THE TESTIMONY OF
Putting together the pieces of my testimony, I now realize that there were several time periods during which God stood at the door of my heart and knocked.
Firstly, there were my early years, when I was aged around seven or eight. I can remember quite clearly telling my dad that by the age of thirty, I wanted to be a vicar (Pastor). It seemed that Vicars had it “all together” as I watched and listened to them on Songs of Praise (a British TV show on Sunday evenings), and I was convinced that such godly looking and sounding men must be going to heaven! Further, even in my young mind, I reasoned that there had to be more on offer to a person than simply growing up, going to school and college, graduating, going to work, marrying, raising a family, retiring and eventually dying, NEVER EVER to exist again. I struggled with this concept a great deal but concluded that it wasn’t my place to worry about such a thing. This was a concern for grownups, and I fully expected to have the answer to the burning question of “what happens to you when you die?” by the time I was my mom and dad’s age! With this security, I filled my life with “being good”; being a good boy at home, being a good boy at school, being good at sports, being good to my friends and so on. Success academically, sportingly and socially characterized my young and early adult life.
When I was 16 years old, my world was rocked as I experienced the loss of a close friend who was destined to become a top class, professional cricketer. I was studying for my “A Levels” when my grandad came into the room, telling me that he’d just heard on the radio that Yorkshire cricket star, Gregg Duggan had passed away. Like me, he was only 16 years old. He died of a heart attack in hospital after collapsing on the field earlier that day. Surely my grandad had miss-heard. After all, it was Gregg’s dad who suffered from heart disease. But as the reality of my friend’s death hit home, I remember feeling numb at the thought of not seeing him again.
But perhaps most significantly, I’ll never forget the thought that haunted me as I watched his coffin lowered into the ground. That thought was, “So Gregg now knows what it feels like to be dead.” What a strange concept to cross my mind. It’s as though I knew intuitively that his burial was not the end; that Gregg had simply passed from one life to the next. But…where had he gone? What did afterlife look like for him? Was he in heaven? Was there even a heaven for him to go? That question remained unanswered as the busyness of life shielded me from having to draw any conclusions…
The third time period revolves around my college days. For two years I lived with Rob Burns. For two years we enjoyed the excitement and freedom of the student lifestyle, unable (unwilling) to resist the temptations which came our way. But then something strange and unexpected happened. Rob changed. He started going to church; he made copious notes inside his Bible, and he continually told me about someone called Jesus – how He loved me so much that He died for me and how He promised to forgive all my sins, past, present, and future. Surely, this was just a phase he was going through. A scam to keep the attention of his new church going, bible thumping, God-fearing, saintly, Christian girlfriend! However, his insistence that he had been “born again” both worried and intrigued me at the same time, and yet it was all so new, and “un-Rob like” that I couldn’t accept it as real. After all, everyone knew that Jesus was just for kids and that the Bible was simply a collection of fairy stories. I did begin to notice changes in him though, especially in his attitude to worrying and anxiety. When I quizzed him on this, Rob shared Philippians 4:4-7 as his God-given verse of reassurance.
College came and went and Rob and I went our separate ways; me to New Zealand to play cricket and then into a sports development job in Wakefield, England, and Rob into lecturing and eventually to soccer training in Houston, Texas. It was during the time of my employment in Wakefield that I decided to move in with my girlfriend. To me, this represented all a man could wish for. I could come and go as I pleased, I could be in a relationship that didn’t have the responsibility of marriage or of kids, I could play as much sport as I wanted, and I could still have someone waiting for me at home.
In hindsight, I can now see the Lord’s hand at work during my time as a “Community Sports Leader” in Wakefield, even while living in sin with my girlfriend, and being very distant from the Lord. My role was to promote sports and recreation among those members of the community considered to be “disadvantaged”: the unemployed, the elderly, those with special needs, at-risk kids. People often overlooked and un-provided for. Every day was different, and every day was a battle. I was uncomfortable, often embarrassed by the things I had to do. At times, I’d be playing Santa Claus in the rough and tough clubs of working-class England. Other times I was dressed as a clown. On many occasions I found myself potholing, hill-climbing, driving a 15 passenger bus, organizing and refereeing sports events. And perhaps my worst moments came in front of a group of ladies (all ages) leading them in Jazzercize routines! For sure, God was preparing me, taking me out of my comfort zone and putting me through the fire…
My live-in relationship with my girlfriend quickly deteriorated after a “honeymoon” period of a few months. No longer was it the blissful, “happily ever after” experience I had originally anticipated. Through personality conflicts and testing circumstances, we found it difficult to get along, or even be around each other. We had redecorated the house from top to bottom, and eventually, it looked great. The only problem was, that we couldn’t agree on anything. We clashed. We fought and we argued. Both too stubborn to give in and say sorry. If only we’d known then that, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). Eventually, we decided to “get away from it all” and leave our problems behind when we took a three-week vacation to Houston in October 1991, where we were hosted by Rob Burns (my old college buddy, and later my Best Man) and his wife, Jenny. Sadly, my girlfriend and I quickly realized that rather than ridding ourselves of our problems, we merely brought them with us to Texas, and we were left feeling disappointed and disillusioned. Nothing seemed to make sense. Here I was in a wonderful environment, supposedly on a vacation of a lifetime, and I was as miserable as I could ever remember.
