No mistake – we’re at war (Pt. 2)

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Following on from the previous post, which you can read here – how should we respond to what transpired in Paris this month, as people who recognise we’re involved in a spiritual war, while our country is caught up in a military conflict with a very wicked organisation?

Here are some of the things I’d invite you to join me in praying:

We need to pray for our own hearts – that we wouldn’t be corrupted by fear, prejudice or just plain apathy in response to the things that are occurring in our community and in our world. Much of the spiritual war we’re involved in concerns the struggle for control of our hearts and minds and those of our brothers and sisters in the family of God.

We need to pray for those who have lost their loved ones – that they would find true comfort and restoration in the loving arms of Christ and that God may bring good to them out of this horrific evil. May we pray the same for the hostages that survived as they seek to recover from trauma and injuries they may have occurred as a result of the siege.

We need to pray for the decline of radicalised Islam as a spiritual evil in our community and around the world – that it would lose its grip on the hearts and minds of those it controls.

We need to pray against the spiritual evil of racism and religious vilification that simmers below the surface of respectable society in our nation. Pray that God would keep our Muslim neighbours safe and protected by the authorities and their fellow citizens now and into the future. And pray that you and I would have the courage to confront outbursts or violence related to race or religion if we see it taking place in public.

Pray for the police, intelligence agencies and others who work tirelessly to protect their fellow citizens.

Pray that world leaders would act wisely in their ongoing response to the situation. [Not only the military/counter-terrorism aspect, but also the humanitarian/refugee crisis etc;].

Pray that this Christmas more people would grasp the angels’ message of “Peace on Earth and goodwill to men” – because of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And pray that we would be willing to work for the advancement of God’s Kingdom in our community by sharing the hope we have in Christ with people from all religious and ethnic backgrounds.

There is also a junction where the two wars I’ve talked about intersect and I’d like to share my thoughts on that with you in one final post over the next few days…We’ll look at how knowing about our involvement in a spiritual war and seeing what happened in Paris this month and Sydney last year, might lead us to pray in a certain way about the current situation with ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

But for now, let’s be aware there’s a war raging all around us. And let us respond to the call to action and fight the evil in this world by praying, loving our neighbours and proclaiming the good news of Jesus that shines like a light in the darkness around us.

[1] Jordi Bernabeu Farrus  “Tercer premi en la categoria Individual de Notícies d’Actualitat al World Press Photo. BULENT KILIC / AFP” (CC BY 2.0) Flickr.

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No mistake – we’re at war (Pt. 1)

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The recent attacks in Paris have again got Christians talking about an appropriate response to the separate, yet related matters of terrorism/extremism, Islam as a religion and Muslims as people and neighbours. Over the next few weeks, I plan to publish several posts that interact with these issues. I originally published the first two parts of this series of posts 11 months ago, immediately following the “Sydney Siege”, on the website of the church I was co-pastoring. I thought it might be beneficial to revisit some of these themes in light of what’s been happening in Paris and around the world since that event… 

While the outcome of the crisis that ended at Martin Place in Sydney yesterday could have undoubtedly been much worse than it was – it marks the day that the extremist violence of the kind we’ve witnessed so much around the world since September 11, 2001 has finally violated the sacredness of human life and public safety on Australian soil. [Likewise Paris has reminded us once again how destructive these attacks can be].

It also serves as a clear and sharp reminder to us all that we are at war.

Around 9/11, I heard people talk ignorantly of waging “a war against Muslims.” Rest assured, that’s not what I’m talking about. God forbid that we should ever be involved in or condone an armed conflict or persecution against any general population of a particular religion. It’s critical that we heed the calls to show kindness and support to our Muslim neighbours during this sensitive time and denounce any show of violence or hatred towards them.

But it’s also critical that we recognise that we are nonetheless involved in a war and that maybe we’re more involved than we’d like to be.

