I attended a country prep school with a distinctly Christian ethos. Teachers like Mr Harding were quite different to the other adults I knew, including my parents. We attended chapel every day and I remember stories and teaching about hell, tithing and honouring your parents. I struggled with the last one. I believed Christianity to be true but my belief did not make a difference to the way I lived, whether that was because it was merely a ‘historic faith’ or because I did not know what to do next. It has always felt as though a seed was planted back then as there seemed to be a trace of Christian belief even during the years I lived far away from God.
I won a prize for maths and music when I was 11 or 12, awarded at a sports day. I remember my dad being there, remarkable for the fact that it stands out. Looking back, I remember very little of him before the age of 10. I was scared of him.
For most of my life I blamed this very troubling relationship for my problems. Realising my problems were my sin, no excuses, has been a slow process. Most specifically my rebellion started when without any consciousness of what I was engaging in, at the age of 10 or 11 I had a brief but intense series of encounters with another boy at my boarding school. This cloud hung above my head for a very long time. I also recall drives to my grandparents flat in north London from Sussex, before the M25 was built, being enthralled by the bright lights, the likely lads, the cigarette billboards. It was depressing at the same time.
The darkest years
Day 1 at my new school in the middle of Brighton, I picked up a copy of Smash Hits, a music magazine with a picture of a trendy looking band on the cover. That was for me. I soon started smoking, hanging out in arcades and sniffing ‘Tippex thinner’ in class. I dropped from being in mainly top sets to mainly bottom ones. Although I was part of the ‘in crowd’, I was also the village idiot. I never stood up for myself and never had a sense of my own identity or any of my own ideas. I had lots of ‘growing up’ problems and was deeply unhappy.
It wasn’t long before I started drinking at weekends, getting very drunk right from the start. Very unusually, I left public school at 16. My first job simply meant more money for alcohol. I often wet the bed or in other inappropriate places.
This precipitated a long quest to control my drinking. I went to the GP at 19; then a psychiatrist; then a hypnotherapist. I’d give up every New Year, every lent, sometimes lasting for a while, sometimes until lunchtime. I counted my units, but my scheme was altogether more generous than the government’s. Eventually I started work at a company in London where many people drank very heavily and several people didn’t drink at all. I discovered Alcoholics Anonymous in 1991 and after a few months of sinking further into despair when I thought it would not work for me, I stopped, one day at a time.
Throughout these years, and beyond, I gambled very heavily, continued to smoke and sad to say, had no sense of morality at all. I constantly sought to please myself, regardless of the rights or wrongs, consequences, and effect on other people.
I woke up one morning on a friend’s couch and it was wet. Instead of going to the big game that day, I went to an AA meeting in Brighton. The first man I met was known as Suitcase Paul (he used to pinch squaddies’ suitcases at Kings Cross whilst they were in ‘phone boxes). The first thing he said was that he had put a bottle through his neck on Tooting Bec Common trying to kill himself. The speaker that day was a chap known as Cockney Peter or Young Peter, as he was 27 when he stopped drinking, a quarter of a century before. I was 24. I loved the stories – waking up frozen to the deck of a boat (Peter had been a docker) – and thought I’d found home.
AA’s 12 step program was a mystery to me. It was a whole new language and few people in Brighton seemed particularly interested in it. My guru Peter certainly wasn’t and said he’s perhaps looked at half the steps in his 24 year sobriety. He was an atheist and said that his ‘higher power’ was the AA ‘fellowship’. It has worked for him on one level. I too was pretty happy to start with no longer wetting the bed.
However after a couple of years I still felt empty. I had a girlfriend, a job and was sober but still no morals and definitely no real God. Eventually I did start to tackle the program, with my sponsor, Paul (not ‘Suitcase’), a Roman Catholic. However I stayed mixed up. One thing I struggled with greatly within AA was the notion that you could make up your own conception of God or a higher power. It could be the fellowship, but it could equally be a Christian conception or a Red Indian one. It could even be the lampshade.
