I'm just feeling like telling my story, but feel free to interject if you'd like to add anything. Clarify it, maybe, or if you just want to put in your four penneth. There's a good chance that you have a different perspective from me.
I once heard a wise man say that for some people, coming to faith in Christ would be a Damascus Road experience - a blinding flash, or something that stops you in your tracks and convinces you, flash! of the truth of the Gospel. For other people the path to knowing Jesus is a series of links in a chain. For me it was sort of both. There was a flash, then a fizzle, then a chain along which I groped my way back to the light.
In my teens I had a great friend; we were inseparable. We went to different schools at 11 years old and it didn't matter; and even now I haven't seen her for about two years but I know that when we do meet up, it will be easy to pick up where we left off. I think friends of that nature don't come along that often, and in life you're blessed if you have a few. Anyway, she used to go along to church CYFA group (Church Youth Fellowship Association) which took place after the 6.30pm service on a Sunday night. She invited me, and I went along.
I can't remember exactly what my thought process was in agreeing to go but I seem to recall that at least part of it was a very good-looking boy who also went. I used to sit on the wall outside church swinging my legs and waiting for her to emerge before joining the gang on their way to the curate's house round the corner. This went on for some time. I was sixteen years old. I enjoyed the group, made some friends, (didn't get anywhere with Mr Gorgeous) but didn't really take in the reason they had for being there.
One day a group of the CYFA people were going to Cliff College, which is a Bible college not far from here that holds a big conference/festival type thing each summer with visiting speakers and so on. I tagged along, and found myself sitting on a bench in the sun on a very very hot day in a huge outdoor space with thousands and thousands of other people. People were using their programmes as fans. There was singing, about which I don't remember anything at all (but I have the programme, all bent out of shape, so I know that there was singing) and then a man called Eric Delve came onstage and started telling us about Jesus. I don't have much recollection about what he said, though I have since heard him speak to a similar audience on similar occasions so I'm pretty sure I know what it must have been.
He was speaking just to me.
You know how in films, or on the news, when they want you to focus on one person in a crowd, and they sort of fade out everyone else, putting a clear circle around the subject, and everyone else goes grey? Well, Eric Delve was clear, and I was clear, but the crowd round me, including my friend and her parents in whose car we'd come, were grey and fuzzy. I have no idea of their reaction to what they were hearing. Of course, they'd heard it before, and understood it.
Speaking just to me. It was the most amazing thing I'd ever heard.
Jesus Christ died for me. You died for me. I know at one point Eric showed everyone a Roman nail - they type that they used for crucifixion. It was in a little perspex tube and he held it up to show us. It was huge. I knew about the crucifixion, of course I did - any self respecting teenager has a grasp of gory things - but on that day it was as if I was hearing the story as it happened to one of my dearest friends, or a family member. It happened to someone that I love. How could you have done such a thing voluntarily, for me?
Tears were streaming down my face and I didn't care. I was then, and am now, one of the most self conscious people you'll meet, and yet when Eric asked for anyone who had been touched by the message he'd given to stand up and go to the front where the stage was, I got up straight away. I think my friend came with me; I'm not actually sure. But I squeezed past the knees of some folks on the bench and there I was, crying and crying, and standing with a small crowd of others while Eric prayed for me. No idea what he said.
Someone came afterwards and gave me a copy of John's Gospel and a leaflet of some description. To be honest, nothing else is remotely memorable about that day. I don't know if anyone else was on stage after Eric Delve, or how long it took my friend's parents' car to get out of the car park, or what I said to my Mum and Dad when I got home, or what I had for tea.
I just remember that it was the day that I gave my life to Christ.
So hooray! That was the day I was saved! So life must have turned around and become wonderful, now I was one of the flock. I must have had a special Ready Brek glow about me, didn't I?!
Nothing much changed. I started going to the 6.30pm service at church instead of waiting outside. I went away on CYFA camps to the Lake District in the summer as a member, then a helper, then a leader. I finished school wearing a little dove 'Christian' badge and went to University where I was put in touch via contacts at CYFA with a good church that welcomed students. I joined the Christian Union, but it wasn't very inspiring.
I went to work for the same church after I graduated and found it a very testing time for one reason and another, but I did learn a lot about church politics (not Church of England politics, necessarily, just the internal manoeuvrings of a very big and growing Evangelical Anglican church). It wasn't always a warm and fuzzy place to be.