One one level, Australia [along with France and other Western nations] is effectively engaged in warfare against a pernicious militant group known as ISIS or Islamic State. While the actions of Man Haron Monis did not represent the sentiments and intentions of the mainstream Islamic community in Australia [likewise regarding the actions of the terrorists in France], they seem to have had a lot to do with the conflict against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

While the exact motives behind the attack are not currently known, it is clear that Monis wished to identify himself and his actions with ISIS and thus it is fairly safe to conclude that part of the message he wished to send our nation and the world was ISIS-related. The attack happened in the context of our government’s decision to send military assistance to those in Iraq who are resisting the brutal advances of this atrocious group that slaughters those who do not agree with its extreme interpretations of Islamic religion.

But for Christians, this tragic event is a reminder of the war you and I are caught up in every day of our lives in this world: the spiritual battle being waged amongst humanity in unseen realms without pause. Our struggle, we’re told, is not against the visible, human perpetrators of conflict, hatred and violence but against the invisible influences that drive and enable much of the wickedness we see in the world. “…against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12b). Our weapons are never the physical blades and bullets used to destroy human bodies but are spiritual weapons, for a spiritual war (see 2 Cor 10:4-5, 2 Cor 6:7, Eph 6:13-18) – not for harming people but for attacking the very things that harm their souls.

What happened in Sydney [and now in Paris] was driven by spiritual forces of evil. It robbed people of their lives and families of their loved ones. It disturbed public order and spread fear through the community. It has incited more extremism – providing fertile ground for anti-Islamic sentiments and copycat or retaliatory attacks by radicalised people in the community. All of this is evil and the work of our true enemy the devil.

So how do we respond to events such as this, as those who are aware of our involvement in a cosmic struggle between spiritual forces of good and evil that is affecting the lives of every single human being in our society?

The most important thing we can do in this situation is to use our God-given spiritual weapons – prayer and the proclamation of the Gospel to the world.

How can we do this? Firstly, I’d invite you to do some reflection of your own and pray in response, but tomorrow I’ll share some suggestions for how we can pray and act in a way that takes this situation of war we’re in seriously.

[1] Image credit: Flickr user: Devar “RAAF Airshow: Counter Terrorism Response Group” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Reflexions to Projections: Clear Evangelicalism

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After giving you a little bit of background as to my personal theological formation and spiritual journey, I thought I’d write a little bit about how I like to think about myself now, my hopes and aims for the future and the kind of theology and spirituality I want to dedicate The Lion & Phoenix to upholding and advancing.

I’ll try and make this a short post about a big idea: clear evangelicalism. You may have noticed that in the previous post, I described myself in the most recent period of my life as “a Reformed, Conservative Evangelical.” It’s an accurate enough description of the kind of theology and emphases I’ve developed since my early twenties, but it isn’t where I want to stay. Because I have an inkling that “Reformed” and “Conservative” can both potentially be too limiting and that without wanting to diminish or “move on” from the convictions I hold today, I sense that evangelicals defining themselves in terms of “conservatism” or having arrived at a fully reformed state of being in theology and practice, may not be the most helpful place to end up.

The truly “reformed” church is committed to the principle of semper reformanda (Always Reforming), not merely resting on the laurels of your church’s traditions and past achievements. “Reformed” is accurate if you or your church have  been  shaped by the  principles of the Protestant reformation and have undergone a process of changing your doctrine or practice because of your arrival at new convictions based on the clear teaching of Scripture. But Christians –  even in the best reformed traditions – need to continue to challenge themselves to be renewed and reshaped in response to God speaking through His Word.

Likewise,  “conservative” would seem to imply that we need to resist changing trends,  values,  beliefs and practices and hang onto “the way things have always been”. When it comes to the core of our faith,  conservatism is crucial: you can innovate your way out of historical, orthodox,  biblical Christianity! But conservatism doesn’t work so well as a universal approach – in fact I dare say it undermines further reform and self-evaluation in many cases.  Sometimes we hold to traditions without ever re-evaluating whether what we say we believe and how we practice it in today’s world accurately represents biblical principles and faithfully points to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Plus there is a tendency to create litmus tests for theological conservatism that often alienate other evangelicals who may share a range of similar convictions but find themselves disqualified by one or two shibboleths.

“Progressive” evangelicalism seems to have more problems of its own than solutions to their conservative brethren’s issues (more on that another time). So I’m proposing something that is in many ways the same as conservative evangelicalism,  but with a difference that possesses the versatility to either appear explicit or subtle when the two approaches are placed side by side.

