This has been a long time coming – when re-reading previous attempts, I felt they sounded self-absorbed and self-pitying; but first, a disclaimer: When one has an Ex-Pastor brandishing both a stick and a carrot, it is difficult to refuse. This is the result of the stick. The Ex-Pastor promises me he is working on the result of the carrot.
The content of this extimony follows a vaguely chronological sequence, though some parts have been telescoped together, out of order, for brevity and clarity.
I was lucky, being born into a reasonably affluent family with a father who, though educated by Jesuits, was a non-believer, and a mother who was a “Hatch, Match and Dispatch” Anglican. We were involved with church only to the extent that we were a musical family – mother an ex-professional singer and my brother and I being good boy trebles – and sang in the choirs of churches local to where we lived.
I say “churches”, because there were many. The career of a rapidly advancing Royal Air Force officer meant that we moved house very, very often, spending between 6 months and 2½ years in one place. I am now 59 years old and it was only a few years ago that my age overtook the number of houses I have lived in since birth. As an epileptic from the age of 6, thanks to a stone-throwing fellow schoolboy, I was not a candidate for boarding school and attended a total of 14 schools. Fat, fitting (convulsing) and blessed with an IQ well in excess of 160, I was teased mercilessly at each of these schools and needed to “re-train” new teachers every time, as they were usually unaware that epilepsy did not always mean rolling on the ground and foaming at the mouth, but could take the form of minutes of blankness or apparently mindless activity such as walking around the desk, waving a pencil or narrating an internal narrative. Needless to say, the notes on the confidential reports that followed my school career will not have furthered my education. Sometimes, I am surprised I learned anything at all, especially as the anticonvulsant medication was little more than sleeping pills, and regularly falling asleep did not endear me to teaching staff.
At 16 years of age, with low self-esteem, and lonely, I met someone who told me about Jesus. Not the Jesus I had heard about from the pulpits of the churches where I sat, reading the Beano (a UK childrens’ comic) during sermons, but a living, loving, caring and redemptive Jesus, who wanted to be my friend and live in my heart for ever, filling my life with joy, peace, love and purpose. For a vulnerable nomad, this was the only permanent thing that I had ever come across as a relationship. Remember that moving house meant leaving friends and making new ones in a new place, knowing that they, too, would be temporary.
I was sucked in. Who, in that situation, and at that age, would not be? As a teenager with a low self-image, I was not capable of discerning the difference between self-generated joy at the potential and the real touch of a caring deity. Yes, I was truly sucked in.
At the time, we lived on a disused RAF station, the houses of which had been retained for those stationed at a nearby (20 miles away) station. We were 14 miles from the nearest church, without public transport, and so I set to and read the Bible from cover to cover. I noticed contradictions, but put them down to the antiquity of the books and their occasionally allegorical nature. The internal warmth and peace, obviously from an infusion of Jesus, allowed me to ignore them. Actually, at the suggestion of my minister, after asking a question he could not answer, I developed a technique many use, creating a mental box labelled “Awaiting Further Light” into which I would place any troubling, confusing or contradictory things I read, trusting that one day, God would reveal to me just how I should interpret them. (I have used this technique ever since, both when a believer and after being born-again-again, to stop worrying or thinking about those things about which I see no immediate prospect of an answer, and it continues to serve me well).
Marlene and Valerie could put me straight on this, but I suspect that the “mental box” technique, being a conscious putting aside of things that hurt or cannot be answered, serves as a way of avoiding the classic Freudian concept of repression -> neurosis progression, though my Psychology Diploma tells me that Freudian psychology is basically non-testable, un-falsifiable bunk.
In 1972, we moved to the outskirts of London, into married quarters which were situateded in a civilian community, 400yds from a Baptist Church with a thriving youth fellowship. They were in the throes of rehearsing for an “Extravaganza” – a musical presentation of God’s Word and World, with appearances by Cliff Richard. Needless to say, I dived in and got involved in the production, the Youth Group and the church.
Biblical, evangelical, not quite fundamentalist preaching and teaching fed my need to learn about my new beliefs and enthused me to join other outreach teams, knocking on doors to offer the Gospel; singing, drama and preaching in the streets to spread the word. These took up much of my out-of school time.
I was disappointed that none of the prayers I, and the church, sent up for healing had any effect and, inevitably, their ineffectiveness was soon laid at my door – I was too fat; I smoked; I had non-christian friends – anything to divert attention from the possible failure of the unconditional love of the god who promised to supply all my needs “according to his riches in glory” to make the small effort needed to effect a cure. I got to the point that I believed it was my lot to endure what the Catholics would call Redemptive Suffering and that God would empower me to live with this disabling condition. That made me happy for a while and my Christian walk continued apace.
With no diagnosis of mental illness from the psychiatrists who had been examining me since the age of 8, the search for a physical cause for my epilepsy was stepped up and scar tissue was eventually found on my right temporal lobe, from the rock my school-friend shied at me. In 1973, it was decided to remove this, surgically, as it held out hope of a cure. For me, there were three possible outcomes of this surgery:
I could suffer mental impairment if it went wrong;
I could come out with little change or
I could come out cured and pursue my dream of Medical School and become a psychiatrist.
I was sucked in. Who, in that situation, and at that age, would not be? As a teenager with a low self-image, I was not capable of discerning the difference between self-generated joy at the potential and the real touch of a caring deity. Yes, I was truly sucked in. The second result happened. From non-classical petit mal fits, I started suffering classic grand mal fits; accompanied by a 50% loss of visual field in both eyes (hemianopia) as both parvo and magno sight paths were interrupted by the removal of brain tissue.
