Talkin' about my Regeneration
Confessions of a Sixties Survivor
It’s been fifty years since the ‘Summer of Love’, 1967’s three-month extravaganza of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
If you can remember the Sixties, they say, you weren’t there. So I guess I wasn’t there because I remember the decade very well. I avoided drugs out of choice while, despite my best efforts, the sex avoided me.
I finished my ‘O’ levels – the equivalent of today’s GCSEs – and walked out of school one unusually warm Friday afternoon to start working at a graphic art studio the following Monday. Life was good, music was in the air, everything was groovy and the last vestiges of my childhood belief in God were fading rapidly. The fledgling ‘Permissive Society’ was in full swing and from what I thought I knew of God, the lifestyle I had in mind for that summer would not have inclined him to be favourable to me. Seeing then that God would cramp my style, I decided it was time I jettisoned him.
Despite my best effort, although I never quite managed to swing with the Sixties, I look back on the decade with a feeling of nostalgia and also a sense of guilt. Guilt because I was at least part of the generation that sowed the ill wind that resulted in the current generation reaping a whirlwind. I feel nostalgia not only for the music but also because so many of us who were under the age of thirty back then were asking questions about the meaning of life. Some sought answers through drug-induced psychedelic experiences, others through Transcendental Meditation, Eastern mysticism or all three.
Since the age of twelve, I had aspired to intellect and in my final year at school the politically aware, upper sixth-form pseudo-intelligentsia impressed me. A student debate on the existence of God, a tabloid interview with Mick Jagger and a newspaper article by Dead Sea Scrolls scholar and sceptic John Allegro all served as nails with which to fix God well and truly into his coffin. Everyone I considered intelligent was an atheist so I grasped hold of any anti-theistic argument, however insubstantial, to establish my own credentials for being considered smart. I also began to develop a few arguments of my own, such as: ‘If God exists, who made him?’ Honestly, I really did think that one was original!
I had seen The Light! Why couldn’t everyone else see what I saw so clearly? The deluded, superstitious masses around me had been brainwashed and needed to be set free by the truth. My enthusiasm for atheism knew no bounds. I was ready for a fight with any believer who came my way. That didn’t make me very popular, of course. I had very few friends but I didn’t care. I was prepared to be a martyr for the cause of atheism and truth.
Nevertheless, God wouldn’t stay still in the coffin I’d carefully constructed for him. He was forever lurking around in the darkness of my subconsciousness and in my conscience. But I comforted myself with the thought that old superstitions die hard. I’d been brainwashed and needed more time to shake off the unsettling remnants of religion.
In the 1960s and a new theory of origins was gaining momentum. The old ‘Steady-State’ theory was proving to be unsustainable and a new theory was required. The only other game in town was the forty year-old ‘Big Bang’ model. But if the universe had a beginning, how did it come into being? Why was there Something rather than Nothing?
But if God existed, where was he to be found? How was he to be found? In a church? In a temple? In a synagogue? Sitting in a full lotus position at the top of a Tibetan mountain? A church of some sort seemed an obvious place to start looking for a Creator and I surprised a Mormon friend by announcing that I was going to his meeting hall that very Sunday. It was an interesting experience. The people were friendly and they seemed reasonably normal. But at the end of the service a fresh-faced American ‘elder’ who was maybe a couple of years my senior approached me with a big smile and a card. He wanted me to use the card to pray.
I think the prayer was a request to know if the Church of Latter Day Saints was the true church. The Mormon God, I was assured, would answer my prayer by giving me a warm feeling in my heart. Not wanting to upset the nice young ‘elder’ I declined as politely as I could. Bottling out of revealing my atheism, I muttered that I was agnostic and wasn’t sure there was anyone to pray to.
‘Yeah. Sure thing, Mike. But just take it and use it, like, when y’ pray.’
‘But I’m not sure I believe in God.’
‘Just take the card anyway Mike an’ use it when y’ pray.’
He wasn’t listening so I took the card. I didn’t pray but I did join in one of their fast days. Going without food for an entire day was new to me. It was agony but if those Mormons could do it, so could I! At the end of the day my stomach was empty but my ego was full to overflowing. If God did exist, going a day without food must have notched up a good few Brownie points for me!
In my search for God I read books on Catholicism. I was gripped by the writings of Lobsang T Rampa, who claimed to be a Buddhist monk with semi-supernatural powers but was, in fact, Eric Hoskins, a former plumber from Weybridge in Surrey. I also contemplated attending a spiritualist séance because, it seemed to me, if ‘spirits’ exist then God, the supreme Spirit, must also exist.
