Berwick upon Tweed
The following is an extract of a letter that I wrote to Nicky Gumbel, the contents of which are pretty much self-explanatory. Why is it here? Well Jonathan asked me to post it on the website as a testament to my faith….something that I have no problem doing. So please read it and if it resonates with you then I’m glad that we can share a love a God or perhaps just a rather strange sense of humour. By the way, whilst the letter recognises the importance of Nicky Gumbel, I would also like to add that Jonathan and Jenny have been inspirational on many levels and had it not been for their willingness to organise an Alpha Course in Berwick….well who knows, things could have been so different.
So where to start? Well, Nicky, I hope that you don’t mind me calling you Nicky, but after sharing an Alpha Course with you (remotely admittedly) and after having read and listened to BIOY now for many months, I feel like you are more of a friend than a Father Confessor. So, Nicky it is. Incidentally, BIOY is excellent and David Suchet’s “God Voice” is awesome.
And why am I writing to you? Well, you tell me! Truth be told I have no idea other than I woke up at 3.00am one morning with an overwhelming desire, bordering on need, to do so. And what was I to write to you about? Well that was even less clear. As I lay there listening to the seagulls warming up for another day’s thieving and general thuggery, I made the bold assumption that perhaps it had something to do with my spiritual journey to God. Funny isn’t it, how for most of my life I would never have dared put those words together in a sentence. Nor, for example would I have left a Bible on open display in our lounge, lest it be seen by those that would judge me adversely. These days, I really don’t care, I’m just in awe of its radiance.
Anyway, God and me. I was not baptised when I was born. This only happened in my late teens when I became a member of a local church youth club. In fact I was baptised and confirmed over a matter of months. As is the way of things, my Godmother was actually my girlfriend at the time….which on reflection sounds rather unhealthy in an Oedipus kind of a way… but it was actually rather sweet and innocent. What happened next? Well life did. Being a student, working overseas, getting married, climbing the greasy pole and all of that. That’s not to say that over the years, Jesus and I haven’t bumped into each other… but we’d just sort of shake hands, exchange pleasantries and then go our separate ways.
Nicky, life has been good, in fact it has been unbelievable. I have a wonderful marriage, and a beautiful family. I reached the top of my profession, with all the material trappings that that brings. I have travelled extensively and experienced and done so many astonishing things. If that sounds boastful, I apologise, it just happens to be the case.
The amazing thing though, and I’m sure that you’ve heard it all before, despite all of those amazing blessings there was always a nagging sense of something missing. It’s too simple to say that materialism is no substitute for spiritualism, but there’s a germ of an argument in there somewhere.
And then one day God really did knock on my door. In fact He all but tore it off its hinges. It all started with a rail journey. I was travelling into Edinburgh on a crowded train (so you can tell that wasn’t recently). Sitting next to me was a rather “spivy” looking young(ish) man, whom I took to be either an accountant or a used car salesman….you know the look, a bit like a barrister but in a cheap suit. Anyway, without question I was convinced that he was a fare dodger. And sure enough as the train guard approached he became totally focused on his mobile phone to the total exclusion of all else. I proffer my ticket to the guard, he does nothing…. he’s still fiddling with his phone. The guard is about to move on when (uncharacteristically for me, I promise) I say, looking at the spiv “Didn’t you get on at Berwick?”…. at which point Mr accountant/used car salesman sighs with relief and shows the guard his mobile phone which is now correctly displaying his eTicket.
At this point I am consumed with shame….obviously. In an attempt to regain some esteem/credibility I now try to strike up a conversation with the gentleman in question. So it’s the usual, “So what brings you in to Edinburgh? ”Do you live in Berwick? Blah, Blah… The rather stilted conversation continues until ….. “Really, so you’re the Pastor of a church in Berwick…how interesting”. The humiliation is complete. The train arrives in Edinburgh and we go our separate ways thereby closing the book on a rather embarrassing chapter.
Note to self, not every “spivy” looking person is actually a spiv, some are men of the cloth.
