with vandalism.  It had huge windows at the back made up of thousands of squares of glass held together in a lead lattice.  One of the jobs over the weekend was to sweep up the broken glass from the stones which had been thrown to break them.  One weekend my dad counted over 100 broken panes of glass in the church.  It was just too tempting for kids with nothing to do.

So what could we do about it?  That was the question.  The Youth Group started to organise “St Maggie’s Discos” for teenagers, in the Church Hall (it was the end of the 70’s when discos were still cool).  At the first one, about 50 turned up.  By the 3rd or 4th, we were turning people away because we had already filled the hall with around 300 young people.

The discos were never problem free and we couldn’t have done it without the stalwart support of some of the men in the church who controlled the door and provided back-up if anything started to get out of hand.  One night when we were preparing for a disco, a phone-call came from the police.  They had received a tip-off saying that a knife fight was being planned between two local gangs, at our disco.  Cancelling was not an option.  The idea of having 300+ young people in the street outside the church with nowhere to go was not a good plan.  When they were inside, we could ensure there was no alcohol, but outside, they would have been knocking back the Tenants Extra or Strongbow unabated.

We decided to go ahead, with two plain clothed CID officers in the Church Hall and 2 police riot vans parked up a couple of streets away.  Soon after the disco started, David and I found out which gangs were planning to fight, and got their leaders together.  We said to them, “If you do this, this will be the last St Maggie’s Disco ever.  Everyone will suffer.”  To our amazement, they gave us their word that there would be no fighting at the disco that night.  We learned later that they adjourned to a local park after the disco to settle their scores after the disco had finished, but they respected what we were offering to teenagers with nothing to do, and they didn’t want to be the ones who put an end to it.

Alongside this, the vandalism on the church dropped to zero without the church ever having to get anyone arrested or charged or taken to court.

Some of St Margaret's Youth Group on a Good Friday Walk
We also found that some of the disaffected young people who came to the discos also started to come to church and the Youth Group.  Side by side, posh pupils from Bolton School and teenagers with drink problems and criminal records were praying and worshipping together.  We even had one teenage girl whose Saturday job was as a prostitute until she gave her life to Christ in the Youth Group.

Reflecting on those first steps in ministry, I am amazed by two things.

First was the trust which was placed in us by my dad and our local church.  We were left to run the Youth Group ourselves without interference.  We planned the worship, led the Bible studies, wrote the talks, prayed and ministered to each other and those in need.  We saw God heal broken hearts and soften hardened hearts as we prayed, without the need to call a grown-up in to do the 'important stuff'.  While recognising the need for good safeguarding in youth work, I wonder if we now tend to professionalise it too much, rather than letting young people reach young people.

Second is how God honoured everything that we did.  As I look back to that time, I can’t believe how much I crammed in.  I was doing my A-levels, working a part time job, was in a 3-year committed relationship with my girlfriend and leading a youth ministry the size of most churches.  By rights, it should have all collapsed in a heap at some point, and yet it didn’t.  I even finished my A-levels with four grade A’s – something I couldn’t have even imagined a few years earlier.  God honoured the commitment which had been required of me and I was not alone.  The other leaders all went on to college and university. 

Neil, Benny and Tim drawing attention
to themselves at Greenbelt
I guess both of these things come back to trust.  Trust in the God who calls us, and trust in one another.  I wonder how much we miss out on because of our reluctance to do either.  I remember an former bishop of Southwark Cathedral advising his clergy to experiment; to see what would work and what wouldn’t in their parishes.  Experiment, experiment and then experiment some more.  He recognised that some of these experiments would go wrong but then we pick ourselves up and learn from them.  The other option is always playing it safe, repeating the things which have worked in the past until they finally bury themselves.  For young people in particular, this is simply not an option in a fast changing society.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of being in touch with a good number of people from St Maggie’s Youth Group, and I am constantly delighted and amazed by the way so many have carried on with their Christian faith.  Some are even worship leaders, pastors and vicars.  All through the trust which was placed in us by the church in our teenage years. 

It is perhaps worth remembering that the greatest calling of all time was entrusted to a teenage girl in a village in the middle of nowhere.  Perhaps the church should be looking for more teenagers to invest with trust?

Sunday 21 January 2018


Crossing the Line - part 12

It was also in my early teens that I first sensed that God was calling me to be a priest.

