When I left school I went to work for Jesus – preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captive, testifying, as With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (Acts 4.33). I was also interested in restoring sight to the blind (Luke 4.19), casting out demons (Luke 9.1), cleansing lepers (Matthew 8.1-4), feeding thousands (Luke 9.10-17) and raising the dead (John 11.1-43), but I never quite managed any of those, and had to make do with speaking in tongues (Acts 2.4), having visions (Acts 2.17) and receiving words of wisdom (1 Corinthians 12.8) instead.[*]
I was 17 years old when I started. I was from Essex. I’d attended a comprehensive school and had attained five or more O-levels at grade C or above. I’d missed punk, but I’d caught up with ska. I liked Burroughs, Kerouac, Borges, Kafka and Orwell. I’d read Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. I’d read Camus, in translation. I wore Dr Martens boots. At home I secretly drank my mum and dad’s Martini and in the pub I pretended to like beer. I watched a lot of TV. I liked chips, sausages and my mum’s roast dinners. I played football in a Sunday league. I had a paper round. I had a girlfriend. I was obsessed and terrified by my own burgeoning self. I was, in other words, a perfectly normal teenage boy.
Which is probably why I went looking for trouble. I’d become a convert at the age of 16 when I attended a rally in London: it was in Central Hall, Westminster, and was led by a man called John Wimber, a big, serious man with a neatly trimmed beard who specialised in what he called the ‘ministry of signs and wonders’. Wimber had been the founder of a Christian community called the Vineyard Fellowship, and I’d heard that this was where Bob Dylan had been converted, so I was intrigued. If it was good enough for Dylan, I reasoned, it was good enough for me: I had recently bought, at a jumble sale, a tape of Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, an album almost universally loathed by Dylan fans, but which seemed as good to me, if not better, than any of his other albums, or at least the one other that I’d actually heard, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which had been recommended to us at school by a drama teacher who wore elastic-sided boots and a suede jacket. I’d saved up and bought the album new, and I hated it: I hadn’t realised Dylan was folk; no one had told me. Slow Train Coming was different. It’s a brilliant, confused, hateful record about mighty judgments and people falling short of your expectations, and as a teenager most people did fall short of my expectations, except perhaps Terry Hall, and Dostoevsky, and maybe Echo and the Bunnymen.
So I went to Wimber. I don’t now remember that much about the meeting, except that the hall was very dark and very hot, and the music was very loud, and I soon began to feel woozy, as if I were drunk on Pernod and black. I vaguely remember some preaching, something probably about Who, then, can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble do it, or hardship or persecution or hunger or poverty or danger or death? (Romans 8.35), a good preaching text. What I do remember is crying almost until I was sick – and that a lot of other people were crying too, and there were people waving their hands in the air, and people up on the stage, and people falling over. People talking gibberish. Comings and goings. All the confusion seemed to make perfect sense to me – the impenetrable emotions, the overwhelming ideas, it was like the inside of my head – and when I returned home I realised that I had ‘given my life to Christ’. Or ‘invited Jesus into my heart’. Or something. I had no clear idea even then exactly what this meant, and I still have no idea, even though I spent years trying to encourage other people to do the same. What it meant, I think, what I told myself it meant, was that I believed Jesus had come to give his life to redeem many people (Matthew 20.28), sent by God to be the means by which our sins are forgiven (1 John 4.10). Jesus, I believed, was real. This world’s confusion was passing.
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[*] Unless otherwise specified, all biblical quotations are from the Good News Bible (American Bible Society, 1976).