A few months later my wife’s mother died. She was a devout Christian for whom death held no sting and at the age of 88 she had had a wonderful, generous and fulfilling life. She was genuinely a lovely lady. Now, as you know better than most, irrespective of your position on the Christian teachings, the loss of a loved one can leave you with an overwhelming sense of loss. So it was with my wife. She and her mother were very close and she felt her loss deeply. One day, returning from errands about town, she produced an invitation to attend an Alpha evening course at a local coffee shop. After some discussion we agreed that we would attend. To be honest, I recognised the need in her for some spiritual comfort and I was there in a supporting role.
So the time arrives: 8.30pm Thursday evening. I arrive at the venue, walk through the door to the smell of fresh coffee, the sound of happy voices and the sight of the (not) fare dodging Pastor greeting people as they arrive. God really does have a great sense of humour doesn’t he? Anyway, for the avoidance of doubt, Jonathan and I are now good friends and as for Alpha….well….. Well it honestly drew back a curtain and revealed a spiritual dimension that I was hitherto blinded to. I cannot begin to describe to you the enormity of the revelations that I (and my wife) experienced, although I am sure that you have witnessed that in others and experienced the same yourself. What I discovered was that almost all of my previous conceptions of God, Jesus, The Holy Spirit, delete as appropriate, whilst factually correct, lacked any spiritual dimension. Too much thinking and not enough feeling perhaps…? That is not to say that for me facts aren’t important. By way of example let me explain:
Early on in my recent exploration of the Bible I became increasingly aware of the general direction of travel. To say that much of what I read was background noise would be harsh, but the enormity of what I was reading in many ways defied my ability to comprehend, at least on first take. What I became acutely aware of, however, was that the Old Testament led inexorably to the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and everything in the New Testament flowed inexorably from the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. So for me that meant that the whole Christian edifice was built upon a single question….. Whether Jesus was indeed crucified and did indeed rise from the dead, specifically the latter? One single event. If false then Christianity was nothing more than empty words… if true, however, then I had no words to describe the enormity of what that meant.
As I say, I find facts persuasive so I researched the evidence (of which there is an amazing amount as you know) and the various arguments for and against the crucifixion and resurrection. I could find no single substantive, material, irrefutable or persuasive argument against it. Alternatively, there was a wealth or evidence, much corroborated, which did support it. So there it was, the smoking gun….it was a genuinely jaw dropping moment. If you’ve ever seen the film Charade, it was the spiritual equivalent of the Cary Grant character walking through the Parisian collectors market and suddenly realising that what he’d been searching for and indeed looking at but never actually seen, were the stamps. It was all true which meant that…….. For me the enormity of that realisation was all consuming.
So ok…. that’s the facts, but that’s not the whole of it. Facts and logical, rational evaluation cannot in any way explain the almost overpowering emotional feelings, the sense of joy, of excitement. Not that I consider myself a Christian at ease with all of my fellow believers. For example, I cannot enter a room full of happy clappy Christians armed with beaming smiles and guitars, locked and loaded in readiness for another tuneless rendition of Kumbaya without an almost overwhelming desire to throw myself out of the nearest window. But I’m sure that God recognises my shortcomings and sees me as a work in progress, so in time who knows.
And since attending Alpha we have befriended a couple who have dedicated their lives to God and who are only too happy to spend time with my wife and me explaining and teaching, indeed their perspective and knowledge is humbling. And we are also watching the Douglas McMurry Discipleship Course which again is insightful and rewarding. I really like his take on things.
So, for whatever reason, I have no doubt that God has sought to involve Himself in our affairs. In the Christian world there are many references to coincidence and prayer. It seems to me that I/we have experienced more than our fair share of coincidences lately so it might just be that somebody is lavishing their prayers upon us. In which case Praise Be. We are fortunate to be in a position in our lives where we can hopefully make a difference for others.
Nicky, I hope that you don’t mind that I’ve written to you. I have no idea why I did it or for what purpose. Perhaps it’s just another one of those amazing coincidence?
Keep safe. God bless you and yours and thank you, sincerely, for the Alpha course. It really did change our lives.
With Kind regards,