Soon after I was Baptised in the Holy Spirit, I began to get the strangest sensation.  It was like someone tapping me on the shoulder and I silent voice almost whispering, ‘I want you to do that’.  It happened in church during the communion prayer, or the sermon.  It happened when I read the Bible and came across the story of someone being called by God.  It happened in my prayer life when I was thinking about the future.

There was only one problem.  I didn’t want to do it.

When I was little there was a time when, like lots of other boys, I wanted to do what my dad did. By the time I had reached the grand old age of seven however, being ordained was the last thing in the world I wanted to do.  I had seen how hard my father worked and the uncompromising grief he was given by some members of the church.  I had seen the strain that put on my parents’ marriage and on us as a family.  I had seen how little he got paid and lived through the winters in a house we could not afford to heat.  All these things had brought me to the very definite decision that it would be the very last thing I would ever do.

The tapping on my shoulder was not welcome.  The silent whisper was not welcome.  So the response I gave to God was plain and simple.  It was a definite “No!”.

I started to search around for what I might want to do with my life.

First, I was going to be a lawyer.  I was good with words and could be quite persuasive in arguments.  Lawyers get lots of money.  That will do nicely.  But as I thought more deeply, I found things I couldn’t reconcile.  How could I defend someone who I knew was guilty?  While I knew that our legal system requires defence for everyone, I knew I couldn’t do it.  What would I do if I was being asked to help a client exploit loopholes against the spirit of the law?  I soon realised it wasn’t me too.

Then I wanted to join the RAF.  I went to see the recruiting officer who came each year to our school but then the thought of civilian casualties from indiscriminate bombing or human error became something I was not willing to live with.

I wanted to be an engineer.  Making things that improve the world we live in.  I lived with this idea for a while but I couldn’t get excited enough to be sure I could spend my life doing that.

And so it went on.  Lunchtime after lunchtime in the school’s careers room trying to find the thing which fitted my gifts, personality, principles – and which I would enjoy doing.  In the background, all the time, was this tapping on the shoulder and my very firm answer – No!

The argument went on for 2 years.

God:  I want you to do this…
Me:  No!
Then one Saturday, I remember that I went with my parents to a Day of Renewal in Manchester.  I even remember the church where it was held – Church of the Holy Family, Failsworth.

The day was a wonderful celebration of faith.  It was so life giving, so real, so inspiring, that in the back of the car on the way home, I started to have a conversation with God in my head.  It went something like this:

Me:  Oh God, I really want to tell people about how wonderful you are; about your amazing blessings are and how good it is to be a Christian.
God: … silence…

Me:  But Lord, it’s so difficult to tell people about you.  At school I get ridiculed because of my faith.  People who were friends don’t want to know, and I’m not brave enough to talk to strangers.  It’s so hard.

God: … silence…

Me:  I know… if I got ordained and wore a dog collar, it would be easy – because everyone would expect me to talk about you!

As soon as I had said this, I realised what I had said!  I immediately started backtracking…

Me:  Oh no, God.  I didn’t mean that.  Don’t get any ideas now…

What followed was remarkable.  It is one of the very few times in my life that I believe I actually heard the audible voice of God.  The first thing I heard, in the back of my parents’ car, was a chuckle.  An audible laugh which only I heard.  Not a laugh that was patronising or dismissive, but a gentle, warm chuckle.   

Then I heard God speak just one word to me…
God:  Gotcha!

... and I as sat in the car, on the way back to Blackrod, I knew that he had. 

There was no getting away from it.  I knew that all my protests and arguments were useless.  They had been as effective as King Canute by the sea, telling the tide not to come in.

I didn’t make any big public statement.  In fact, I didn’t tell anybody for quite some time, but I knew deep down in my heart that God had indeed got me.  The tapping on the shoulder continued, except now I didn’t say no. Instead, I asked God how?  And as I lived with this sense of calling, as my defensiveness melted away, I found myself realising that this did indeed fit.  It fitted my gifts, my personality & my principles and as I began to embrace this call, I realised that it was the only path in life which I would genuinely enjoy.

So when I was 16 years old, I filled in my first form for Manchester Diocese, asking to explore ordination.  I remember looking at the completed form thinking that my handwriting looked terrible. I didn’t know if I’d even answered the questions properly, as they were designed for someone much older and wiser than me but I had done it, and from that day onward, I knew this would be my life.

