I was brought up a Roman Catholic and this was all OK until I made my Confirmation in 1973. The teacher read the gospels and I started being really impressed with this and not very impressed with the rest of my religion.As well as some problems I had with the doctrines, I had a problem with the fact that neither I, nor anyone else in my peer group displayed any interest in religion. We admired people who could give someone a good hiding (beating).
So no-one, except little old ladies with rosary beads, seemed interested in religion. We all went to Mass. At that time, it was a mortal sin not to - maybe it still is.
There was the Catholic charismatic movement but that always reminded me of Up with People - Remember them? - Happy clappy people from all around the world singing about how wonderful everything was. I think the Simpsons did a version of them - "Hooray for everything". Not for me.
I started wondering about Eastern religion - especially the Hare Krishnas. George Harrison impressed me because he was into that and he was quite pleased to sing and talk about his version of God (unlike us Catholics). The Beatles were split up by then but we listened to them all the time - and the solo albums.
I didn't have much interest in Protestantism - a bit dry and dusty and a bit English. I probably would have preferred it to Catholicism but I was more into my own 'philosophy' and maybe Eastern stuff.
Well, there was this man in Cork at that time - still there - with a Good News Caravan. He would play the accordion and sing about Jesus. To be honest, I saw him as being a bit old-fashioned. We went to one of his meetings for a laugh. There was only me and a friend there and we got the giggles.
When the little meeting was over, I went and started debating things with him. I suppose in some ways, I was arrogant - I still am to some degree. I'm not really all that bright but I'm often quite pleased that there is some little bit of brightness there so I use it to the full - or think I do!
What impressed me was that I was all set to go comparing his teaching to what I knew to be in Scripture and he agreed with me a lot of the time. He also showed me other verses and they seemed to give me the same feeling I had when the teacher read the Bible to me a few years earlier. It had a power that I just never saw in the rest of Catholicism.
He told me about the need to be born again and the fact that I could be sure of heaven if I repented and trusted in Jesus. I thought that he was dead on - correct in everything he said. Now, I wasn't really very impressionable but he made an impression.
Of course in the cold light of day - the next day - I thought to myself - what would my friends and family say if I started really believing in Christianity as opposed to going through the rituals? - And I had the impression that I wouldn't really make a very good Christian and I would end up disillusioned. Now, I realize that you never get to be a really good Christian on this side of heaven - not me anyway - but that's where God's grace comes in!
So I put things off. However, the next day, I went into school and told the religion teacher all about the Good News caravan man. This religion teacher was a nice man. Of course, we used to give him a rough time - and sadly, he died suddenly months after of a heart attack - and he was probably only in his 20's. I have to say that all the priests who taught me were fine. In secondary school, much of it was centred around how to be a good citizen. I don't agree with Catholicism but I hate to see people criticizing it unfairly.
Having said all that - I am not an ecumenical person. I think the Roman Catholic church is wrong about a lot of things and I eventually left it when I was 18 but it certainly has done a lot of social good in Ireland despite some really bad apples - but all of us have bad apples among us and we are bad ourselves in our own way.
I got a Gideon Bible in school and that was a comfort and then one night I heard Bohemian Rhapsody on the radio - and that was good too! Music, a few friends, the Bible these helped me get through my teens.
The man in the good new caravan had told me the gospel. I was impressed and I pretty much was convinced that what he said was true. As I said, I was afraid of what friends and family would say. And I was afraid that it just wouldn't work with me.
At the time I had an idealised view of what a Christian should be. I was thinking in terms of the great Catholic saints like St Francis of Assisi. I wanted to change the world. I didn't want to wake up the next morning and find that it was the same old me. I think that it's taken me a long time to realize that I'm stuck with the same old me until I die. I suspect that St Francis and George Harrison had the same experience.
But what is it all about? Christianity is about loving God and loving your neighbour. You sin, you fall short - which is why you need a Saviour. Jesus knew the faults of his disciples. He even knew it at the last supper - just before they'd desert him (all for a time), and deny him (Peter). He had the horror of the crucifixion in front of him but he was pleased because he was paying their fare to heaven.
During this period I just put it on the long finger. I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg - 208. While trying to tune in - (there was no other Pop Music in Ireland in 1976 apart from the odd program - Larry Gogan's Top 20 or whatever) But while tuning into Radio Luxembourg, I'd often hear preaching on Trans World Radio Monte Carlo. This was good stuff - nothing like the horrible TV evangelists you hear today - or all the high-power marketing that characterizes modern evangelicalism all too often. OK, it was persuasive but I found it strangely comforting.
And I used to listen to Radio Moscow. I didn't take it all that seriously but I was interested in communism as a possible answer to the problems of the world. Yes - I want to solve everything!