Equipped with the confidence that Jesus loved me and would provide the strength to allow me to cope, I determined to continue to witness for him, despite the crushing blow to my future. With no chance of achieving my dream career, and being barred from many other career options by the unpredictable nature of the fits, I lost all motivation for study, but held my faith close.
Having discovered that my post-puberty voice had become a pleasant tenor, I joined an evangelical choir, singing the gospel and rising from a standard choir member to major soloist very quickly. This acceptance of my ability furthered the feelings of acceptance that I had at conversion and was enhanced by the appreciation of audiences where we performed and the emotional high of performance itself.
Passing auditions for other, premiere performances and musical tours, both in the UK and abroad, confirmed for me that god wanted to use me for his glory and cemented my commitment as a believer. I sought out the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, rationally. Odd, I know, but see it this way:
The emotional security and wholeness I felt at conversion, and the growing acceptance and self-esteem I was experiencing made it possible to believe that I had evidence for the reality of god and (some) of his promises. The Baptism or Annointing of the Holy Spirit was just another promise to be expected to be fulfilled, and to that extent it was rational to seek it out. I did so and believed that I had received it, with the evidence of speaking in tongues.
I stopped having fits about 3½ years after the neurosurgery and this coincided with a session of prayer when I began speaking in tongues. That is, I had no fits after this time. It was only later that I discovered that this was normal after invasive brain surgery, when convulsions cease in a period of between 2 and 4 years.
I had a flirtation with hard-line, fundamentalist, young Earth Creationism, but left it behind after a few months, partly because I could never reconcile the requirement to treat my wife as a second-class, inferior person, with the example of co-operative, mutual love and respect that I saw between my parents, especially as I saw so many marriages failing among my believing friends.
How does an intelligent person, albeit with a fragmented education, get sucked into believing Fundamentalist, Creationist drivel? I can only answer that it was because I was vulnerable and because that vulnerability and the needs it generated seemed to have been dealt with and met on numerous occasions. It took some time to realise that these good feelings were because my need to be accepted was met by development of my own talents, built upon a single, initial, self-generated feeling of joy which I mistook as having a divine origin.
How did it all end? How did I escape?
There is still in circulation, and available for purchase on CD, a Xian musical in which I had a major part. The blurb on the CD describing me includes the claim that I was healed of epilepsy.
The first tipping point for me was when, on tour with this show, I was approached by a couple who wanted to know if I would pray for them and their son who was epileptic. They asked questions about how I was healed and under what circumstances. Hell, it was almost like being asked which knee I had prayed on, or what language was used when they spoke in tongues over me for healing. I have never felt so powerless and full of shame as I did at that moment when I realised that I was unable to reassure them, beyond promising to pray for them. I could not explain why god had apparently kept his promise for me when he was not doing so for their son, especially as the prayers of thousands of people and hours had not resulted in me regaining my lost eyesight.
Upon returning home, I got involved a little more deeply with my church and a prophecy was given about my future ministry as a “prophetic singer”. Spurred on by this, and what I had thought was a calling to ordained ministry also, I redoubled my efforts to study god’s word in acknowledgment of and preparation for these callings. Needless to say, any deep study of those 66 books, leads to the discovery of their origins and their contradictions. Prayer, meditation, fasting and study did nothing to resolve the issues. The deep, profound and complete silence of god in response to desperate pleas for guidance and insight was more than troubling, but the second tipping point came when the spirit-filled leaders of the church failed to act according to the dictates of their faith in terms of their ministry to other needy folk, one falsely accused of a heinous crime by another, for the personal benefit of the latter, whilst at the same time, pushing an agenda of Respect, Obey and Submit. Anyone questioning the authority of the, obviously, divinely led vicar and officials was little less than anathema.
I tried. I trusted. I gave, sometimes to the detriment of my family. I depended on the promises of god.
I discovered that “...these three things abide...Faith, Hope and Charity”.
From living in Faith, I moved to living in Hope. When I became at risk of living on Charity, it became clear that the promises I believed on faith were never to be fulfilled.
I went to University, soon after returning from touring Israel with the Musical. Events at church, as outlined above, made me withdraw from going to Vancouver with the same show, as I no longer felt that I could honestly stand on stage for an hour, singing, singing in tongues, attempting to bring people to salvation in a messiah I no longer wholly trusted. My withdrawal was not met with much concern, beyond being described as “a cry for help”. Being in Academe, however, opened my eyes to ways of thinking and reasoning which had never before been formalised for me, beyond the narrow confines of my career as an IT consultant. Faith, as understood by believers, evaporated in me and my initial love for knowledge burgeoned and flourished with the encouragement of teachers, leaders and professors who actually knew stuff which could be demonstrated. After 2 degrees, a diploma and ⅔ of a PhD (which I still hope to complete), my mind has been rescued from the death of religious belief. It would not be possible to live there again.
I have read so many extimonies here and sometimes feel as though I had it so easy. I described a friend yesterday as having “been bathed in the amniotic fluid of Fundamentalism”. It was not as bad or as deep as that for me and I am grateful.
I am also grateful for ExChristian.net, whose many contributors, over the summer of 2006, when I discovered it, unwittingly, yet remorselessly, led me to the point where I could openly declare myself to be an agnostic atheist. Too many of you to name. If you were there, you know who you were.