Clear evangelicalism is about holding tightly onto the core of the gospel tightly and never loosening our grip,  while at the same time ensuring that the secondary and tertiary aspects of our theology and practice present other Christians and non-christians alike with a clear and unobscured message about the Christian gospel.

It begins with looking at one’s own approach and constantly being challenged to say and do everything in such a way that proclaims Jesus,  and salvation in His Name,  loud and clear. Then it extends to encouraging others who share this commitment to keep doing the same.

My hope is that while people might be classified differently under the present evangelical subgroupings on offer or still find themselves disagreeing with gospel-centred people on a range of issues,  a common commitment to clear evangelicalism will facilitate greater encouragement to preserve,  promote and proclaim the things that matter most. I also hope that where differences exist and one group can’t win the other over to their position despite reasoned biblical arguments,  there will be room for a different kind of victory: challenging those with different views and practices to approach them in the way that best displays the gospel.

I’ll share more on what I think this might look like in the coming weeks and months,  but for now I would love to hear your feedback.  Does this sound like a worthwhile approach? Am I perhaps just rebranding conservative evangelicalism without any substantial changes? Do you see any dangers or weaknesses with this kind of attitude towards evangelicalism?

[1] Sathish J “Spirituality” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Flickr

Reflexions of a Reformed, Conservative Evangelical

2007-2015

Previous posts: here, here & here.

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In the dark days of 2006-7, I began to experience a gradual, theological shift. My online Christian blog reading had taken me on a journey from the dispensationalist prophecy-speculation websites to pages that criticised aberrant movements within evangelicalism – something I was quite concerned about at the time. I ended up becoming a regular reader of the Pyromaniacs blog, which was managed by an elder at John Macarthur’s church in California.

Their fierce cessationism was a bit off putting to me (and still does!), but I was attracted by their frank assessments of contemporary evangelicalism and found it a helpful place to grow in thinking about how to respond to some of the things going on in the church today.

Over time, I noticed that I had become sympathetic to their way of interpreting Scripture when it came to contentious issues like predestination and God’s sovereignty over human affairs. I felt the “Calvinistic” system made sense of the biblical data and narratives more than the interpretations I’d been brought up to hold. While certain teachings like “limited atonement” were a bit hard to stomach and took me sometime to make a definitive decision on, I underwent a gradual shift to Reformed theology, rather than the Arminian assumptions I’d inherited.

This had flow on effects for other areas of theology. For instance, in 2007 or 2008 I was looking for a systematic theology book to read and Wayne Grudem’s was one of the most accessible volumes that was available at the time. So I bought a condensed copy of his work and began reading. A friend of mine who attended a Pentecostal Bible College warned me that his lecturers didn’t use Grudem (a Charismatic) because he “had some funny views on women in ministry.” As I read, I relished Grudem’s theological treatment of baptism, Reformed soteriology, spiritual gifts and a range of other issues I was already quite convinced about. And when I read what he had to say about what he called “complementarianism” I went back to my friend and said: “I read what Grudem said about women’s roles in the church and I think he actually makes some good points!” Despite only ever having positive experiences with female pastors and being in a church that had them, I became convinced by Scriptures like 1 Timothy 2:12 that the complementarian position was more likely to be biblically sound. (I’ll talk more about some of my theological distinctives in another series of posts).

Around this time, I was also heavily impacted by The Way of the Master approach to evangelism via the teaching of NZ-born evangelist Ray Comfort. I joined an outreach team that shared my enthusiasm for this evangelistic method and made what I suppose were my first “Reformed friends” during this time, which was an encouragement to me as I continued to wrestle with a range of theological and spiritual matters.

By 2009 I was finally finishing my degree and had a strong desire to be involved in gospel ministry – full-time if possible.  I’d been involved in a range of ministries at my church but wanted to explore a range of different possibilities for the future, which led me to enrol at Bible College for 2010.

College was the place where I could not only sort out some of the questions I had about whether to become a pastor, overseas missionary or student/campus minister, but I’d also have space to work out some of the theological issues I’d been thinking about. I picked Brisbane’s only non-denominational, missions-focused evangelical college, the Bible College of Queensland (now Brisbane School of Theology) because it seemed to be the best fit for where I was at in terms of theology and ministry.