As for Christianity, I don't remember much about 1977. During lent, I started going to Mass everyday, so I don't think I had totally given up on Catholicism. And I listened to George Harrison's Living in the Material World throughout that summer, so I was probably into Eastern religion as well. In fact, I think I read the Bhagavad-Gita around that time.
One night, when we were sitting around the Lough in Cork, some Christians came and gave us some literature. I started a long argument with them and I could argue. In the end, I gave them back the literature and some of the others followed suit. None of them would have guessed that I really admired them. At the same time, they annoyed me because they said that they were sure of going to heaven, and to a Catholic, that sounds pompous.
There was one lad in work from Scotland who was a born-again Christian. The first time I saw him, he was throwing a sweeping brush at someone – in jest – I hasten to add. I used to like listening to him but I never really pretended to be all that interested – though I was. And I used to listen to preaching on Trans World Radio Monte Carlo. But then, I’d read the music papers and no-one took Christianity seriously. I mean – you had Cliff Richard but who else? And I never really liked Cliff all that much.
Another thing that motivated me to start thinking about Christianity was hell. As a Catholic, I was taught about heaven, hell and purgatory. At that time, which wasn’t very long ago, missing Mass was a mortal sin. If you missed Mass on Sunday,and died on Monday, without confession, you went to hell. I never missed Mass until 1980.
Now, OK, the Catholic church might have been wrong but for me, dismissing hell, was a huge risk. I could dismiss purgatory – I couldn’t find that anywhere in the Bible – but hell is all over the New Testament. There are theologians who find ways ‘round it. And some evangelicals claim it’s not a literal fire. Well maybe it’s not but it’s still everlasting and worse than anything on earth – in the same way as heaven is better than anything on earth.
I remember making a little chart that went something like this.
Bad life + miserable life = hell
Bad life + happy life = hell
Good life + miserable life = heaven
Good life + happy life = heaven.
The thing was – to try to figure out how to live a good life that was happy as well.
Of course, what I never grasped, even though I heard it many times, is that no one really lives a good life. It’s a bit like trying to swim to shore from the Titanic. Some might be better swimmers than others but no-one is good enough. So that’s where the need to be saved and born again came in. Once you were saved, you were adopted into God’s family and you were safe. You weren’t good enough for heaven, but you were going, by God’s grace. And you might not be jumping for joy all day long but you had a sense of purpose.
So why didn’t I become a Christian? I don’t know. I was still only 16. It might not be true. I didn’t want to be Cliff Richard. And then, there were rumours that Bob Dylan had become a Christian. He appears to have drifted out of this phase about five years after but his albums during this period would have a big influence on me.
I saw U2 for the first time in 1979 - just after Christmas and before the new year – in the Cork Arcadia. I was reasonably happy by then but I was still sitting on the fence regarding Christianity. During the year, I had started reading books on psychology, philosophy, and religion in addition to the various technical books that were part of my night classes. I was also fortunate enough to meet others who had such interests.
One of the things that annoyed me was that there was an abundance of different philosophies. Every time one seemed reasonable, you read about the flaws and moved on to another. I wondered if I'd spend my whole life speculating or was there an ANSWER - the ANSWER.
It was around then that I started noticing the street preachers in Cork. They were part of the Upper Room Christian fellowship. I used to go to down religiously on Saturday afternoon - usually to check out the latest punk singles. I'd also browse the various second-hand bookshops and buy everything from Plato to Sartre. I'm not sure how much of it all I understood, but I wanted to.
Anyway, I got talking to someone from the Upper Room and I asked if I could attend their meeting (this was all pre-planned in my own mind a few days before). I was all arguments. "Why don't you give all your money to the poor?" - "What about those who never heard the gospel?" "How can you be a Christian in a capitalist society". - Everything I could think of.
So I went along to the meeting. What struck me immediately was that they all knew each other. In Mass, you never knew anyone. You'd see people you know but it never felt like a community of Christians. Most people were there because they felt they had to be there. Then, they were the Catholic Maggie Thatcher/Mary Whitehouse types that you didn't like very much. Now, I'm sure there were nice people as well, but to be honest, I used to hate Mass. The only time I ever enjoyed it was in 1980 - just before I became a Christian. I went along to a few lunchtime Masses in the Regional Technical College in Cork. There was only a handful, but those who were there were there because they want to be there and that didn't feel too bad. I also used to chat to the priests and they were OK.
Anyway, I enjoyed the meeting in the Upper Room, although I was very aware that I wasn't one of them. In some ways, they seemed like something from another planet. I wondered if they were mad. Yet, Jesus seemed to be present in a very real way. By the end of the meeting, they were turning on and off the lights trying to get people out. I said that I'd come again on Tuesday night but I didn't. At work, I was put working with someone I didn't like much and as I cursed him under my breath, I thought to myself - I'm not cut out to be a Christian. Maybe God will consider this on judgment day. We are not all Cliff Richards.
