SERMON 18 AUGUST 2013
WHY AM I A CHRISTIAN
@ 9.30 AND 11.00 SERVICES, CHRIST CHURCH NEW MALDEN
The text that follows is an extended version of a sermon I did. I had to edit sections out because it was too long for the time given to me. The edited sections are printed in italics.
Click here for a link to download this sermon to hear a recording of the sermon from one of the services it was delivered to.
For as long as I can remember I have always believed that there is a God. Always, since I was about 10. But more than this I strongly believed that I had to be in a relationship with him. And I came to believe over the years that God loved me and that needed a personal response. But I don’t think my thoughts developed much beyond this when I was younger.
God has been very gentle with me over the years. In my search for him he has nudged, guided and protected me. I have made some strange decisions and reached some very odd conclusions.
Here are some experiences along the way to becoming a Christian.
Christianity was an alien concept for me because I grew up in a North West London Jewish family. Christianity was something strange to us. I was taught that I was different from Christians. Christians let Jews down during the Second World War and Christians hated Jews. We were encouraged to keep ourselves to ourselves and to look after each other. I remember we had Roman Catholic neighbours that would not let their children play with us. One of the children told us she could not be friends because we were Jewish it was the Jews that killed Jesus.
After all, my uncle escaped Germany when he was a boy at the start of the war through a rescue mission known as the Kindertransport in which 10,000 mostly Jewish children were fostered out to English families. But his parents and his younger brother were killed at Auschwitz. And my mother tells the story of how her grandmother hid under a table during a pogrom attack by Cossacks in the small Jewish village in Poland.
All four of my grandparents were born in Poland until they immigrated to England during the 1900’s. They came because their parents wanted a better life for their children and to escape the antisemitism they experienced. Their story is reflected in the film Fiddler on the Roof. This film was a favourite of my family when we were growing up. We knew all the songs and sang them whenever we visited them.
We weren’t religious Jews really. We went to synagogue once or twice a year at Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement. We celebrated the Passover with a traditional meal with a small circle of friends and family.
When I was eleven my parents decided to send me to a Jewish summer camp for two weeks in the heart of the Kent countryside. I think they felt I wasn’t getting my Jewish five a day. I was the oldest son after all. It was my first real experience of living life as a practicing Jew. I loved the sense of tradition, belonging and ritual. It gave me a strong sense of identity and purpose. I loved it so much I went each summer for 4 years. It was a strictly orthodox Jewish camp which meant a big change of life style for me. For example there were three services a day. All the food was strictly kosher. There were lots of rules as well. I remember lying out on a field with friends one Sabbath and I was just plucking up blades of grass around me. Then someone said very gently looking at the grass I had plucked, ‘we don’t do that on a Sabbath.’
But I felt completely accepted by these people they overwhelmed me with friendship and acceptance.
By the time I was 13 I became restless and wanted to know why Jews lived like this. I tried asking questions to the camp leaders. But they weren’t interested. Their focus was about supporting the State of Israel and doing the right thing. There did not seem to be any opportunity for deep personal questioning. Or any talk of God’s love. I suppose Judaism seemed mechanical and automatic to me. It felt inward looking and tribal. It was frustrating. But I needed more from the Jewish leaders I met.
When I was thirteen I had my Bar mitzvah. This is where a boy becomes a man in Judaism and this is marked by the bar mitzvah boy taking part in the Sabbath service by reading a portion of the Torah. Actually I had to sing the passage I’d been given.
I’d spent months learning the passage and practicing it verse by verse. My parents hired a rabbi to teach me the passage and the prayers to be said before and after the reading. It took ages to get it right. On my last lesson before the big day my rabbi said ‘if anyone asks you about the passage you are reading tell them it’s about different kinds of sacrifices made at the temple’.
Thinking what he said sums up for me my experience of Judaism. There was a concern with appearances rather than actual substance or a living relationship with God. He was not expecting anyone to ask me what the passage was about. But just in case I could give a bland answer that ticked a box’.
Fast forwarding briefly - when I was 17 a rabbi used to come and visit me regularly. The last time he came to see me I asked him, ‘what is it to be a Jew? And I remember looking at him slowly stepping back from me tipping his hat in farewell as he left the room. He did not answer my question.
