Each Christian has a ‘testimony’; the story of how they came to faith and how they have walked their faith journey so far.
So, here’s mine. Hopefully it will give some background to my posts and make it clearer where I’m coming from.
I can remember believing in God from a very early age. When I was about eight or nine, I remember reading the Genesis story in my mother’s Bible – specifically the ‘Fall’ of Adam – and I can remember thinking like, ‘Oh, what a colossal shame! If only things had been different! We’d still be able to live in God’s presence!’ And whether you believe that story is true or not, still the tragedy is that somehow humans were separated from their Creator, with the results we see in our fallen world today.
When I went to secondary school, I’d won a scholarship to go to Woodhouse Grove School, a Public School which had been set up in 1812 for the education of the sons of Methodist ministers. As such, it was a Christian school with morning prayers every day, and there came a point where I realised that I was beginning to actually mean the words of the hymns we were singing in morning assembly. I was developing a consciousness of God but didn’t have any real guidance on it. A couple of my school friends used to talk about having a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus but they didn’t really explain it very well.
On the day I left school – Saturday, July 12th, 1980 (in those days my school had classes on Saturday mornings!) – I remember going up to the pub at the top of the school driveway, and having a pint with my school friends. I played Space Invaders on one of those table-top machines we had back then; I was really good at Space Invaders (and I still am!) and I got the high score. I remember it all so clearly. The reason I mention this is because I want to make it clear that I have very strong memories of my life in those days, and that my memories of what happened to me that evening are just as clear. One of my school friends (Mark) had invited me to the Good News Crusade in Horsforth, a tent crusade where the Gospel was preached. I can’t remember much about what was said except that there was some healing testimony, and I particularly remember, during the worship, thinking, “This Jesus guy has some really good music”; I guess it was Holy Spirit speaking to me through the medium He knew I had some gifting in, and also stirring up the worship-leader gifting within me. Anyway at the end they had the traditional ‘altar call’, where they invite those whom God has been speaking to, to come up to the front. I remember this clearly: it was as if God got hold of the back of my jacket and hoicked me to my feet, I was on my way to the front…. and when I got there, there was nobody to talk to me about it all! What an anticlimax… anyway, I eventually managed to wander to the side tent and chat with someone there, who led me in a brief ‘sinner’s prayer’, but I didn’t feel any different or anything like that. However, I do still feel that the 12th July 1980 was the day when I decided to follow Jesus. God called me on that day; there is no mistaking that. It was like I was being propelled out to the front by some unseen force…..and that getting up and going to the front was my response to His call.
Over that summer, I began going to a local Baptist church in my home town of Guiseley under Mark’s advice. I learned there – properly, this time! – about how the Christian life was all about the relationship with Jesus. I had a few instances where I found I was talking about Jesus with others, and really the whole summer was – I realise this now, looking back – shot through with ‘God incidents’. I had some near-misses driving my car but was well-protected, shall we say! God had His Hand on me over that time!
And on September 9th, 1980, Mark came round to my house and discussed with me what I’d learned at Church over the summer. I said that I’d learned that you had to have a personal relationship with Jesus; that you had to meet Him, and Mark asked me if I’d like to meet Him right now. Well, yes please! So right there in my parents’ sitting room, I invited Jesus to come in and take up residence in my heart.
I can’t say I felt any different afterwards. And it’s odd that I effectively have two ‘Christian birthdays’. But over that summer, and especially from 9th September onwards, I found that I was developing a real ear for God’s Voice, and a hunger for the Bible and especially for His Presence. I don’t remember why now, but I felt called to go along to a Youth Fellowship at Trinity Church, Rawdon, – Mark had more or less stopped going to that fellowship by then – and at which I found that I was getting to know Jesus more and more closely, and developing a deep love for Him. This was a time of great excitement about what I was discovering about Jesus, and about learning to hear His Voice and to feel His presence. I was learning, bit by bit, that what I had was a completely new life. I was with that fellowship for about seventeen months; until I felt God calling me back to Guiseley Baptist Church once more*. At Guiseley Baptist Church, over the next few months, we had a sort of mini-revival there; many people came to Christ, and lots of other people also came to join the church, (and Fiona, the beautiful girl I would eventually marry, was one of those people; we met on the CB radio and she came along to the Church). The Holy Spirit was moving in power there. I’m not exactly sure why (I don’t get involved in Church politics), but there was then a church ‘split’ and a whole group of us moved out of the Baptist Church in September 1982 and formed a new church in Rawdon.