By now, Bob Dylan had released Slow Train Coming. I didn't buy it, but it disturbed me to think that someone as cynical as him could become a Christian.
So – on to 1980 when I hit 18. I've never really been anything other than 18 since. Now, 26 years later, I still sometimes wake up in the morning and think I'm still 18. It's as if the clock should have stopped then. Maybe I'll be 18 in heaven.
In August of 1980, I became a Christian. Now, generally that's a controversial thing to say. Aren't we all Christians in Ireland? Weren't you born a Christian, baptised as a baby, and brought up a Christian? Well, you can have a country that has a Christian ethos or perhaps have people who describe themselves as Christians. But for me, you only become a Christian when you give the whole thing serious thought and decide to become one - or rather, when God brings you to life - which is more correct theologically. There's a John Wesley hymn that goes like this:
"Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast-bound in sin and nature's night
Thine eyes diffused a quickening ray
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose went forth and followed thee"
And that was the year of Bob Dylan's Saved - which went like this:
"I was blinded by the devil,
Born already ruined
Stone cold dead as I stepped out of the womb
By his grace I have been touched
By his power I've been healed
By his hand I've been delivered
By his Spirit I've been sealed
I've been saved, by the blood of the lamb."
Another thing that annoys people when you say, "I've become a Christian" is that they think you are being pompous. Here in Ireland, if a person is nice and kind to the poor or whatever, people say "She's a real Christian". So when you say you've become a Christian, people think that you are making some point about how good you are. It's like that line from African Queen, when Humphrey Bogart says "And you call yourself a Christian!". You see - how can someone have the audacity to call themselves a Christian?
I can understand the confusion but let me say this - I've been a Christian for 26 years and maybe we should be better than everyone else but I don't think we are. They are all sorts of swings and roundabouts that make you a nice, kind, good person. I hope that I am getting better or at least that I am better than I would have been otherwise but you get nice people from all religions and from none. Even Jesus acknowledged this when he asked Christians to make an effort to love their enemies - even the pagans love those who love them. It's hard to love your enemies no matter what or who you are.
Well, for me it was just a matter of settling on Christianity and putting my future in God's hands. I don't think that my Catholic upbringing was without value. In fact, I got on well with the priests in the Cork Regional Technical College in 1980 but I left the Catholic Church in August of that year and that was the time I finally made up my mind.
I got slightly tipsey (drunk) once around that time, and all I could think of was God. Then, I heard that Hugh Cornwell (Strangler) was reading the Bible in jail. As it turned out - it was research for one of those silly UFO conspiracy-theory type things (like the Da Vinci code!) - they made an album about it the following year - but the Bible and religion kept coming into my mind and I kept meeting Christians - sometimes deliberately - other times not. There was even Christians on Poldark - a TV drama set in 18th century Cornwall - two Wesleyan preachers. Everything reminded me of God. I'd argue with Christians I met but there was something special about them.
Then, I went to a few Christian events as well. The Late Great Planet Earth was a film based on a book by Hal Lindsey - an American evangelical. To be honest, it was a bit silly and he's become a bit controversial in recent years because of his attitude to Muslims. What I enjoyed was bumping into people from the Upper Room on the way in. They were giving out leaflets outside. I don’t think they thought much of the film either but they took the opportunity to reach people. I argued as usual. And I went along to Cork Baptist Church to an Open Doors film. I must have been feeling a bit shy that night because I slipped away without talking to anyone. I think there was a party on somewhere that I was anxious to go to.
I also went to the Christian Union in college. The student union president was a Christian that year and she was also involved in the CU. The film was about two Dublin men who became Christians - Good and Proud – these were their names - and the film title. It was a good film - very low budget but Irish anyway - unlike most evangelical films. One of the people in the film made a live appearance. I asked him questions. He said that he wasn't all that pushed about whether or not one left the Catholic church. That sounded attractive to me because I didn't like the idea of the grief I'd get if I left!
Then, I got Slow Train Coming. I don't know why I didn't get it earlier. I remember at that time, as well as arguing with Christians, I would argue the case for Christianity with non-Christians. I would mention Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming, having only read reviews. I'm not sure what point I was making. You shouldn't become a Christian just because some Pop Star has become a Christian but I suppose I thought that mentioning him might make people reconsider their position. Then, I'd go and play the atheist with evangelicals. Maybe I just liked arguing!
Anyway, I loved Slow Train Coming and loved Saved even more – even the cover. Everyone else hated it – great! Play it louder! I started wondering if there were more good Christian records so I went into the Christian bookshop in Tuckey street Cork. I had seen it lots of times but I don't like small shops and I didn't like the idea of being approached and asked if I was saved. Well, this time, I was doing the approaching but I was still a bit shy. Anyway, I bought a few books and records and got talking. The guy working there was different to most evangelicals I had met. He wasn't at all pushy. He just answered my questions and answered them well.