So life just carried on. I made friends with a pretty rough crowd but I was still asking myself the same nagging questions about how to be in a relationship with God.
About a year later when I was 14 my closest friend from that group was an ex Hell’s Angel. He was 3 or 4 years older than me and quite scary. But one day he turned up at our house and proclaimed ‘I’m a Christian.’ And for the next few months he kept on at me about becoming a Christian. And so one night I knelt down on the floor and asked Jesus to come into my life. But nothing happened.
Still searching I think I began to get desperate about being in a relationship with God so I turned to the occult and natural religion for the answers I needed.
In the long school summer holiday of 1974 when I was 15 I was at home with my sisters and a couple of friends. And we were bored. Then someone suggested we hold a séance. At the mention of the word the hairs on my neck stood up, my heart began to beat loudly and I began to shake. I knew something was going to happen that would change my life. It was so scary and so exciting.
And so for a couple of weeks we returned again and again to a conversation with something on the other side of an upside down glass on a table. We asked loads of questions; sometimes it got angry or didn’t make any sense. It told me I was going to die. And sometimes I could feel it touch me on my hand. It was a hot, clammy feeling. I didn’t like it.
Then one day a friend decided to read the Lord’s Prayer backwards during a séance. And I felt strongly that this was wrong and dangerous and I got up to leave the room. I walked out into the conservatory at the back of the house and suddenly I fell through the windows and ended up outside in the back garden. My scream and the smashing of windows stopped my friend reading the prayer and we never had another séance again. My mum was pretty unhappy about the windows.
Two years later I had left school – without any qualifications and was working for a wine merchant in Bond Street. It was an amazing year. Suddenly I had money; I met new people and began to discover London for myself. What an incredible city. At lunchtime I’d go out. I discovered loads of places like The Museum of Mankind, the street where they took the photograph for the cover of David Bowie’s record Ziggy Stardust. And in Regent’s Street I found The Village Bookshop.
It specialised in philosophy and religion. And I discovered writers and bought books about Stonehenge, Lay lines and ancient religions. The bookshop was a treasure trove. There were lots of answers here about how to be in a relationship with God, I thought.
I became fascinated by Stonehenge. I wondered why it had been built and believed it was a special place where God and people meet and communicate with each other. Over the months I had a fantasy in which I could wander around the stones alone with no one else around and for some reason I imagined that I didn’t have to pay to visit the stones.
But recovery was long and difficult. A homeless friend was staying with us and I was incredibly depressed for months. I was barely sleeping and my days were spent alone and bored with everyone getting on with their lives around me.
My mum was worried and she wanted to cheer me up. So one day when things felt really bad she decided we were going to Stonehenge. It took us ages to get there but eventually we got to Stonehenge; but we were so late they were closing the place up. Stonehenge was almost completely deserted. But because we were so late they let us in for free. And I had a chance to fulfil my fantasy. I wandered around the stones and shouted my name to the universe. When we got home things began to change immediately. Our homeless friend received an offer of accommodation and I received a letter of acceptance at a local college. My depression began to lift and I felt strongly that God was guiding me.
September came and I became a student at a college for 4 years. I started on a pre O level vocational course and left in 1981 with 2 respectable A Levels. I absolutely loved being a student of English. One of the poets we studied was T.S Eliot and I became fascinated by his poetry.
Around this time A year later when I was 19 I was just well enough to visit Israel with a group of Jewish friends. We spent almost two months travelling in Israel. We worked in a desert Kibbutz for a month and spent a week in Jerusalem and another week in Galilee. We visited Bethlehem, the Wailing Wall and synagogues Jesus probably preached in.
Oddly a Jewish friend from those days has just got in touch with me through facebook this week as I was preparing this talk. We haven’t been in touch with each other for over 20 years.
When I reflect on the Jewish third of my life I think how privileged I am to have had that Jewish upbringing. My life is embedded with a Jewish culture and perspective. Far from being an outsider as a Jew within my adopted Christian religion I have been treated with great respect – even honour by Christians.