During our time in that church, Fiona and I were involved in multiple ministries, including healing (receiving training from the Vineyard in 1986 and then Francis & Judith MacNutt’s Christian Healing Ministries in 1989), and youth work – but most significantly, we were mainly involved in worship leading; we were lead instrumentalists and vocalists as well as my being the director of music. After we planted a new church in Otley, I was also the main worship leader at Rawdon, leading most Sunday mornings and in housegroup too. I also did Bible college. That was where I was given the tools to think for myself; tools I sadly did not use in the church at the time!
And I have to say that at this time I was beginning to get a little disgruntled with much of the way that church was working. Nobody ever told us that we were doing too much; nobody told us that despite being a young couple living on the breadline, maybe we didn’t have to give as much as everyone else. Tithing was expected and if you didn’t pay your tithe they needed an excuse; ostensibly this was to keep the tax people happy (because of course ‘covenanting’ was expected too). We were definitely giving everything we could in terms of time and money and commitment. And furthermore, when you join a community of people, it is very easy to pick up unwritten, unspoken attitudes, behaviour patterns and codes of conduct that are not always of God. You don’t want to deviate from the ‘norm’; you don’t want to stand out from the crowd. Sadly, also, my personality type caused me to tend towards legalism; having certain behaviours that I felt I ‘must’ follow, and also certain behaviours I must avoid. This fits in well with the community pressure to conform. And I am embarrassed to say that I felt that we were the elite – me and my church – and that everyone else was wrong in varying degrees. I see that now, but I didn’t see it at the time. I’m not entirely blaming the church; it’s probably more the things I had learned there, and my personality, combining to form this kind of attitude. Like I said, it didn’t occur to me at the time, and it’s only later that I have come to work out what was happening. But still it manifested itself in terms of tacit judgmentalism and harsh attitudes towards others; on the other hand, when in actual contact with those whom I thought God may have had a problem with, I was just fine. Like with my transgender friend ‘Michael’. I’m sure Holy Spirit took over, or maybe my own gentle, encouraging and generous spirit overrode the religious judgmentalism; in fact I’m sure it was a mixture of the two.
Also I have to be honest and say that I actually felt uncomfortable in bringing anyone else into our church because I did not want them to become like I was; I did not want anyone’s freedom to be taken away by becoming part of this ‘club’ where certain behaviour patterns were expected and others were definitely verboten. I felt that I owed service to God as an obligation, rather than as a natural response to His love. Asking awkward questions, questioning ‘authority’ and in any way dissenting from the accepted normals of belief or behaviour was, in my perception, frowned upon. It had been drummed into me early on that the Elders’ authority was absolute and I bought into that. ‘The Bible says…’, while I still use that phrase now in my speech and writings, at that time I took it as meaning absolute authority and solid rules. I now see this attitude mirrored in some people I have met who are still in that kind of environment (and I do not refer here to anyone at that church) and it’s awful to see. I am still gutted and embarrassed to have ever thought like that. Also the Elders guarded their little power haven very jealously; for example, their names were on the church letterhead, as was the Secretary’s and the Treasurer’s, but not the Musical Director’s (me) nor the Children’s Ministry leaders’. Even the worship leading was guarded jealously…for many years, I was simply the lead instrumentalist, still leading and following the prompting of the Spirit, but also under the ‘leadership’ of a front-man who was the ‘face’ of the worship band even though he wasn’t ‘in’ it. Not until we did the church plant in Otley was I ‘allowed’ to lead the meeting in its entirety, and use to the full the gifting that God had given me. I see it now, but I didn’t then….surely there were so many give-aways; so many clues as to my thinking entirely incorrectly on so many matters spiritual, whatever the reason was for that, and that I was essentially a member of a cult. You’d have thought, surely, that my reluctance to want to bring anyone along to my church would have been a giveaway, wouldn’t you? But still it’s odd; the one person who I remember did come along as a result of knowing me, the very first time she came along, was completely overwhelmed by the love of God as she sat there in the worship***. Even though I was fallible; even though the church was fallible, still God chose to work through us and touch that young lady’s spirit with His own. That lady is still walking closely with Jesus to this day, over 20 years later. During my time in this church, God worked with me and through me; I ministered in power in the worship and in the healing ministry and generally things were good. But underneath was that deep uneasiness about Church things in general. I knew I was His child, in a very real and personal way. But I also believe that God honours the heart; I was committed to worshipping and serving Him from a true heart and I believe that God honoured my heart in that. Even if we are wrong, He is not wrong – more of that in this article – and so He ministers blessings to people despite the vessel He uses to minister through.
So there I was, being used mightily by God but underneath still feeling that there was something somehow ‘wrong’ with church. God then transplanted me out of my situation there, and moved me somewhere completely different in order to give me a really fresh start in so many ways, not least that of my comfortable, established church. Here’s what happened.