It was during this period, however, that I was not only re-introduced to Jesus through the words of Rob but also by his lifestyle. I saw in front of my eyes truly a new creation: the old Rob had gone, and a new compassionate, caring and sensitive Rob had emerged. He was at peace with himself and with God, and he shared at length about a Jesus whom I’d never known. I knew Rob well enough to know that this was real for him and yet still, I needed more convincing.
October 13th, 1991 saw my girlfriend and me in North Oaks Baptist Church in Spring, Texas. Each word that night seemed to speak to me directly and to my lost condition without Jesus, and I knew that there was a real battle going on inside me. Part of me wanted to leap forward at the invitation to publicly profess Jesus as my Lord and Savior, but another part wanted to keep my feet firmly placed behind the safety of the pews. That night, the latter won, and I remember my girlfriend asking why I was crying during the service, and almost mocking me for doing so. In my heart, I knew that God was getting my attention but not wanting to make a rash decision I resisted the pull of the Holy Spirit. I had to be SURE that Jesus was real, and besides, I had to weigh up the consequences of becoming a Christian: what would my family and friends think? Would I have to make changes in my life? And would I be willing to give my life to Christ rather than live for myself?
Over the course of the week, through much soul searching and questioning I finally realized the need for Jesus in my life. I wasn’t content, I wasn’t certain of where I would spend eternity, and I knew God had spoken to me on the 13th and over the following week. As a result, although many questions remained unanswered, I finally came to the point of abandoning my own fears and the very real fear of “public opinion”. They now became unimportant. At the end of the evening service of October 20th, 1991, I walked the aisle of North Oaks Baptist Church and through tears and much relief I invited Jesus Christ into my heart. The same evening I was baptized, and while I didn’t fully understand its significance at the time, it was my way of putting a seal on my commitment. I wanted to make myself accountable to the body of believers, and though it took the Pastor two attempts to keep me under the baptismal water, I knew that night that I had truly given my life to Christ, that it was real, and that I was beginning a new life with Him as my Lord and Savior. My sins were forgiven. I was saved from the punishment I deserved and I was free to walk in the newness of life that only Christ can give!
On my return to England, I told my parents that I needed to share something that had happened that would change my life forever. As we sat in the living room, TV still on in the background, I’ll never forget their response when I told them I’d become a Christian…”Oh is that all?” came the reply. “We thought you were gonna tell us something serious. And with that, the conversation ended. Relief for my parents, but sadness for me as my life transformation had gone unrecognized and dismissed as an unimportant, unnecessary topic of conversation.
Soon after my salvation experience, the relationship with my girlfriend ended, and I moved home to live with mum and dad.
Six months later I was heading back to the US…No doubting that God had called me to share my faith through soccer. It would mean stepping out and stepping into a world, a lifestyle and a life perspective I could never have imagined. Far from my “perfect” job of going to work in a suit, carrying a briefcase and sitting behind a desk in an isolated office as a bank manager (yes, that was my dream job!), I would be wearing a track-suit, carrying soccer balls and stepping onto the mission field every day; sharing Jesus with kids and parents, and rejoicing over every one who came to know Him.
In 1996, Sports Quest was founded, as my wife and I made the decision to remain in the US when the logical course would’ve been to return to England. I knew God had not finished with us yet. I still felt a strong sense of gratitude for Jesus saving “a wretch like me”. There was simply no other choice than to use soccer as a platform to share my faith. As I prayed, sought counsel and studied the Word of God, Matthew 13:16 jumped out as a defining Scripture. It was confirmation that I did not need to send the crowds away (kids, teams, parents); that I (yes “I”, un-confident, insecure, untrained “I”)…I could give them something to eat. I could share my hope in Christ. I could feed their spiritual hunger. I could bring what morsels I had to Jesus, and He would multiply. The Word could still go out and God would get the glory. It must all go to Him because I am unqualified and ineffective. But He – Jesus Christ – He is the Great Enabler. He’s the One who equips the messenger and draws men to Himself. As I’m available and obedient, Jesus convicts and saves.
In 2016, Sports Quest celebrated 20 years of soccer ministry. It’s been filled with excitement as well as a few disappointments and challenges along the way. But ultimately, the journey has been (and continues to be) a testimony of how God can take an ordinary, self-indulgent, sinful life and give it purpose, passion, fulfillment, and joy.
Today, I’m praising God for his grace, power, and provision. And tomorrow…I’ll be doing the same. He alone is worthy!
Journey since then to follow….