The summer I received my results, I spent every day walking my dog on Harrow on the Hill near where I lived, and reading books about ancient religions and lay lines. One of Eliot’s poems kept on going through my mind. It was about a holy place where people can meet with God. It occurred to me that the hill was an ancient place of worship like Stonehenge. One day I felt so convinced of this that I marched into a bookshop there and demanded to know what’s so special about it. And amazingly the bookseller confirmed my thoughts. She told me the hill was an ancient and sacred place of worship and Lay lines crossed the hill by the church. She said if I was interested in this stuff I should join the School of Economic Science in London, which runs courses in ancient wisdom and worship. And so I joined. There was sure to be answers there I thought. I felt that God was guiding me again. Now I would discover how to be in a relationship with him.
My A Level results came and I moved to Hatfield to do a degree in English. On the first day of the course I met Katy. She became one of my first college friends. And we began to talk about God. Well Katy actually talked about Jesus and God’s love for people. It was the first time that anyone talked to me about God’s love. It was a conversation that lasted just over three years.
But at the same time I was studying and talking to Katy I went once a week to London to the School of Economic Science. And heard talks about mysticism and stayed around to chat to people. And it was then I met Pam.
Most weeks we talked about God. We became good friends. And then one day she said, “Let’s not go back to that school again David. That place is bad. Let’s keep meeting but let’s not go there again.” By now our friendship was more important than this school. And so we left. One day Pam started telling me about Jesus and his love and work of salvation. It felt that Jesus was everywhere I looked. Other good friends at Hatfield were becoming Christians. And for the first time I began to listen a little more sympathetically to what they had to say.
At Hatfield Katy got me going to church. We went every week. I don’t know why I went. She was so annoying. We argued all the way to the church about the point of going. And argued all the way home about the services. I just refused to accept that a tortured man’s death 2000 years ago could have anything to do with me. On the last church service of my final year I got chatting to a man at the church. He told me he knew people that worshipped at Harrow on the Hill and he gave me their phone number if I ever needed it. Later that summer Katy and me decided to go on a camping trip to the isle of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. I’d heard it was a sacred place. And there was an ancient Abbey. It sounded like it was a place like Stonehenge and Harrow on the Hill. I thought I might meet God there.
When we got to the Abbey I remember storming up to the lectern and opening the huge bible. It opened to Psalm 139 and I read it. It felt that God was speaking to me through the words of the psalm. He said I created you. I know you David. My hand is upon you. There is no where you can go to hide from me. I was amazed by these words. Well incredibly even later that summer a miracle happened. I did become a Christian. Katy invited me to stay with her in Suffolk and while I was there Billy Graham held a rally at the local football stadium as part of Mission England. I didn’t expect much from the rally. I expected a few familiar songs and a long boring sermon. But when Billy Graham called people down to give their lives to Jesus I felt that everything he said was completely right. And I was compelled to go down onto the pitch and accept Jesus as my Lord and saviour. It was very exciting.
But then I came back to Harrow and my family a Christian. I started reading the gospels. But I felt alone with my faith. So I found the piece of paper with the phone number of the people that worshiped on the hill. I phoned them. They invited me to Sunday lunch then to the service afterwards. He was a lay reader and he lived right at the top of the hill between the bookshop and the old church at the summit. And I realised that my belief that I would meet God on Harrow on the Hill had come true. The church was very welcoming to me. And through their welcome they showed me God’s love in those vulnerable few weeks.
Over the years I feel that God has been present in my life. He has nudged me and guided me through many experiences. He had his hand firmly on me and was gradually drawing me to his son.
Of course loads more things happened. And I’ve talked about the events leading up to that Billy Graham meeting in another sermon you can find on ccnm.org .
So that’s why I became a Christian. But finally there is one very simple answer to the question why am I a Christian now. I am a Christian because of you, I mean Christ Church New Malden. Over the 20 something years we’ve been here this church has been Jesus to us. You have loved us and shown that love in many ways through services, home groups, and prayer, through support and through practical actions; in your amazing gifts of time and money and everyday practical friendship.
And that is why I am a Christian today.