In 1995, we had the very definite call of God to move to the south-west. At the time, we couldn’t see the way to do it, but Father enabled us all the way. It was like the whole thing was planned out for us, which of course we believe it was. Maybe I’ll share the detail sometime. There’s a little bit of it in this article.
We immediately became involved with another church in our new town. We found friendship and fellowship there and continued ministering in worship leading, although I heard later that before they let us loose on the leading, the leadership contacted our old church in Leeds to check on our ‘credentials’. I still find that slightly disturbing; they could have just asked for a demo…. 😉
At this church was where my Grace moment happened. Up until now, I had ‘practised’ certain rules and behaviours that I thought were the ‘right things to do’, and avoided things that I thought were ‘sinful’. I’d done that because I thought that was what I had to ‘do’. It was all a little odd, but what happened was that, simultaneously, myself and three or four other church members suddenly realised that we were no longer under Law, but under Grace instead. It was like a light had suddenly come on and we could see everything so clearly! Why are we following all these rules and expectations when in reality there are none? This was such a revelation; God really made the ‘scales fall from our eyes’ (Acts 9:18). The leader of the church was not at all pleased; nowadays, I put that down to him being scared we’d all go off on a ‘sin-spree’; many pastors believe that this is a natural response to the ‘100% Grace’ message… it could also have been from a fear of losing ‘control’ of ‘his’ flock; however, to this day I genuinely do not think that he was afraid of losing such control; he wasn’t that sort of leader.
There came a point very soon after that when I ceased doing anything Christian at all. I’d simply had enough; I’d burned out, I think. And this time lasted for fifteen years; I refer to this as my ‘Dark Night of the Soul‘; a time during which I had very little contact with Christian things at all, apart from playing worship music at home (which I still meant with all my heart) and playing for the occasional school assembly. You see, Fiona was Director of Music at her school, which was a Church of England school, so occasionally I got roped in to play for their assemblies and church services. Even in that, the anointing on me was so obvious, and people actually used to come over to me to ask what was so special about my playing. I also laid down several worship backing tracks for the school, or more accurately, to help Fiona with her school worship leading. Later on, I also built my worship music website ‘VintageWorshipTapes‘. During the Dark Night, I realised that I did not want to be referred to as a ‘Christian’. This was not ‘denying my faith’, as I would have been told it was in my previous church background, it was that I did not want to be identified with the horrible way in which my Father God was being represented in His Church. I did not want to be tarred with the same brush as people whose beliefs were just as narrow-minded, dogmatic, harsh and intolerant as mine had once been. I did not want to be associated with the horrendous dichotomy of belief in a god who supposedly invented hell while at the same time loving everyone so much that he sent Jesus to save us. In that time, every time that I went into a church, it reminded me of why I didn’t go into churches any more.
I loved having Sunday mornings free, I loved not having to behave as people told me any more, and I loved the feeling of freedom. Freedom to be who I was. Freedom to work out my own belief systems free from others’ diktats. Freedom from having to behave in a certain way, freedom from living up to others’ expectations both inside and outside the Church – because if people know you are a Christian, they expect you to behave in a certain way based on their own (widely varying from person to person) presuppositions. I got to see the Church from the ‘outside’; to see it the way others saw it, as it were, and this was a real eye-opener. I got to learn the ‘worldly’ points of view, the understandings that those ‘outside’ the Church have, in all their variety and colour. I learned that those whom previously I had considered ‘lost’ – those whose actions would not save them no matter how ‘good’ they were because (according to my previous mindset) without Christ their actions were useless – that they were good people whose actions God actually values as much as those performed by a believer. And speaking of which, that people could also be ‘believers’ in their own way; just because they did not believe the exact same things I did, did not make them unbelievers. I have come to appreciate that people are essentially good, not wicked, sinful and lost as I used to think, having been led to that conclusion via a literal reading of certain Scriptures. It makes me shudder to think that my mind used to work like that, and it does make me see what a cultic mindset I used to have. Now, of course, I have to think the same ‘tolerant’ way as this about those still in the ‘old’ churches I used to go to, some of whom might now shun me because I don’t believe the same things any more, but I need to let them carry on believing as they see fit. It’s not my job to push people around. What I can do is to express in my blog the freedom that I have found, and hope that they too will realise that they are just as free because Christ has bought their freedom for them already.
And when I eventually did come back ‘into’ the Church (the story is written below), I found that my freedom remains; I am no longer bound up by the old practices and attitudes. I am free to think and do as the Spirit leads, not as men lead. I feel free to go or not to go, as I see fit. The friendships I have in the Church now are real friendships that are not there simply because of Church.
