I was born in the railway town of Crewe, on 25 April 1962, the youngest of three boys. My father was pastor of a backstreet church there.
My early days were good ones. The things I used to do were typical of what boys did. However, being a pastor’s son, expectations for good behaviour were high. My parents taught my brothers and me the Scriptures, from an early age.
Family devotions were important and I can remember them to this day. We even went through Pilgrim’s progress together. As a youngster, these things, on top of going to church and attending Sunday school and youth clubs, made a deep impression on me. My father says he remembers when I made a profession of faith in Christ at the young age of six.
As a youngster I had a craving for sport. Football was my first love, but I loved every sport, especially cricket, cross-country, tennis, table-tennis and swimming.
When I was eight, my father moved to a church in London. This was in the early l970s, the year the Beatles split and the peak of the cold war. The church in London was big and its youth work flourishing.
Going to Christian camps and receiving good teaching at church all helped my spiritual life. Life at the manse had its drawbacks, however. I couldn’t understand why some people were so rude about my father who made such a deep impression on my life during that period.
Sport was still what I loved. When summer came, my brother and I would play cricket for hours in the garden. When I was 12, my parents felt it right that I should go to boarding school. But my time there marked the decline of my spiritual life.
The first term, I was far from happy. After that, things got better as I got more involved with school life. Being in nearly all the sporting teams helped, but other things were happening, such as sneaking off to smoke, fishing in no-fishing areas and scrumping in apple orchards.
Still, I tried my best to keep my spiritual life going. At first I would sneak off on my own and read my Bible. I was top in religious studies, yet as time went by I no longer felt the need to read it.
When I was allowed home at weekends, I would go to church, but by then I had little care for spiritual things. Surviving at boarding school was tough; I had learnt to look after self first. This made me more aggressive, competitive and independent.
My parents noticed the change in me — smelling of smoke, swearing, telling coarse jokes and having an aggressive attitude to life. However, although my language was coarse, I could never bring myself to blaspheme.
Returning home didn’t improve things and I no longer went to church. I saw the grief this caused my parents, but no longer cared. By now, I mixed with friends who led me further astray. Sport was still high on my agenda, and so were football matches, wild parties, smoking, drinking and just loving life.
I joined a gang of skinheads. We would hang around the streets up to no good, having fights with other gangs, playing knockdown ginger and putting fireworks in people’s letter boxes.
Living in London gave us opportunities to attend nightclubs, concerts and other activities. Late nights home were now frequent, causing my parents even more worry. Still playing football on Saturday mornings, I followed my favourite football team, West Ham. I was involved in crowd disturbances and riots. It was at West Ham that I was first arrested and locked in a cell.
I was eventually released and had to face the ordeal of telling my parents what had happened, and then the ordeal of going to court still only 16. Still I persisted in my sinful ways, yet, to spare my parents worry, sometimes would come home in good time, allow them to think I was asleep, and then climb out of the window and join up with my friends.
There were times when I must have thought I was a Christian. We often had guest speakers to dinner with our family, including missionaries and other pastors. I remember pastors staying from Eastern Europe telling us stories of life behind the Iron Curtain.
One visitor I remember well was Fred Lemmon, a convicted gangster from the east end of London. One night while in prison, he was about to murder a prison guard, when Christ met with him. That night he was converted. This made me think, but it was short-lived.
By now, I was experimenting with drugs, taking pills and often drunk, but I was far from satisfied. Work wasn’t going well. I was constantly in trouble with the police. Altogether, I was arrested 16 times for petty crime.
On one occasion ten of us were arrested for a brawl. It resulted in us having to go on trial at the Old Bailey. This lasted two weeks and saw us acquitted.
I was now 20 and knew that I was drifting further and further away from the Lord. One day the doorbell went. My father came into the room looking very annoyed at me, saying there were two police officers who wanted to speak to me for an alleged assault.
I remembered the occasion. It had happened two days before: there had been a fight, but I hadn’t been involved, because I was elsewhere involved in another fight! What I had actually been doing was no better, but I was not going to admit it.
At the police station, my shoes were taken off and the cell doors slammed. Having been in the police cells many times before, this time it felt strange. I was afraid. I knew that if I kept this up, sooner or later I would be in prison for good.
I felt now like the Prodigal Son, in despair. But I had a sudden awakening. What if I prayed? I still believed in God. What if I should talk to him? Would he answer? How would he answer?
I really wanted to escape from this mess. I remember as a child my mother told the story about Jacob wrestling with God and she said he challenged God. I remember thinking at the time that was a brave thing for Jacob to do, but it came back to me while I was in the cell, so I prayed.
I actually got down on my knees and made the prayer, ‘God, if you get me out of this mess and out of this cell within an hour, I will promise to follow you’. With hindsight, I realise this argument was unbiblical, but God is gracious.
What happened after that was a total time of prayer. Strangely enough, within the hour, the cell doors were opened. Was this just a coincidence or was it an answer to prayer? I believe it was an answer to prayer. I felt an overwhelming sense of God’s love.
That night, I picked up the Bible, desperately hoping that God would speak to me. I decided to read through the book of Revelation. I read on and came to chapter 3 verse 19: ‘Those who I love, I must rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent’.
Then I read verse 20: ‘Here I am, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in’. I realised that by my rebellious ways, I had shut out Christ; yet he must come in.
It was then that I confessed all my sins and asked Christ quite simply to take my life. I knew then I had the assurance of my salvation.
When the time came to tell my parents, it brought joy to them, as well as me. Making a break from the past, from my friends and my old habits, was difficult, yet I was now a new creation, the old had gone, the new had come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The author is pastor of Wigmore Evangelical Free Church, Rainham, Kent