Then, a pamphlet with a picture of a smiling, happy man in his forties with white dentures and seriously oiled hair, sporting a clerical collar fell through our letter box. The man with the oily hair was George Canty, ‘The Painter Preacher’ and he was to preach for two weeks at a church about a mile from where I lived. According to the leaflet, while he preached his sermons he also painted pictures. I liked art but I needed answers to my questions about God.
George Canty’s English landscapes were amateurish but his preaching was animated and the service was a lot livelier than those I attended at the local Methodist chapel when I was younger.
After the service, some men who were in their early twenties but dressed like they were in their forties, upon discovering I was an unbeliever, ushered me into a back room, sat me against a wall and proceeded to arrange their chairs in a semi-circle around me. There was no escape. I would have to fight.
But that was OK. I was up for it. I’d had lots of arguments and, as far I was concerned, I had won every one (but only because I was able to blithely dismiss every argument, however cogent, as ‘stupid’). I argued from the impregnable position of almost-absolute ignorance, throwing every anti-God argument I could muster at them: the origin of God; UFOs in the Bible; contradictions in the Bible; reincarnation. However, my best shots had about as much effect on these guys as rain on a fish. I was so desperate to defeat these people that I even threw in some Mormon teachings for good measure. But the guys remained unfazed.
One held out his Bible and with absolute seriousness told me that he and the others believed it ‘from cover to cover’. This was proof positive that they were nuts. Here, in my home city, in the middle of the twentieth century, were people from the Dark Ages. It was scary. I wasn’t even sure they were safe to be out on the streets!
To top it all, they kept addressing me as ‘Brother’. I thought they only called people ‘Brother’ in American movies. ‘Goodbye Brother.’ ‘God bless you, Brother.’ ‘See you again, Brother.’
‘Not if I see you first’, I thought. I was not their Brother and I had no intention of meeting them again. But two nights later I was back. With a friend! Don’t ask…
What’s the difference?
As we entered the church on the third occasion, one of the ‘brothers’ asked what I did for a living. I was a graphic artist. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I used to paint but since I became a Christian I don’t have time for it anymore.’
‘Then there’s no way I’m going to become a Christian’, I thought as we passed through the door into the packed, music-filled church. I listened critically to George Canty, disagreeing with just about every point of his sermon. Then he dropped a bombshell: ‘What’s the difference between Buddha, Muhammad, Krishna, all the so-called representatives of God, and Jesus Christ?’
Time suddenly went on hold. ‘There’s no difference,’ I thought. Those guys were all teaching the same thing: Have faith. Love thy neighbour. Be kind to others. Accept suffering humbly. The usual stuff.’
Suddenly I was back in real time as Canty answered his own question: ‘Buddha is dead! Mohammed is dead! Confucius is dead! Jesus Christ is alive! He rose from the dead on the third day!’
Bam! Bible stories I’d heard at school came flooding back. The crucifixion. The resurrection on the third day. I found myself saying, ‘If Jesus Christ really rose from the dead, he must be what I’ve been looking for all these years.’
I was in an emotional turmoil and at the end of the service I responded to an invitation to receive Jesus into my life. I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew at that point was that I now believed in God. But I was told that I’d ‘given my life to Christ’, whatever that meant.
Amazingly, I wanted to go to church and, even more amazingly, I actually enjoyed going. I went to just about every meeting I could but after some weeks, I began feel that all was not well between me and God. I was told I was a Christian but, although I couldn’t see it at the time, instead of becoming a better person, I was actually becoming worse. I was firmly convinced that God existed, that Jesus had lived and died, that he had risen from the grave and was alive, but that was about the limit of my faith.
One Wednesday evening, I made my way to the weekly youth meeting under a dark cloud of depression. I’d been told that Christians are ‘happy all the day.’ But I was miserable. Just yards from the church I asked myself the question, ‘What’s wrong with me?’
Almost as though someone were speaking to me, words came into my head: ‘You’ve never come to Christ with your sin!’
Instead of going to the youth meeting, I made my way unseen into the main church sanctuary where I sat alone in the dark. Or so I thought. In the silence and solitude of that dark hall, I suddenly became aware that God was there also, that he was very holy and that I was far from holy.
This is your life
Somewhere inside my head a video began playing and I watched in horror at the internal ultra-high definition action replay of my life began. I watched each scene with an increasing sense of shame until I wept uncontrollably. The only thing I could say was: ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’
Suddenly, from the pit of my stomach, a bowling ball of guilt surged up through my chest and off my shoulders. It was as though a physical burden had been taken from me.
A couple of years later, I read John Bunyan’s classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. When I reached the point at which the central character, Christian, kneels before the cross of Jesus and feels his burden of guilt fall from his back, I saw that John Bunyan was interpreting my own experience.