Intertwined with my journey regarding theology and ministry prospects was my recovery as a person and forming of new friendships, following my period of deep emotional and relational wounding from my family situation. It was great to interact with a diverse range of Christian faculty and students and I owe so much in my life today to the influences and friendships of the brothers and sisters in my life at this time.

Some of my theological convictions and personal circumstances (such as my residential location) did change during this time and when I was about to do a field education subject in 2011, I decided to make the difficult and scary move of trying out a different kind of church where I’d be able to learn in quite a different environment to the church I’d attended since high school. Despite the many new challenges I faced in changing congregational settings (something I’d never taken lightly), my ministry supervisor, Steve proved to be a good example of gospel-centered, pastorally tender ministry and I was able to learn a lot by serving alongside him over the next few years.

In my final year of college and first year or so out, I’d become theologically resettled in a lot of areas, but still had a great need for ongoing spiritual growth and personal recovery. I was constantly challenged in areas at the intersection between theological understanding and practical action, such as the realities of cross-cultural gospel ministry and the impetus to take the good news of Jesus to places which lack Christian resources. A beautiful, godly young woman who shares very little in common with me on the surface at first glance, but so much in the depths of Christian identity and gospel convictions became the greatest personal influence and encouragement to godly growth I’ve ever known. A friendly Chinese-born accountant I’d met in 2010, who wanted to serve as a missionary in Asia, became my best friend at Bible College and over time, the only woman I would want to share my heart and life with.

As we celebrate two years of a challenging but immensely rewarding marital relationship, I continue to be stretched to grow as a husband, as a Christian and as a student and servant of Jesus Christ and His gospel. I’ve by no means “arrived” theologically or spiritually! But I’m so very grateful that God has transformed me from the Christianish kid and nominal nodder to the sincere but overly strict and rigid young Christian and now to a broken, but gradually reconstructed and vastly more mature believer in Christ.

Reflexions of a Pentecostalish/Fundamentalistic Christian

2004-2007

Previous posts can be found here and here

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I came to a spiritual crossroad towards the end of high school. Because of a girl, I’d gotten back into youth group attendance and eventually added church attendance in 2003-4. Then a Christian schoolmate had invited me to attend his home group/Bible study during my final year of school.

Things seemed to be getting a bit more serious for me and although part of the reason was definitely connected to keeping the girlfriend and her parents happy, that was far from the whole picture. I realised that when I went to university I was going to need to decide whether I’d live independently as a Christian young adult, once the crutch of school chapel and the spoon-feeding of caring Christian teachers disappeared into the rear vision mirror of life. I knew uni wouldn’t do anything to make it easy to live as a Christian, so I felt confronted with the need to either commit or acknowledge that my faith would slowly melt away.

God truly was at work in my life during this season and as I left high school, I continued with church, youth group and home group. I was growing more convinced and committed rather than less and I wanted to ensure I was living as a sincere disciple in response to God’s offer in the gospel.

In August 2005, I had one of the most significant experiences of my Christian life. I was baptised after making a public declaration of faith in Jesus Christ and repentance from my sins. In my own mind this was my decisive step in declaring my genuine discipleship to family and friends. But as I went down into the waters and subsequently emerged I experienced a powerful sense of assurance from the Holy Spirit that I had indeed been washed clean by the blood of Christ, died with Him in His death and risen again to new life.
I knew the water had not done anything special to me, but at the same time I knew God had. A new chapter had begun and I was determined to live for Jesus, trusting in Him for salvation and following Him as Lord in a way I had neglected to do for so many years of calling myself a Christian.