I had a few ups and downs; well, largely downs, actually. I broke up with a longstanding boyfriend, the flat where I lived (alone) was broken into in the middle of the night and I met the three hammer-wielding burglars in the sitting room; a good friend of mine who'd stayed on after university moved away. I wasn't happy and to be honest, at that time, working for a church was turning me off Church-related things. Then three things happened.
I hadn't been sleeping. On the night of the burglary (which happened at 3.14am, I remember very clearly), I had colleagues from work coming round in the middle of the night, friends from up the road, and a couple of police officers who eventually arrived 45 minutes after my 999 call and 15 minutes after the burglars had left. When they had secured my broken door and done their paperwork, everyone left, and I started shaking. I was so, so cold, and no amount of hot water bottles and blankets got me warm. I went to work the next day and everyone was solicitous, the door was speedily replaced and people forgot about it. But I couldn't sleep. I was alarmed at every tiny noise, and I started sleeping in the sitting room as my bedroom at the back of the house seemed particularly creepy. This went on for weeks, until one day I went for prayer after a healing service at church. I told a lady something of what had happened and she prayed for me.
That night, I climbed into my bed (well, sofa) and picked up the Bible in a Year that I'd been doing, day by day. If the truth be known, I was about a month or more behind. So I picked up the Bible in a Year and I opened it where the little ribbon was, not on the correct day.
Psalm 4, verse 8. 'I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety'.
And I did, and You did.
It was the first good night's sleep I'd had since the break in. You had my attention.
The second thing also happened in that flat (I know, it probably wasn't the most sensible place for a girl on her own to live) was that one day I was standing washing up at the kitchen sink, and in front of me was a huge window. It opened onto a little road - an alley, almost, dividing two long rows of gracious four storey Victorian terraced houses. The window was about ten feet tall, with thick obscure glazing in a swirly sort of pattern. It was divided in two - you know, the sash window sort. A friend of mine was in the sitting room, and we were talking and laughing about something. She said something, and I took a step backwards and sideways with my wet hands dripping on the floor to answer her. At that moment, a brick came through the window and the whole bottom pane smashed. There was so much glass that six and eight inch shards of it were sticking out of the cupboards on the opposite wall. Not one bit touched me. I had stepped out of the way just in time.
'Thing number three' was perhaps the last thing that happened before I left that job at the church. There was a University Mission. My job had not really been to work with students; my responsibilities were really to the Mums and Toddlers, baby groups and visiting teams and I didn't spend much time in the universities, but it was all hands on deck, so I was made an assistant missioner. I was responsible for encouraging and working with a CU small group as they planned and carried out Mission events at the University.
Eric Delve was the Missioner; the primary speaker and leader of the whole shebang. I knew I would leave my job as it didn't seem to be right for me, but Eric helped me separate a negative experience of Church from my experience of God. He sort of changed the points so that my little engine wasn't derailed. Him again.
I went travelling, then went to a different university to study Occupational Therapy. I had a Christian boyfriend (for a while) and was excited about a new direction. I had a whale of a time. I made some great friends, got involved in things in a way I didn't have the confidence to do at university the first time round, and in my first year actually met the lovely man who would eventually become my husband. Was a great time.
I never found a church to go to, though somehow my flatmate and I wangled regular invitations to lunch with the vicar of our nearest church; though we only darkened the door of the church itself a handful of times. Mind you, I do have a memory of singing a song to the tune of 'Match of the Day' at one service.... funny, that. So my years there were pretty dry, spiritually. Intermittently I kept a prayer diary, which I still have, and reading it back makes me cringe.
My boyfriend broke up with me, but I had pretty much got used to being without him as he couldn't visit very often. I was much more resilient and managing pretty well on my own. Bryan and I started seeing each other, I was captain of the archery club and I won a National Tournament, I loved my course, was doing well, life was good.
Somehow I learned that Eric Delve had planted a church on the other side of the city and I went out there one Sunday evening to a service because it seemed an incredible co-incidence that we both found ourselves in Liverpool. I can't say that a bright light shone on me that evening, or that he said something that struck me like a thunderbolt, but nevertheless I remember that evening clearly. I remember his inner-city church with metal grilles on the windows, and I remember it rained heavily and there was a cold, cold wind. I remember that I couldn't find a bus back and ended up spending a fortune on a taxi, but I remember feeling that it had been worth the effort.
Fast forward a few years, and things had happened. Bryan and I got married, we lived in London, I worked my way up the ladder in Occupational Therapy and Hand Therapy, moved house and had babies.