One morning in February 2014, as Fiona was preparing to go to Church (she didn’t stop ‘doing’ Church stuff like I did!) Father God said to me, ‘Ok lad, it’s time for you to go back’, and so, much to Fiona’s surprise, I said that I was going along with her that morning. The very moment I walked through that door into the church, I felt as if I had come home. I’m told that that’s what a lot of people say when they come into our Church. I don’t remember much about that morning, but during the worship, I suddenly went into floods of tears, fell on my knees, and remained like that for a good 20-30 minutes of solid weeping. Then followed about 20 minutes of uncontrollable giggling, something I had never before experienced. I knew of course what was happening: Holy Spirit was welcoming me back, as it were. My life has never been the same since. It’s completely different from what it was like before; the Presence of God accompanies me much more closely than before and life is suffused with a deep joy that bubbles up at every opportunity. Every time the Spirit begins something in me, I get these giggles – actually it’s more like a deep chuckle that my family now recognise as happening when the Spirit is doing something – and I know something is happening deep inside. Father brought me in at exactly the right time because not long afterwards, Fiona was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer, and the strength God has given me for the fight against this horrible, evil illness has been absolutely necessary. I don’t know how people without a sense of God in their lives cope with this sort of thing; I guess the human spirit is very tough and we all have hidden reservoirs of strength, but I personally could not have managed without Him.**** He’s been my Rock, in absolute reality. He’s healed me of two things over the past year (in June 2015 and May 2016). And I live in total freedom; the freedom Christ has given me!
I have realised that, in all that ‘Dark Night’ time, God had been showing me freedom, real freedom, and teaching me it, for the entire fifteen years. He then brought me back into the Church mainstream – and He never told me that it was time for the freedom to end. Because in Him is freedom; He had to break me away from the rigid structures, show me freedom, and then release me into Church as a free man. Genius.
I’ve also learned, to consolidate my ‘Grace’ moment as I described above, more about Grace. Whereas before I thought that Grace was just God being generous (as exemplified by the Christian cliche that grace = God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense), in actuality it’s so much more than that. It is that too, but it’s freedom, it’s life in all its fulness which is exactly what Jesus came to bring us – “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy; I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. “. (Jn10:10 KJV)
So, after all these wanderings and experiences, we come down to today. For me, today, everything is Jesus and Jesus is everything. The entire thing centres upon Him. Life, the Bible, the Church, expectations, our freedom, righteousness, forgiveness, our salvation, healing, hopes and dreams – all of these and everything else related to the Christian faith are found completely and solely in Jesus. He is the Centre of everything; without Him nothing makes any sense, especially in the Church. Walking with Jesus is the centre; listening to Him and following Him is the key to my whole life. I see it as my purpose in life to be Jesus to others: loving them, healing them, helping them.
The reason I rail so much against legalism is that I have found that true freedom outside the strict cage of Religion – trying to please God in my own strength and by what I do – and just rely on what Jesus has already done. My ‘acts of righteousness’ proceed from my relationship with Jesus, not from a set of expectations or compulsions. And they are no longer subject to any man’s judgement. And although I have firm roots in evangelicalism, in its structures and beliefs, I have gone beyond that into the real freedom of Christ, which is so much bigger and broader than ever I imagined.
And we never stop learning about God. If there ever comes a time where we think we’ve got Him all sewn up, got Him sussed out, that we have ‘arrived’, then we have stopped learning – because God is so much huger, broader and more amazing than we could ever think. And part of my freedom, as well as letting me be myself, is also letting God be God and not putting Him in a box, a box like I was once in.
I am never going back into that cage!
*Interestingly, while in the process of writing this piece, we had a reunion of the Trinity Youth Fellowship in a pub near the Church, while I was on holiday in Yorkshire, and it was so wonderful to see these people again; people who had helped me, taught me and loved me ‘just as I am’ during my formative months as a ‘newborn’ Christian. I will always be grateful to these lovely people for what they built into me, in teachings, love and attitude: Shona, Mark, Janet, Andrew B, Andrew M, Gordon, John and Vicki – if you read this, it was so lovely to see you all again after more than thirty years! And to those of the fellowship who couldn’t get there for various reasons: Andy T, Gwyneth, Diane, Caroline, Fiona (not my wife Fiona), Ewen, Helen, David, Alison, Pam, Julie. I don’t think I’ve missed anyone off the list but if I have, I apologise! And an especial mention for Irene, who tragically is no longer with us; we lost her at such a young age 🙁
**The whole thing was done in faith as we didn’t have a building, and we met in a public hall for all the rest of the time I was in Leeds; we weren’t sure at the time that we’d be able to keep it going like that – but 34 years later that Church is still going strong and they now have their own building too 🙂
***Isn’t it lovely when that happens?
(Yes that was a reference to the ‘Fast Show’ 😉 )
– June, 2016
****On 25th October 2016, my love and soul-mate Fiona passed into the Presence of her Lord.
– Dec 2016