Author: Tony Fowler
Posted: 13 April, 2022
A few weeks ago, at the Prayer Meeting, we were discussing a passage in which God is never mentioned, but is clearly active. John asked us if that had ever been true in our own experience. I mentioned something that had happened before I became a Christian – a rush for a train – that had resulted in me understanding the Gospel for the first time. He suggested it might be worth writing about. I was initially reluctant; but as I’ve thought about that occasion, I’ve realised it was but the last in a long line of events where God had been at work, drawing me towards Himself, and I’d been totally oblivious of it all. Let me explain.
I was born into a traditional working-class family in Birmingham. Both my parents left school at 14 in the midst of the Second World War. My Dad started an apprenticeship at Cadbury’s chocolate factory… as a gardener in the grounds. He spent the rest of his working life with Birmingham City Council’s Parks Department. Mum began clerical work in a factory that normally made scales, weighing equipment for all sorts of settings; but during the war made components for armaments. I was the first, and only, member of that family to consider going to university. My choice of university was prompted by a letter to one of my teachers from a former pupil, about the course he was studying at Southampton University. “That’s the course for me,” I thought, as the teacher read it out. What I didn’t know, was that by the time I got there the course had changed significantly. If I’d known that would be the case, I’d never have gone to the place where the Lord revealed His grace to me. God’s hand was upon that decision.
I was also the odd-one-out in my family as the only one to attend church regularly. A friend at school encouraged me to join my local church choir. I continued with that between the ages of 10 and 18, apart from a couple of years when I had a weekend job. I lasted far longer than he did! I attended both services each Sunday, with midweek services at special times of the Christian Year, and two choir practices. As a result of my involvement in the choir, I attended classes, and was confirmed by the Bishop of Birmingham. But I didn’t understand God’s love for me, or the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I went through all the rituals of church life… religiously, but I wasn’t a Christian. Yet, looking back, I now see that over those years God was giving me the pieces of a jigsaw. They were all jumbled up, and I couldn’t make out the picture; but they’d be vital at a later stage. God’s hidden hand again!
Just before setting off for Southampton, I witnessed something that prompted me to think that Christians were hypocrites. “Now’s the time to break with religion,” I thought. “Time to enjoy myself: wine, women and song!” And, with all the singing I’d done in the choir, I reckoned I’d concentrate on the other two from now on! I’d set myself to go away from God. So that was my state of mind when I arrived in Southampton. And on the very first weekend, before I could launch myself into my new lifestyle, I encountered real Christians. At the Freshers’ Fayre, where all the different clubs and societies try to rope the newbies into their activities, they were doing questionnaires to discover people’s views about the Christian faith. One of the questions stood out: ‘If you were to die today, and God were to ask you, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” What do you think you would say?’ Given my position, I could only answer, “There’s no reason at all why God should let me in!” For the first time ever, I had a conscious awareness that my life was heading in the wrong direction – that I was a sinner. God had stepped in before I could go completely off the rails. At the end of the questionnaire, I agreed to join a study to look at what the Bible says about being a Christian.
But getting hold of me to set up that study was hard work. I was playing badminton three evenings a week, and rugby at the weekend. If memory serves me correctly, I even did some studying! After several attempts to contact me, one of the Christians left a message with my room-mates, inviting me to a Saturday evening meeting. Someone would pick me up. “If Tony’s no longer interested,” he said, “tell him to put a note on the door and we won’t disturb him again.” That kindness and consideration struck me, so I decided to attend. But at lunchtime on the Saturday, I discovered that Aston Villa (the team I’d followed since I discovered football) were playing at Bournemouth in the “top of the table clash” in the Third Division. Without further ado, a couple of us decided to catch a train along the coast to watch the match. As we rushed off, I asked one of my room-mates to put a note on the door if I wasn’t back – so that they didn’t get bothered again. The Devil was determined to keep me for himself. And, as is his way, he offers pleasure, but brings only pain. As we approached the ground, a great roar went up. The Villa were already 1 – 0 down, and lost 3 – 0 in the end!
“We might as well stay in Bournemouth for the evening,” I said. “But we better find out what time the last train leaves.” On arrival at the station, we saw a Southampton train was just about to depart. God stepped in again; for, without thinking, or consulting my friend, I began to run along the platform. We jumped onto the train as it was about to move off. I was back in my room just in time to rip the note off the door, and head for a quick wash. My lift was waiting for me when I came out of the bathroom.
And that evening, someone sat down alongside me; and, with the aid of a simple diagram and a number of passages from the Bible, explained the Gospel message. He put together all the pieces of the jigsaw that I’d gathered over the previous eight years. I came to see that although my sin separated me from God, and there was nothing I could do about it, God had come in Jesus Christ to bridge that immense gulf. On the cross, the Lord Jesus had died to pay the penalty of all my sin – in full. All I needed to do to enter a relationship with God, was to open my heart to receive the free gift of forgiveness. As the old hymn puts it: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Your cross I cling.”
God’s hidden hand was active at so many different stages leading up to that Saturday evening. Did I mention that I didn’t do quite well enough in one of my exams to meet Southampton’s conditional offer? I remember throwing the results paper down the stairs in anger and frustration. Well, Southampton’s confirmed offer of a place arrived in the post the next morning!
I could so easily have gone on my way as a hell-deserving sinner; but God, in His grace and mercy, would not let go. I didn’t deserve His love then – and I don’t deserve it now. I’ve frequently let Him down in the years since then – my faith has nearly failed. Through it all, the Lord has taught me that it’s not the strength of my faith that counts – it’s not how tightly I hold onto Him – but His firm grasp of me. God’s hand is often hidden; but is strong enough to keep the weakest Christian close to Him, as He shares His love with us day by day.