I met Lisa around this time and my life improved a little more outwardly. We seemed to be made for each other but we were beset with all sorts of problems. From the vantage point we now have, it is truly miraculous that we stayed together. We were hanging on to each other really. I was in and out of work and eventually found my way to a therapist. As with everything else I ever tried, this lady was unable to help with the deep seated problems I had. One positive outcome, though, was that I decided to go to university where I studied psychology (less positively!).
Whilst at university, still unhappy, still searching and still making little progress, I was aware that I wanted to know the truth. I wanted a God who was real and was worth putting my trust in and relying upon, a conception with some historical facts to support it. Paul suggested speaking with a priest or a pastor.
Slough Baptist Church
We lived in a rented one bedroom flat near the centre of Slough. I walked down our road to the United Reformed Church, a multi-sided building. There was no-one there. I walked across the road to St Mary’s, the parish church. I knocked on the thick wooden doors, but there was no answer. So I walked up the road to the Baptist Church. The yellow gate was open so I walked up the path and rang the bell. I talked to a lovely man, Keith Moyes, the senior pastor there at the time.
I attended on and off for about a year but did not feel at home. I remember little from this time. Then Lisa fell pregnant and we were hastily married at Gretna Green before Stanley was born. Lisa wanted Stanley christened “because everyone does” which I questioned because she did not believe in God. Drawing on my miniscule amount of theological knowledge, I told her about dedications at the Baptist church “where the child makes a decision for themselves later in life”. She agreed to come to the next one to see for herself.
When we went to the dedication, Lisa asked me why I’d never taken her before (!), and said that she didn’t realise church was like that. Although pretty middle of the road and not particularly charismatic, it was certainly ‘seeker friendly’! I still had ‘angry’ written across my forehead, which made it all the kinder when a couple invited us for lunch one Sunday. I bombarded them with questions and they suggested I attend an Alpha course at the church.
More questions followed. I had a number of things I wanted to reconcile. What helped was that the people reminded me of those teachers back at my prep school. At the end of the third session I went home and told Lisa that we’d be going to different places when we died. (She didn’t like the sound of that and enrolled on the next Alpha course). On the ‘away day’, I prayed a prayer of repentance with one of the elders and ‘made a decision for Christ’.
Was I saved? There were several consecutive Sundays I remember being in floods of tears at the church, chastened I guess. I was conscious of my most glaring area of sin as I was being baptised and the pastor asked “do you now turn from all that you know is wrong with the help of the Holy Spirit?”, but I just did not know that I really should and could actually stop the immoral thoughts I had. What I now see this really means is “do you repent?” the single most important thing I needed to do.
I did try to learn more at what they called a Beta group (a follow up short course), then at a home group and Spring Harvest over many years. But I made very little if any progress theologically, in my relationship with God and in sanctification. I continued to go to AA until early 2005 which probably did not help as here was a real mixed bag and typically a pretty ‘loose living’ crowd. I justified my sin on the grounds that it wasn’t harming anyone and that it was only in my head. With the benefit of hindsight, the general message of ‘grace covers everything’ did not help!
Eventually guilt got the better of me. Was I convicted of my sin at this point? We started to see a ‘Christian counsellor’. During this time I did start to make some more earnest attempts to stop my habitual sin but the reality is that counselling was never the answer.
When our counsellor moved away from the area, after about two and a half years, we desperately looked for the next step. We were getting pretty serious at this stage and wanted to find out God’s will. We did two things. We went to a Freedom in Christ course at Bracknell Family Church (NFI) as there were no such things in Slough. And we went on a Freedom from Freemasonry conference one weekend with a healing ministry called Sozo, and a few of their regular meetings.