I was once again part of Pentecostal Christianity and experienced all the strengths and weaknesses that come with this particular expression of the faith. My church and home group instilled in me a greater appreciation for both the Bible as God’s Word and its place in my life, as well as the vitality of a relationship with Jesus through faith and the inner working of the Holy Spirit. I had experienced what Pentecostals call the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” a few months before my water baptism and spoken in tongues and developed something of a mystical spirituality when it came to relating to God. On more mature reflection, I think Pentecostal spirituality can be like a two-edged sword. It helpfully cuts away at religious formality and emphasises real, holy Christian living on one hand, but at the same time it can deeply wound the conscientious soul that is striving for spiritual attainments that are seemingly always out of one’s reach. I think the teachings on holiness I received during those years had an incredibly positive impact on my life in some respects. But at the same time I developed a strong fundamentalistic, reactionary posture to help me survive the harsh secular environment of university and to navigate the temptations of youth – which was not terribly helpful to me or others and often sunk into legalism. I don’t wish to pin the blame for this on others, as I’m aware that my own personality and way of thinking was fertile ground for this perspective on life to develop.

I also had a very speculative approach to understanding Bible prophecy which was fuelled by influences within my circles of fellowship, along with online influences I’d discovered as a high school student. I believed the European Union was the revived Roman Empire and that the Great Tribulation would probably begin before I finished university. Living a godly life and evangelising the lost both seemed much more urgent to me than other things during this period – especially long-term life-planning like super-annuation.

This was the theological and spiritual position I was in when I made some of the most difficult decisions and faced some of the most difficult trials in my young life up to that point. I broke up with my girlfriend because of my new convictions about living a holy life (in hindsight a difficult but wise and right decision). I left university without completing my degree (I’d return later) because I thought God wanted me to give this up too as a sign of devotion towards Him (in hindsight, probably an immature and unwise decision, given I ignored the counsel of my pastor in making it). And in 2007, I experienced terrible personal trials as my family unit broke apart – something which is still difficult for me to speak about today and which has impacted me enormously ever since.

There is no other way to describe this period than this. I got crushed. Emotionally, relationally and spiritually. My theology and spirituality helped me through in some ways, but they did not spare me any suffering and I lacked the maturity to properly process what was going on. I stubbornly persisted in the ministries at church I was involved in and carried on in the Christian life, but I was hurting and felt let down.

After this season I was a changed person – mostly it felt for the worse. I would need to gradually recover personally, but also change theologically and grow into greater spiritual and emotional maturity. More on that in the final installment.

Reflexions of a Nodder

2000-2004
[NOTE: It probably makes more sense to read Part 1 first].

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As the new millennium began, so did the next chapter of my life: high school and the teenage years. As I mentioned at the end of previous post, this was also the beginning of “churchless Christianity” for me. I’d won the fight not to get out of bed early on Sundays and I had the perfect excuse not to go to church anymore. I went to a Christian high school.

Chapel services every week with all the singing, preaching, praying etc; etc; etc; “Who needed Sunday morning church when I had Friday morning chapel?” I’d concluded.

I picked the title above because I often describe my religious status during these years as a “Nodder.” By that I mean that I’d continued my childhood assent of many of the central tenets of the Christian faith. If you had asked me whether I believed: God was Triune; Jesus was the Son of God; He died for my sins on the cross; He rose from the dead on the third day etc; I would have nodded. And I believed that because I believed these things, I was a Christian and I would go to Heaven when I died.

But what I seem to have adopted was a kind of “cheap grace” or “easy believism.” I wanted Jesus as my Saviour, but not as my Lord. The Bible was only a partial authority for how I lived, and while Christian teaching did shape my morality in many areas, I was incredibly selective in which bits I followed and which bits I conveniently dismissed or ignored.
I thought my eternal future was secure based on my ability to tick a few essential doctrinal and ethical boxes. In hindsight it isn’t hard to see that I was a self-righteous rebel throughout these years, until things began to change later on.

But going to this school did impact me both positively and negatively. The school was run by the Uniting Church, but the staff and students were from a very wide range of Christian churches and traditions. I was taught by sincere Christians, including people like my Year 10 Pastoral Care Teacher, Mr. Horne, who made it his mission to ensure all his students at least had the opportunity to hear the entirety of Mark’s Gospel read out in class throughout the year. I had good Christian friends, some of whom continue to be great encouragements in Christ to me today. And in one or two friends in particular I really saw Christ-like character that affected me profoundly.

Of course there was the downside too. Some of the teachers were incredibly strict and moralistic in their approach and provoked resentment and rebellion more than reflection on the central message of the Christian faith.

