Diary

Ian Sansom

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.

In practical terms, inviting Jesus into my heart meant that I decided to change my life, which is easier said than done when you’re 16 and living with your mum and dad in Essex. I bought a Bible, obviously – a Good News Bible, from W.H. Smith in Romford, the only bookshop I’d ever been to. I had no idea there were such things as bookshops that just sold books and not also, say, a full range of stationery items and cards for all occasions. My Good News Bible was translated from the original tongues into ‘today’s English’ and featured many curious, faceless line drawings of biblical scenes. (Years later, piously learning French, I bought myself a French Bible, Le Nouveau Testament illustré en français courant, and was amazed to find the same illustrations, like a universal language: Avant que Dieu crée le monde, la Parole existait déjà; la Parole était avec Dieu, et la Parole était Dieu, Jean 1.1). At the same time, I threw out almost my entire top shelf, or cupboard-top, of books: Ian McEwan’s First Love, Last Rites, Junkie, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Lolita, books which I had lovingly collected from jumble sales and Oxfam shops, and which I now had a strong sense were somehow ‘wrong’. We’d done ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ for O-level English, so that stayed. Nineteen Eighty-Four was suspect, because of the scene between Winston and Julia among the bluebells, but it was a school copy, so that had to stay too. I also threw out half my records and tapes and ceased wearing eccentric clothes. I stopped having silly haircuts and removed my earring. I started attending a church youth group on Friday nights, stopped associating with some of my old friends and, as much as possible for someone living in a small town, I tried to renounce what the King James Version calls the friendship of the world (James 4.4). I tried to be polite to my parents.

I studied the Bible and read devotional books, inspirational books, books by a woman who’d saved Jews from the Nazis, Corrie ten Boom, books by a disabled woman, Joni Eareckson, who through the love of Christ had reconciled herself to her disability, and books by ‘God’s Smuggler’, Brother Andrew. I went so far as to write to Brother Andrew, asking how I too might do God’s will and smuggle Bibles into heathen lands. He wrote back, suggesting I finish my A-levels. I read the Reverend Richard Wurmbrand’s Tortured for Christ, and Frank Morison’s Who Moved the Stone? I read Nicky Cruz’s Run, Baby, Run, and books by Charles Colson, books which are still in print years after their first publication, Christian megasellers. I also spent a lot of time in prayer, and in daydreams. I was completely happy. I was a solipsist. I was saved.

Then, the August after I left school, guided by God, I decided to go further. To my parents’ horror, I turned down my offer of a place at college, packed up my red rucksack, and took a National Express coach up north. It wasn’t enough that I was saved: I wanted to save other people. I had decided to become an evangelist. I went to work for an evangelical missionary organisation, one of whose many purposes and functions was to train young people to spread the good news, organising them into small teams and sending them out among every nation, tribe and people in all Judea, to Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28.19-20).

First there was the training. The training centre was a former school. Being there felt how I imagined it would feel to be at a boarding-school, or in the army: it was great. We slept in dormitories and got up early every morning for exercises and a shower. A lot of people were getting up even earlier, five or six o’clock, for ‘quiet times’ – private prayer and the reading of the Bible. I’d resolved to read the Bible through every year and at the beginning of training I think I was up to about the Book of Daniel, so I would creep downstairs in the early morning and sit outside, shivering in my Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan-style jacket, meditating on the End Times and the Awful Horror, when Many people will be purified. Those who are wicked will not understand but will go on being wicked; only those who are wise will understand (Daniel 12.10). My hair was growing out. I was wearing desert boots.

During the day we attended teaching sessions, where we would receive instruction in Scripture and the techniques of evangelism. At the beginning of every session we would have a time of praise and worship, which meant singing songs, lots of songs, sickening songs sung way past the point of sickening, again and again, repeating the same words until they lost all meaning, and you had to search around inside your head for the sense of them, and because you couldn’t find any, you just gave in to the rhythms, which lulled and excited in equal measure. From what I remember, there were basically two kinds of song: songs which were really all about sex, and songs which were really all about death. ‘Lord,’ we sang, utterly seriously, and without the slightest hint of self-consciousness, ‘You put a tongue in my mouth and I want to sing to you.’ ‘Jesus take me as I am’; ‘When I feel the touch of your hand upon my life’. Singing the sexy songs we would throw our hands up in the air and close our eyes and sway. I loved the feeling of singing those songs. During the death songs we would clap loudly and stamp our feet: ‘Magnificent Warrior, Arrayed for Battle’, ‘Restore O Lord,/ The honour of Your name,/In works of sovereign power/Come shake the earth again,’ and ‘I hear the sound of the army of the Lord.’ I loved those songs too. Years later, at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, a friend from training got into the rave scene: he said it was the closest thing he’d ever encountered to those praise and worship sessions. We were all perfectly normal people – people from all over, people from the North, people from the South, white people, black people, people with proper jobs and people who had just left school, but not, on the whole, rich or middle-class people. Not professionals. We were just enthusiastic amateurs, people from small towns who thought we could change the world but had absolutely no idea how. What we really wanted to do was change ourselves, to become different from what we knew we were, be transformed, as the New International Version puts it, into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3.18).