My first little girl, Elizabeth, was born nine days after my Dad died and two days after his funeral; we moved house back to Chesterfield to be near my Mum three months later and I was struggling. On top of the usual new baby exhaustion came depression and guilt and frustration and grief and a whole host of other, largely negative emotions; I hadn't managed to grieve for my Dad and I hadn't managed to celebrate the arrival of my daughter. I wasn't able to be there for my Mum and I needed her in an unprecedented way. Lizzie was a terrible sleeper for the first six months (who am I kidding, for the first year) and when she was awake she wouldn't be put down. I was at the end of my tether.
We were planning to get Elizabeth baptised, so we started going to the same church that I went to as a new Christian and where we'd got married. Someone perceptive from the congregation saw a desperate, struggling Mum and invited me to the Mums and Toddlers group on a Monday. Uncharacteristically, I plucked up some courage and started going.
Things went slowly. We came to church occasionally, but it was hard work with a baby who wouldn't be quiet and demanded feeds at awkward times. Other people's babies lay sweetly asleep in their car seats but mine never did. I would jiggle and rock and cajole and whisper and snuggle and all to no avail - I'd end up going outside or attempt to feed self consciously at the back of church. Elizabeth was baptised, I started going to a home group that met weekly and made some wonderful friends. Katy came along and although life was hard getting to grips with two small people to look after, things got better. Nothing dramatic, just things got better as they tend to do as your babies get a bit older.
My closest friend gave me a pile of 'Christianity' magazines to look at and I opened the top one at random. Before me was an article about Eric Delve. I'm sure you smile when you do little things like that, don't you, Lord? All of a sudden the years disappeared and that afternoon from 1997 was back in my mind. The feeling that Jesus went through all that for me. He died for me.
There was one day in particular when a new friend came to visit me, and conversationally she asked questions that are quite normal in a Mum to Mum sort of way. Out of the blue tears came and wouldn't stop for ages; it was quite embarrassing. But you were at work again and a sequence of events began that led to much more talking and healing and a wonderful display of wisdom and compassion from some special people. It was a very precious experience for me of your tenderness and forgiveness that has freed me from the past and opened up a future that I thought could never happen for me.
You really do love me no matter what, don't you?
Over the last two years wonderful things have happened to me. Little incremental pieces of love and encouragement have built me up so that I can say now, at 41 years old, I feel happier being me than I ever have before. I've had enough confidence to get involved in some things at church and those have given me a feeling of belonging. I have never felt part of anything before, really; I've always felt on the outside looking in, the first one too late, not in the popular crowd, not chosen for the netball team; but now I feel that I occupy a place that is valuable, because you value me. I don't feel apologetic for being me, like I used to. This feeling sneaks back sometimes but it isn't the way I identify myself any more. I know deep down that it isn't true, whereas I used to believe it completely.
I have a large and wonderful Church family on whom I can rely if I need to, and I'm sure that the year ahead has challenges that mean I'll probably need all the help I can get. I have several wonderful friends who love you, who care about me and we build each other up, come together to learn more about you and hope to become more like you.
I have one particular friend without whom I'd be absolutely lost; you introduced us at a life stage where we are going through the same things at the same time; from life events to celebrations to disasters and even tricky dental appointments. I've never had such a friend before, Lord, and I really believe that you brought us together for a purpose. She is a woman of God indeed. I've learned so much, leaned so much, laughed and cried so much. What a blessing she is.
I am part of a team of people who work for you, Father God, and the job you have for me is one that only I can do. I don't really know what it is yet, in full, but I am looking, learning, trying to listen, and excited about the next chapter. I have such a long way to go but I do feel that I am for once on the right track.
I didn't think I had much of a story. I've listened to people whose testimony consists of something dramatic; rescued from gangsters or healed from addiction, saved from a life of crime... but reading this back I can see that through all the ups and downs there is You running through it all like a pattern with a thread of gold right from the beginning.
The very very best thing for me though is to see that if you never left me through all those years when I wasn't paying attention to you at all, when I was steadfastly looking the other way, making my own plans - then you're not going to leave me now, when I am looking to you to know what happens next, when I want to follow where you lead me.
Bring it on.
***I've got a postscript to add to this. It's a year later and I can add that a few months ago I was having a conversation and someone recommended a book to me. I looked for it on Amazon and the author was Eric Delve.
I decided to email the man himself with a (don't worry - heavily abbreviated) version of this narrative just to tell him the story of one of the multitude of people whose lives you have touched through him. To my delight, he mailed back. He said to me:
'I think that God's dream for you is only just beginning.'Amen.