I had experienced what Jesus called ‘new birth’; something other Bible writers refer to as ‘regeneration’!
I’d been zealous for atheism, so I couldn’t be half-hearted now I’d been ‘born again’. I wanted to learn as much as I could about Jesus. And I wanted to tell everyone I met about him. I began to rise early in the morning to read the Bible and pray, and I grasped every opportunity to share Jesus with others.
The Bible was a revelation to me. The book I used to think was mostly – if not all – fiction had a ring of truth about it and I soaked up the truth like a sponge. I couldn’t wait to get up each morning to pray and study the Scriptures, and I enrolled in a Bible study course and set aside every Monday evening to read an entire book of the Bible in one sitting.
Reading the Old and New Testaments, I felt a deep sorry for the Jewish people. The Messiah they longed for had come and most didn’t acknowledge him. The first time I ever met a Jewish person (knowingly) was one cold, wet Monday morning when I offered a gospel leaflet to a small, stocky, middle-aged man with thick-lensed glasses standing beside me at a bus stop. He took the leaflet, turned it over, looked at it for a few seconds and then handed it back to me.
‘I can’t take this’, he smiled.
‘Because I’m a Hebrew.’
‘You’re a Jew? Wow!’
Knowing I was speaking to one of the people I’d encountered on every page of the Bible every day for the last few months produced in me a sense of privilege and duty. Pulling a Bible from my pocket, I excitedly began showing this son of Abraham prophecies concerning the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. Prophecies about Messiah being born to a virgin in Bethlehem, dying by having his hands and feet pierced while others played dice for his clothing, rising from the dead after three days and then ascending to heaven. When the bus arrived I was in full-flow, pointing out (if my memory serves me well) from Isaiah 53 that the Messiah would be ‘wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’ and that ‘the chastisement that brought us peace’ would be upon him.
When I finally paused to take a breath, I saw the poor man’s face. It was the colour of beetroot. He was smiling but it was the smile of a man who wanted the ground to swallow him. I looked around the bus and saw that everyone else had put down their newspapers and novels and were listening! That morning, I preached my first sermon. On a number 67 bus. To a Jewish man and to Gentiles also. At that time I had no inkling that the course of my future life had just been mapped out!
Christianity is Christ
Faith in Jesus is the heart of Christianity. But at my church ‘faith’ was seen as the opposite of thought and enquiry. When I sought answers to questions, I was told I was a ‘deep thinker’. But my heart couldn’t rejoice in something my mind rejected so, while I knew we could never have exhaustive answers to our questions about God, Jesus and the Bible, I believed there ought to be substantial answers to, for example, what appear to be contradictions in the Bible.
The early chapters of the Bible were a particular issue for me. I had grown up believing science had established beyond question that life had evolved and that we were not divinely created. I was conscious that if the first book of the Bible, which spoke of the distant past, wasn’t trustworthy, how could I be sure the last book of the Bible, which spoke of ‘things to come’, was reliable? If God couldn’t provide a reliable account of the past, how could he inspire a trustworthy revelation of the future?
According to the New Testament, Jesus suffered on the cross to redeem humanity from the curse brought into the world through the death of Adam. If Adam was not an historic space-time figure, the cross was meaningless. So, one Friday morning, after grappling with the issue on the way to work, just as I was about to step over the threshold of the, I heard myself say, ‘I believe Adam was a real person.’
I had no evidence for the statement but if people at church were not able to give me reasons for believing the early chapters of Genesis, I would find the reasons myself. Since then, I’ve tried to squarely face every challenge to the reliability of the Bible with which I’ve been confronted. I probably have more questions about the Bible now than I had at the beginning of my walk of faith but over a period of almost half a century, my confidence in the truth of the Old and New Testament Scriptures has never been greater.
I’m painfully conscious that I was an under-achiever at school and that my IQ is probably only a point or two above average, if that. But what intelligence I do have has been channelled into trying to honour God. Over the years I’ve debated schoolteachers, university societies, young Communists groups, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and unbelievers of all shades and seen that Christianity is capable of holding its own against any other philosophy or religion.
It’s a privilege to blog for Partick Free Church and I hope the posts will be informative and helpful to you, whoever you are. If you are a Christian struggling to answer unbelievers who ask a reason for the hope you have (1 Peter 3:15), I hope the blogs help you answer them. If you are an unbeliever, such as I was, I pray the blogs will make sense and help you become a follower of Jesus, as I am. Let me know if the blogs are helpful to you, if they are not helpful or if you want to take issue with anything you read.