As reflect on this now, in the light of my recent diagnosis, and recognising that my life is going to be much shorter that I had expected, I am so glad that I said ‘yes’ all those years ago.  I am so pleased that I didn’t keep arguing, or put it on the back burner, or file it away marked ‘maybe one day’. 

Following God’s call has led me to the most amazing, challenging, times and places.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  I am so happy that I heard God chuckle and heard that immortal word…

Sunday 14 January 2018

Spiritual gifts, sarcasm and sex

Crossing the Line - part 11

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!
I was also not alone.  God was working in the life of Chris, my oldest friend who helped get me through my early years.  We sang together in the church choir from the age of 6 or 7 and now Chris’s faith also came alive.  In a Pentecostal Church a few miles away, he too was Baptised in the Holy Spirit and sometimes I went with him to church there.  I remember the fiery sermons, the intense times of prayer, and the Pastor who couldn’t quite believe that an Anglican could speak in tongues.   Chris was a huge encouragement to me and together we grew in faith.  Chris eventually went on to be a missionary, first in Turkey, then in Azerbaijan, and now heads up a support ministry for Azerbaijan in the USA.  God’s hand was on both our lives.

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.

Saturday 6 January 2018

Real or imaginary?

Crossing the Line - part 10

Starting senior school was great.

When I joined the prep school, I joined a year late.  Everyone else started there aged 8, and I joined a class where everyone knew each other and knew how the school worked.  I knew no-one and every day was a new experience of uncertainty and finding my way.

When we moved up to the senior school, all the prep school classes were jumbled up and we were joined by an equal number of boys who were new.  This time I was one of the boys who already had friends and knew how the school worked.  I soon found my place in our new class, manipulated the seating plan so that I sat with my friends, and discovered a new confidence.

Not that my academic achievement improved.  I was still bottom of the class in English and Maths but there were new subjects to get stuck into.  Some like Latin were a disaster but others, like Physics and Geography caught my imagination.

By half way through my second year I had successfully partitioned my life.  At home I was the vicar’s kid.  I sang in the church choir, attended church without complaint and was polite to everyone.  At school I was a typical pre-teen, starting to discover a bigger world and make my own decisions.  I was also very careful to keep the two apart.  I got the occasional detention after school but not enough to attract much attention.  The only time my parents were called into school was after I threw my bag across the classroom at another boy after an argument.  He ducked and my bag smashed a large glazed print of Picasso’s Guernica on the wall behind him, showering him in broken glass.  That was a bit difficult to hide.

I learned the art of not getting caught when I broke the rules.  The class I was in had an obsession with gambling, and I discovered an entrepreneurial streak, renting out packs of cards and poker dice to my classmates on condition that my name was kept out of it if they got caught.  I kept my stock of cards in the class library desk.  After the key to the desk had been lost, I was the only person who could pick the lock and was rewarded by being appointed the class librarian.  It was the perfect hiding place and before long I was also storing my classmates inevitable ‘dirty mags’ there too, for a fee.  As a result, if our classroom was searched during lunch or break (when classrooms were out of bounds) nothing untoward would be found. 

Increasingly however, I began to recognise the emerging contradiction in the two lives I was living.  The Christian faith which I lived at home and my school persona were pulling in two opposite directions.  I realised that I would have to choose one or the other.  One night, I remember coming to the conclusion that I needed to decide whether this God who I had been brought up to believe in was actually real.  If he was real, there was no question in my mind – I had to follow him wholeheartedly.  But if he wasn’t real, I could do whatever I wanted!  To be honest, I was looking forward to the latter.  I had discovered a rebellious part to my personality which didn’t like obeying rules and my fear of authority was waning fast.  I wanted to run my own life, making my own decisions unencumbered by divine expectations.

Over the 12 months which followed however, God left me in no doubt that he was real.

The first part of my reality check came as my parents started to explore Charismatic Renewal.  The years at Blackrod and the abortive defection to Rome had resulted in a dry period for their faith.  They both faithfully continued to follow God’s calling, but the joy and sense of direction had gone.

Then mum read a book called “Nine o’clock in the morning” which talked about a renewed faith, lived in the tangible presence of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.  After patient perseverance, she persuaded dad to read it too.  Soon they began to look for events and meetings to explore this ‘new life in the Holy Spirit’.  Manchester wasn’t far away and there were lots of opportunities there.  It was in the days when preachers like Colin Urquhart and David Watson were filling major venues, and my parents took me along to the meetings with them.