We were not encouraged in the historical and critical study of the Scriptures: knowledge was in every way less important than experience. The only thing that really mattered was experience: Jesus in your heart, the touch of the Spirit, the father heart of God. We were instructed by proof-texting, assertion and encouragement, and we were preached at rather than taught. I found then, as I still find now, that being preached at is a wonderful experience. I felt flattered by the attention, and the apparent effort. I loved the digressions and the sudden stoppings-short, the non sequiturs, the sheer solemnity of it all, which was so close to farce. I wanted more. I had itching ears. We were taught about proselytising, and the classic ‘Lord, Liar or Lunatic’ defence (since Jesus claimed to be God, he could not simply be a good man or a prophet; his claim was either true or false, and had to be accepted or rejected). We were encouraged to believe not merely in the power of proclamation (the preaching of the good news), but also in the power of demonstration – in the casting out of demons, for example. We were encouraged to seek out what were called ‘power encounters’: the encounter of Good and Evil.

I still have it all, in my notes: two small grey notebooks I had left over from school (physics and chemistry). The handwriting is identifiably mine, though rounder and straighter and much more careful. On a Monday, undated, we were taught about Elijah on Mount Carmel, confronting the 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18.16-40). Also, that demons cause dumbness (Matthew 9.32-33), blindness (Matthew 12.22-23) and epilepsy (Matthew 17.14-21). On a Tuesday we were told that we were Preaching the Kingdom – ‘NOT the Church, the KINGDOM’. On the same day we were told that we had been empowered by God’s authority, and that anything was possible: For whoever wants to save his own life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it (Mark 8.35). We were given the example of the Full Gospel Central Church in Seoul, where the pastor Paul Yonggi Cho had built up a congregation of 500,000 members, through the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit. My notes for that day are full of numbers: ‘3770 verses, 4 gospels. 727 – 19 per cent! – refer to healing/rez of dead’. On Wednesday we were warned about ‘exclusive relationships’, close, intimate relationships between males and females, which the Devil wanted to use to drive a wedge between us.

Some people left: they couldn’t hack it. They hadn’t realised that it would be like this. They missed their exclusive relationships. They missed home, or their families, or their jobs. I’d split up with my girlfriend before coming, and I had no other job, and no plans. I didn’t so much as set foot outside the grounds of the school for the full month of training: it simply didn’t occur to me. I don’t know if it occurred to anyone else. I couldn’t have gone anywhere, anyway: I had no car and there were no buses, and this was long before mobile phones and instant communication. I was completely isolated. I think the furthest from home I’d ever been before by myself was to Southend for a bank holiday, and the limits of my mental map of England extended to the Hammersmith Apollo to the west, Canvey Island to the east, the Dartford Tunnel to the south and Bedford to the north. I had no clear idea of where I was. I might as well have been up Mount Athos. I didn’t care. I was full of the Spirit. Even on a Sunday or on the occasional free afternoon I was too excited to do anything except read my Bible. There was a swimming pool, but no one swam – although several people chose to be baptised by full immersion. In the evenings we played table tennis. There was no television. People played guitars. We were encouraged to regard ourselves as a kind of army, at war with Satan. We were told that we had been singled out and chosen, that The harvest is large, but there are few workers to gather it in (Matthew 9.37), and that we were engaged in a cosmic battle, where The word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It cuts all the way through, to where soul and spirit meet, to where joints and marrow come together (Hebrews 4.12). We spoke and sang in tongues. We healed each other. We were ‘slain in the Spirit’. We laughed in the Spirit. We roared like lions. We were not primarily interested either in doing or being good – which can be complex. What we were interested in was obeying God’s will, which was simple.

And at the end of training we were split into teams, and sent out to minister. There were four of us. I’d made friends during training, but these people were not my friends. I didn’t mind: it didn’t matter. God had chosen us to be together. We worked out of an upper room, over a Christian bookshop, in a small courtyard, attached to a church. We had a gas heater, a desk, some stackable chairs, a filing cabinet, a lot of tracts, but no phone. If we had nothing planned for the day, we’d let the Spirit guide us. Sometimes the Spirit would guide us to go up to people on the street we had never met and try to get them into a conversation about Jesus. Sometimes the Spirit guided us to spend the morning playing table tennis with old-age pensioners or children in the church hall.