I went to Dublin for a weekend Militant Tendency conference (see my blog if you're confused!) and missed Mass for the first time in my life. I would have gone but no-one else was going so I didn't have the courage to own up to being a Catholic. I wasn't much of a Catholic by then anyway but it still felt strange. At that time, it was a bit radical to not go to Mass. And it was radical to be anything other than a Catholic unless you were unfortunate enough to be born a Protestant. That's one of the things that stopped me from becoming a Christian. I didn't want to face the upheaval from friends and family. Some were Catholic and some were communists so I would end up disappointing everyone. And this was a time when I probably had more friends or at least more acquaintances than ever before. Things were finally going well.
On Saturday 16th August I was on Cape Clare Island off the coast of West Cork. I was thinking of the future. Now, I had more or less made up my mind that the Bible was true. The day before, I had been in the Christian bookshop in Cork. I had mentioned that I'd like to be a Christian but I'm worried about the upheaval. The man inside quoted Matthew 10:37
"He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me."
I was a grown man - I had to start putting God before everyone else. I knew that for me it would mean leaving the Catholic church. I know that you do get some that stay in - but I had thought it all through over five years. And this was a huge decision for me. For some, it was more shocking than joining the IRA. People didn't mind you being a lapsed Catholic or just giving it lip service but people got upset if you left - not only the immediate family but friends, neighbours, aunts, uncles, grannies. And what about all my friends in the Militant Tendency? They'd be losing someone who had potential. There weren't many of them around and anyone with any degree of intelligence was worth their weight in gold. And they were nice people.
But there was me to consider too - and my salvation. I asked myself, am I going to spend the rest of my life sitting on the fence. I felt an open door - an opportunity to put my trust in Jesus. I didn't care about the consequences.
The next morning, August 17th, I went to Mass for the last time. In the evening, I went to the Upper Room and instead of arguing with them, I told them that I want to be a Christian. I even said that if I don't turn up for the next meeting, call me and make sure I do. I was worried about it being a fad. I didn't want to do it and then go back to my old ways again. Someone in there said that there is no reason to believe that I'll want to go back to my old ways. I walked home a very happy man that night. My family were fine about it too - after a visit to the priest. And my friends just saw it as Paul being Paul. I think my friend was more interested in showing off the new electronic watch he got in France. You get them for 50c now.
So how have I changed since I've become a Christian?
I used to tell people that I was wicked and now I'm changed. Then, people would say that I was never really that wicked. And maybe they were kind enough not to point out that I'm by no means perfect NOW either! Becoming a Christian is only the beginning. It's not that you are no longer a sinner - it means that your sin is forgiven - washed away. And, you look at life in a different way. Here is what Bob Dylan said:
"Being born again is a hard thing ... We don't like to lose those old attitudes and hang-ups. Conversion takes time because you have to learn to crawl before you can walk. You have to learn to drink milk before you can eat meat. You're reborn, but like a baby. A baby doesn't know anything about this world, and that's what it's like when you're reborn. You're a stranger. You have to learn all over again." -Bob Dylan, 1980
So, I know that I am going to heaven - because ANYONE who truly repents and believes is told that they are going to heaven. I won't quote verses here - but you can see all that on other parts of the Tipperary Christian Fellowship Web site.
That knowledge makes a difference but it should probably make more of a difference. Life still throws up all kinds of stresses that often steal `the sun from one's heart and there are days and people and feelings that make me moody from time to time. You don't become a Christian to become happy. There are times when you rejoice with unspeakable joy but that's not the experience all the time.
And, being a Christian gives one a sense of purpose. I can never understand how a person can go through life without asking what it's all about. There's a joke about this chap dying and getting to heaven. He goes in and sees them all doing the hokey cokey. He asks why and the angel Gabriel says "That's what it's all about". Well, many people on earth are living their lives as if it was as trivial as that. Or else they put things off. They'll talk about God if they have a few drinks in them but then they forget it all again. I was a bit like that.
A few weeks after I became a Christian, I settled down in Cork Baptist Church. You can read all about the following years in my blog - and an extended version of my testimony with pictures of records sleeves and references to life, the universe and everything. In my blog, I tried to get inside the way I thought back then - over 25 years ago now.
I started working with Limerick Baptist Church in 1988 when I got married. I was doing this full time from 1989 to 1998. Then, I decided to change direction. I'm now in the IT industry. I started helping out a bit at Tipperary Christian Fellowship in 1993 while working with Limerick Baptist Church. In 1998, I went back into secular work and our family made Tipperary Christian Fellowship our spiritual home. It's a really small fellowship but we like it. We try to keep everything simple. At the moment, we just meet for an hour on Sunday mornings.