For the first time, I saw Christians who actually looked like they were enjoying their faith.  I heard contemporary worship songs with a beat and saw people enraptured as they sang them.  I also heard stories of God’s healing, of smuggling bibles behind the iron curtain, and saw people being ministered to in prayer.  This was a new, vibrant, exciting Christianity and while part of me had reservations, and some of the things were more than a little strange, I recognised something significant was at work here.

The second part of my reality check was much more disturbing and happened a long way from home. 

When I was 12, I went on a school trip to Paris with a coachload of boys from my year.  During my first night there, on the 7th floor of the hotel, I tried to kill myself in my sleep.

I had always had a problem with dreams, as long as I remember.  I used to have night terrors as a small child.  As I grew older, I began sleepwalking and the dreams became more violent, resulting in me hitting or kicking my parents more than once as they tried in vain to wake me.  Although I never told anyone, I also heard voices from time to time, calling my name.

That evening in Paris, I heard the voices again, but for the first time they were angry.  That night, in the hotel room I was sharing with two others, I dreamt that I was responsible for the deaths of millions of people.  The feeling of panic and remorse was so vivid and I couldn’t live with myself.  I got out of bed, walked over to the balcony doors and tried to open them.  One of my room-mates woke up and asked me what I was doing.  I replied “I’m going to kill myself”.  My plan was simple.  I was going to get out onto the balcony and jump off, seven floors down to the concrete below.

What saved me was being unable to open the doors.

There was no reason for that.  There was no lock on the doors, and we had been out on the balcony earlier that evening without difficulty.  Now the doors would not open, no matter how hard I pushed and pulled on the handle.  After a few moments of futile frustration, I realised that my roommates had turned on the light and were starting to get out of bed.  I stormed into the bathroom, locked myself in and started to run a bath with the intention of drowning myself.  Looking back, I realise how futile this would have been, but at that moment, the wish to die was so much stronger than the will to live, and any possibility of achieving this was an option.

As the bath slowly filled, something began to change in me.  The will to live started to resurface.  Although I still believed that I had killed millions of people, something inside me started to draw me back towards life rather than death.  As that feeling grew within me, the strength to live began to grow too, until after what seemed like an age, I reached out and pulled out the plug.  The water started to drain away.

That was the last thing I remember of that night.  My roommates told me in the morning that I came out of the bathroom, threw myself on the bed and didn’t stir until morning.  When I awoke, the memory of the previous might was still in my mind, but I thought it was simply a horrible dream.  It is hard to overstate the shock when they told me it actually happened.  I was terrified.  What if it happened again tonight, or another night?  What if the doors to the balcony opened next time?

During the day we went to the Sacré Coeur Basilica. Amid the throngs of tourists, I managed to find a quiet corner set aside for prayer.  There I sat, pouring out my fears and bewilderment.  As I did this, I found a strange peace enfolding me, and a sense that God was putting his arms around me, saying, “I am here, and I will protect you”.  It wasn’t a voice, but something deeper and stronger.  I left there with a remarkable sense of assurance that everything would be ok.

What I didn’t know until later was that back in England, my mother had woken up and the same time as my ordeal the night before, with a strong sense that they needed to pray for me. 

While I was in France they had travelled to stay at Whatcombe House in Dorset.  At that time, it housed a charismatic community of healing called the Barnabas Fellowship.  While they were there mum was healed both emotionally, from many of the traumas of her childhood, and physically, from increasingly severe arthritis. It was a turning point for them in their Christian faith.  At the very time I was distraught and trying to kill myself, she was waking dad to pray for me.  The coincidence was uncanny and to this day, I believe that their prayer is what stopped me being able to open those balcony doors.

I saw that God was real.

When I got back home and told them what had happened, they were horrified and then deeply worried.  I was taken to the doctor and referred for psychiatric tests.  I remember being wired up for an EEG scan (Electroencephalogram) to look for any abnormalities in my brain patterns.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, there were also worries about schizophrenia.  In the end, all the tests came back ok, but my parent’s understandable fear remained, and they took me to see a wise Christian leader in the Anglican charismatic movement called John Gunstone.  After we talked for a while, he said some simple prayers with me, casting out any evil spirit which may be behind my experiences.  I have never been the sort of Christian who sees demons around every corner or spiritual warfare as the reason for every testing time, but I do know this; after his simple and undramatic prayers with me, I never heard the voices calling my name again and my night terrors stopped.

I now knew that God was real – and I knew that I had to follow.