We organised crusades, held meetings, went door-to-door visiting, went into schools, led discussion groups and Bible studies. We organised coffee mornings, barbecues and fun days. We held prayer vigils, fasted, attended rallies and conferences, and were constantly on the lookout for the Evil One, who roams around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5.8). We were looking for ‘decisions’ for Christ, or rededications at the very least. We preached the good news. We believed that Jesus meant it when he said I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me (John 14.6). We told people to repent and to receive Christ by faith. We laid hands on the sick. We drove round in a beaten-up old white Ford Fiesta, and it felt like being in a band, except in reverse, or the opposite: we did not drink alcohol, or listen to secular music, or go to the cinema. Let the Spirit direct your lives, and you will not satisfy the desires of the human nature (Galatians 5.16). We listened to Keith Green and to Larry Norman, and to taped sermons and Bible studies. We screened a film called When the Thunder Comes, and nobody came. When we fell out and argued or disagreed we’d pray for each other.

We were together at least six and often seven days a week, from early in the morning till late at night. We started every day with a time of prayer and worship, seeking guidance from the Lord, and we often ended the days exhausted: I’d never worked so hard before, and there was so much to do, for This is the hour to receive God’s favour; today is the day to be saved! (2 Corinthians 6.2). We lived with church families, who were paid a small allowance and fed us. We were paid a small amount of pocket money – hardly anything. We saved up and once a month we had lunch at the Wimpy.

Someone in the church had lent me a bike, a child’s bike, several sizes too small, and on my days off I would take a sandwich and cycle out along the dual carriageway into the country, where I would eat my lunch in churchyards, saying grace out loud to myself, or sometimes I would hitchhike to other towns or cities, sometimes as far as London, and on the way I would try to convert the drivers. I believed that these were divine appointments. I was 18, I was saved, and I had absolutely no fear. The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me? (Hebrews 13.6). ‘Can I ask you a question?’ I would say, almost as soon as I’d got into the car. ‘Have you asked Jesus into your heart?’ I was doing them a favour.

Out in the country, out on my bike, I started thinking about the future. I was considering applying to the London Bible College, or maybe even somewhere like the Fuller Theological Seminary in the States, if I could get the money together. I knew that if it was meant to be, it was meant to be: the Lord would provide. He had my future mapped out. All I had to do was read the Bible, and pray, and the plan would become apparent to me, like reading tea leaves. At the same time, though, I’d drifted back towards reading more and more non-Christian books, and non-devotional works: I’d picked up a copy of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and Beckett’s Molloy, and an edition of Chekhov’s Letters in a charity shop. I used to take them with me on my outings, with my Bible and my sandwich. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t help it; I couldn’t seem to stop myself. Someone in the church – a middle-class woman, whose husband was a doctor – had lent me some novels by Iris Murdoch, and some works of apologetics and soft-theological books by someone called Francis Schaeffer. I read Pascal and G.K. Chesterton and Kierkegaard and C.S. Lewis. I became interested in the philosophy of religion and in exegetical criticism. I heard about a place called L’Abri, in Switzerland – a kind of religious teaching community. That sounded good. The woman who lent me the books, and the couple I was staying with, encouraged me to think ahead and to reapply to college. They were sensible people: I tried my best not to listen to their advice.

It’s all nearly twenty years ago now, and I haven’t seen any of my team since: I don’t even have a photo, no evidence at all of all those good and generous people in the church who tolerated us, and cooked us dinners, and put us up in their spare rooms. I’ve no idea what became of the maybe fifty or sixty of us who trained together and who were sent out to spread the Word, although you get to hear rumours: this person a teacher, that person in therapy, this person married, the other one divorced, dead husbands, or children, the Reiki healer, a second-hand car dealership that went wrong, a mission in Malawi, a house church in Harlow, someone in Israel, someone in insurance. When the team broke up we didn’t keep in touch. We all seemed to realise that our time together was too intense, and too traumatic. If I met them, even now, I don’t think I could look them in the eye, and I wouldn’t know what to say to them, or they to me. From all that time spent together, and after all these years, I’m still in contact with just one person I knew from back then – someone I met on training, someone on a different team. But we can never be close. We know too much. When we meet each other these days it’s only when we’re both drunk, or can get drunk, and we can laugh about it. We try not to analyse it too much.

A few years ago, before leaving England, I returned with my wife and young son to the town where I’d been posted, and to the house where I’d stayed. The people who’d put me up had moved on, and the gates to the church were locked. There was the name of a new pastor on the notice-board – someone I’d never heard of. Someone had painted the railings.

I learned a lot from my time with the team. I learned how to write upside down on acetate sheets and how to work a gestetner machine. I learned to play the guitar using Jo King’s Teach Yourself Praise Guitar and a cassette tape called Derek Moon Plays Songs of Fellowship. I went off Slow Train Coming and got into John Wesley Harding. I learned not to trust myself, or other people. I learned how to tell stories.

[*] Unless otherwise specified, all biblical quotations are from the Good News Bible (American Bible Society, 1976).