The broadness of the Uniting Church probably accounted for the fact that some of the teachers who influenced me greatly were more liberal than evangelical in their understanding of Christianity. And then there were the hypocrites. The kids who sucked up to teachers and joined the chapel worship team to get leadership positions that would look good on their CV after graduation, but who bullied others when no adults were watching or showed little interest in Christianity when there was nothing to be gained from it. I hated people like that – even though in many ways I was as bad as they were.

And so these years were a real mixed bag. I was impacted from time to time by devotions, chapel messages or conversations I had with people. I prayed with Christian school friends at certain times, went along to youth events at their churches and thought about different issues like eternity, sexual morality and the compatibility of Christianity and other ideas.
In those years, political issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict were quite important in my thinking (I could not understand why so many Christians supported atheistic and Orthodox Jews against the Palestinians, among whom were a much larger group of Christians). I also came to the humorous conclusion that because I was often taught that “Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship” – I could be a Christian AND have my own religion. So I drafted my own rule of life, full of legalistic, man-made commandments which allowed me to avoid certain places and activities that I held in disdain.

It was in many ways the perfect expression of my self-righteous, independent-minded attitudes, which characterised my life during that time and continued to cause me trouble when I finally began to grasp what biblical Christianity was all about in the subsequent years. I was lost without recognising it. And I’d wander around in this wilderness until I saw the intimidating approach of the needle that would pop the bubble of comfortable Christianised existence I’d enjoyed at high school. But more on that next time

Reflexions of a Christianish kid

1987-1999

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I was sort of brought up as Christian. What I mean by that is, I was dedicated as a baby, my mother took me to Sunday school and church, my Catholic grandmother taught me how to pray and I believed in God and Jesus…But my father and his side of the family were non-believers, so I did not have a cohesive family worldview to grow up in. Christianity was how I came to understand a lot of the world, but naturalism, materialism or atheism (call it what you will) was the default alternative view in my environment.

The type of Christianity I grew up with was Pentecostalism from a range of different churches – sometimes of the mainstream variety, sometimes a little on the extreme, “Word of Faith”, borderline heretical kind of side (eg; at one, we watched creepy videos of Kenneth Copeland’s daughter as “Commander Kelly”). I can remember “asking Jesus into my heart” at around 7 (probably the first of several times) and attending a range of groups for children and youth and singing Hillsong tunes, thinking they had been around for as long as any hymn (when in fact they were often off the latest CD!)

Naturally, I can’t remember a lot of the specifics I learned at church and Sunday school, due to the time lapse. But this kind of Christianity was “normal” to me as I proceeded through childhood. I sometimes doubted God’s existence during these years, but never for long. The existence of the Christian God was always the default position I returned to and His existence did have an impact on how I thought about life and death.

Sometimes I got a sense that something was wrong with me spiritually, like when I sang “Lord I give you my heart, I give you my soul, I live for you alone” – and knew it wasn’t true. Or when the good feeling of going to church suddenly disappeared when I fought with my sister in the car as we left the church car park. These were matters I’d take, unresolved, into teenagehood.

Towards the end of primary school I did find myself in a different kind of church for the first time. We attended a Church of Christ in Logan City for a couple of years from when I was around 11 or 12. My impression of this church looking back is mostly positive. The youth leaders seemed to have a genuine love for us and wanted to ensure we not only had a good time, but learned the truth about Christ. I’m convinced that the Church of Christ’s non-denominational, restorationist kind of ethos had a big impact on me for the rest of my life. Though I find it hard to see how the Churches of Christ are not a functional denomination themselves, their emphasis on simply being “Christians” is something that has long resonated with me. I believe the church had a formative influence on me in terms of how I understood evangelical Christianity as I went into my teenage years.

However, that church was to be the last one I’d attend for many years. I hated getting out of bed early on a Sunday morning and gradually I went from losing the fight with my mother about getting up to go to church as a young boy, to consistently winning it as a teenager.

There was a time when I tried to return, after some time away, but I found the in-crowd of young people too hard to break into after my time of absence. And so, I turned my back on going to church – but not on Christianity. I still saw myself as a Christian in the years to come, more of which I’ll relate about in part 2.