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.

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