FIC was useful. We found much of the teaching on the videos very clear and pertinent to the sorts of problems we had. The best bits focused on living by the Spirit, resisting the Devil and capturing your thoughts. It was here that I first realised that I had been given the power to make the right choices. (However, I now believe this sort of ‘easy guide to sanctification’ falls short because it needs to be set within the context of a whole life given over to Christ in a much fuller way than they put across). We were so excited by it that we recommended it to our own pastor and we ended up running a course for about 20 people there, alongside the pastor in the summer of 2008. The problem was that I’d keep slipping and the victory FIC talked about was still elusive. Was it just me? They made it sound a lot simpler than the struggle I was having. One couple did not like the course and wrote a challenging letter about the use of short ‘Christianity light’ courses. The effect of this, coupled with my now extremely intense searching, reading and praying, was for me to come rapidly to the conclusion that Christians could not be demon possessed and the course made what for me at that time was the classic mistake: it sought to integrate psychology with Christianity.
It was at Sozo that we were first challenged about psychology. At the time I had a struggling psychometric test publishing company. We had been struck at Sozo about their seriousness, their mention of holiness, and the seeming power of their ministry. To place them, they were greatly inspired by Derek Prince. But although now we would seriously question their female pastor; their ‘exorcisms’ and indeed the very need for any sort of ‘healing ministry’, for us, they played a significant role. I went away from one of their meetings and started reading extensively about the roots of psychology and its integration with Christianity. This search led me to Martin Bobgan and ultimately The Metropolitan Tabernacle, where I noticed MB was coming to speak at a conference called The School of Theology in the summer of 2008.
The whole experience at The Metropolitan Tabernacle was a revelation. I sat on the edge of my seat, riveted. This time I really asked a lot of questions. I had gone to see Martin Bobgan and discovered Reformed Theology. But mixed in those last few sentences is the key of course. I didn’t really discover it, rather it was God who revealed it to me. Until that point, I thought I was about the only person who had discovered Spurgeon and other ‘old time’ preachers on the internet, but there were at least a thousand other people who clearly ‘got it’ too. Still, I took page after page of notes, in case I never heard it again.
I assumed that we’d leave SBC soon after this, but realised that leaving a church is easier said than done. All our friends were there; the children were growing up there; we lived there. And there was no reformed church in Slough. I didn’t want to do anything too hasty but then neither did I want to quench the Holy Spirit.
I started on the London Reformed Baptist Seminary programme, which our pastor reluctantly provided a reference for, wincing a bit at the prospectus. It was confusing learning on the LRBS whilst still attending SBC. Increased understanding has led to a deeper sense of conviction and a fuller repentance. I have gradually become more conscious of the notion of holiness and the reality of what the Bible says. Theologically this could be the saving faith I needed to be justified. I believe that the Lord Jesus Christ died that I may be forgiven my sins and be made right with God. I feel as though I am now fully engaged in a struggle with my sin, knowing why it is that sometimes I don’t do what I want to do (Romans 7). I want to gain as much assurance as I can, as per 2 Peter 1: 10.
An extraordinary series of events led us to avoid bankruptcy by the ‘skin of our teeth’ towards the end of 2008. 13 sections of forms had been completed and we were 48 hours from court. My health was badly affected and I lost another job. Nothing made much sense at that time but the upshot was that I was offered a new job in Burton-on-Trent in March 2009 which surely couldn’t be a million miles away from Pastor Chris Hand’s church in Crich, one of the speakers who’s words I’d been furiously noting down at the School of Theology the previous year…
In God’s amazing providence, this has been a very good move for us. Having a decent job in the East Midlands has enabled us to continue getting straight financially. We live in the lovely town of Belper with the children’s schools within walking distance. And of course, best of all, we are blessed to be part of such a wonderful and encouraging local church. The excellent teaching and reverent style of services ensure that we are being fed and provided with every means possible to walk closely with God and that the children constantly hear the gospel. I have been encouraged to continue my studies on the LRBS seminary programme at the Metropolitan Tabernacle and to serve the Lord, with opportunities to preach and teach at church and get involved in much of our outreach, as well as 2 years or so of open air preaching in Leicester at lunchtimes.