Forty years on
..being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6, NIV)
This coming week I will be thanking God for forty years of knowing Christ. I hope you won’t mind a blog of a more personal nature, in which I can tell a bit of my story.
If you’d met me as a teenager, you’d have thought that it would be very unlikely I’d ever be a Christian. I remember priding myself on reading a famous article by a philosopher called Bertrand Russell, entitled Why I am not a Christian. I said God did not exist, and I lived my life as if he didn’t.
A little old man used to stand outside the school buildings and give out leaflets about Christianity. I don’t think I ever knew his name, but we thought he was a bit of a crank and used to test him with our hard questions. No matter how rude we were to him, he was always polite and kind to us.
I left school and had some months between finishing school and starting at uni, and during that time some things happened that got me thinking.
One was a block-buster nature series on TV called Life on Earth. This was the first of David Attenborough’s big documentaries. We’d never seen anything like it. Week after week, as I watched, I began to think, “This can’t all be an accident!”
I also had a job taking groups of people up the hills of Western Scotland, which is one reason why I’ve been up Ben Nevis twelve times! One June afternoon I asked one of our customers what book it was that he was reading. He told me it was the Bible! Immediately I said, “You don’t believe all that, do you?” He said that he did - and we had some interesting conversations. I remember looking across at a stunning view of the mountains and beginning to see his point that there is a Creator who’d made all this.
At the start of October 1979 I started as an undergraduate at Cambridge. Arriving at Trinity College was an amazing experience. But the prestige was not all I was thinking about. I now decided to investigate Christianity properly, for myself.
I went to a fresher’s event organised by the Christian Union in the college and signed up to join a discussion group, in which there was a chance to investigate the basics of Christianity, every Sunday evening.
I don’t think I even went the first Sunday. Instead, I went along to a meeting organised by the university Christian Union, CICCU, specially with freshers in mind. I can’t remember the talk but was very struck by what I heard. (Years later I married the speaker’s niece!)
Anyway, we got going in the discussion group. There were four of us who weren’t Christians, and two who were. We argued! We talked about evidence - what actual evidence there is for God and for Jesus Christ. We talked about who Jesus is, and what he came to do. And we argued more.
As the weeks went by, I began to realise that I simply hadn’t understood what I’d been rejecting. I hadn’t seen how central Jesus is - Christianity isn’t a philosophy, but about a person. I’d never grasped the compelling evidence that he really rose from the dead, and is alive today. I hadn’t seen how real Christianity differs from religion - it’s not about what we do for God, but what God has done for us. I’d never understood the significance for us that Jesus died on the cross - for the forgiveness of sins. I simply hadn’t understood what I’d been rejecting! With gentle persistence, the leader of the group, a fellow undergraduate, answered my questions.
It was on Remembrance Sunday weekend 1979 - after talking to an old friend about his girlfriend problems and realising I was now using Christian arguments! - that I told the discussion group leader I wanted to become a Christian. The next day we met up and he went through the essentials of how we can come to God, through Jesus.
I went back to my room really understanding it all for the first time. That night I prayed - not for the first time in my life, but for the first time as an adult knowing my prayer would be heard by my Heavenly Father.
The next morning I woke up still me - but deeply, inwardly changed. My conscience began to wake up, and I realised that things I’d been quite happy to do before I now shouldn’t do. I realised that not just my life style but even my thinking needed to change. I had a fresh and deep joy which is hard to describe, but which I still know 40 years later!
I began to read the Bible for myself. Someone gave me a little booklet which had Bible passages in it with some comments which explained the passages. As I read it over the months that followed, I knew God was speaking to me in its pages. And I made the sensational discovery that, even though the Bible is 66 books written over a period of more than 1200 years, its storyline fits together as if one ultimate author had planned it all. As I read the experience of Christians - whether the writers of the Psalms or the disciples of Jesus - I found that their experiences matched what I was experiencing, in knowing the living God.
I also went to church. Just along the road from my room at Trinity was the Round Church, which some of my fellow-students recommended. It was amazing. The Bible was opened up, and I discovered its treasures for the first time. I had no idea that forty years later I would be the vicar!
I also became conscious that I was joining a world-wide family. For Christianity isn’t just a western thing. It thrilled me then - and it thrills me still - to know Christians from Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America. Here is something which has travelled all over the world, and gone into very different cultures, not by force, but simply by telling the facts. And here are people from very different backgrounds from my own who have the same experience of knowing Jesus as alive today.
This was what happened to me forty years ago. Over those years there have been many ups and downs; we have faced many challenges, and many delights. Through all of these I have found Jesus Christ keeps the promises he makes in the Bible, such as the one at the top of this blog. Forty years is a good long time to experience the wonderful, gracious keeping power of God!