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These are real life stories told by people currently attending THEVINEYARDCHURCH | ST.ALBANS | 2013 Luke Dell Natalie Baker James Benstead Denise Gray Ben McNamara Tell us your story | stories@thevineyardchurch.co.uk

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ADDICTED TO ANGER

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y Mrs was always the spiritual one. She believed in God, the Divine, meditated and all that. I’ve never been that way. I controlled my life, no one else. Her spirituality was never a massive barrier between us; it wasn’t a source of friction neither. But it was something I couldn’t touch. About a year ago she started going to this local church with her mum, she loved it. It was something special they shared, it kind of bonded them. If I’m honest I was quite jealous ‘cause I knew I’d never be able to have that with her. But one day she turned around and said, “come and see what this church is like Luke. You don’t have to come into the main service if you don’t want, you can just stay in the church café – there are other people who do that”. So I did. I sat in the café with a coffee. I could hear the music being played in the main hall, a full band like. I’ve always loved music – me and the Mrs used to go to a lot of festivals before the kids. So I walked over to the main hall and popped my head round the door to see what was going on. And the music was really good – really loud. I thought, wow this is pretty cool. I felt pulled in by it. So I went and sat down next to my Mrs. The speaker that day talked about a race called the Ninevites [from the Bible]. I can’t remember exactly what he said about it all but what I do remember is him saying that God was willing to forgive them. Then he

said that we could be forgiven too. That hit me. I’ve done some terrible things in my past. I didn’t imagine for one minute that I could’ve ever been forgiven. I wouldn’t have even

walked into a church before that day. I remember saying to my Mrs a few years back that I didn’t think I’d be able to go to my niece’s wedding. “I can’t go into a church!” I said, “how can I go into a church – a place of religion? I’ll probably burst into flames.” ‘Cause like, I had a temper. A big temper. If anyone said something I didn’t like or even looked at me in a way I didn’t like, God help them. I was

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the person who’d get out of their car if someone cut me up on the road. I’d put people in hospital y’know - even if I had my kids in the back. What was I angry about? Anything. It didn’t matter. I thrived on it, on all the adrenalin. I think anger was probably the only emotion I ever used to feel. I got off on it. And having a reputation too - I’d walk into places and people would know who I was. In a way I felt immortal. I’ve been stabbed, had guns pointed at me, been beaten so hard I’ve been hospitalised. Nothing could stop me. I’ve always been loyal, it’s probably been my biggest downfall. I used to be very protective of my family, my mates, my business partners. And extremely protective of my Mrs. If any of my friends or family had any kind of problem then they’d come to me ‘cause they knew I’d sort it out. Didn’t matter how big someone was, didn’t matter how many of them there were. I’d do it. Funnily enough, my family weren’t overtly protective of me when I was younger, so I’m not sure where I picked that up from. Both my parents came from quite broken homes and I think they had loads of kids to try and fill a void. Either that or they just didn’t have a TV! The youngest always became their new favourite - so the older you got, the more you had to start taking care of yourself. By the time all my brothers were born I was used to relying on myself, and did whatever I wanted. At secondary school I started smoking dope which led onto other drugs

- mostly cocaine and ecstasy. By thirteen I was bringing puff back from Amsterdam for people. And getting into scraps. I was here, there and everywhere. My parents didn’t seem to really care, they never asked where I’d been - even when I came home blood-stained. Both me and my Mrs used to be addicts. When we found out we were pregnant with our little boy we both said, “right, we gotta stop this”. So we both gave up the drink and the drugs but my behaviour didn’t change - I was still violent. I couldn’t

I CHUCKED THE DRINK AND DRUGS PRETTY EASILY BUT TO BE HONEST I THINK I WAS MORE ADDICTED TO THE VIOENCE. help myself. I chucked the drink and drugs pretty easily but to be honest I think I was more addicted to the violence. I missed the thrill of it, the feeling of importance. No matter how much I wanted to change, I couldn’t. I still returned to being the same old me. So that day when I visited this church and heard I could be forgiven, I thought, yeah I want that. It felt like the speaker was talking directly to me the whole way through, as though I was supposed to come to this church and hear everything he

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was saying. I came back the next week, and the next. Every week I found the things being said up front really struck a chord with me. My family think religion is for idiots. If you were to ask them whether God exists, they’d just laugh in your face. They think people who go to church are brainwashed by happy clappers. And that is pretty much how I used to think too. It was only when I started going to church that I thought to myself, oh Luke, what have you been missing out on! I joined an Alpha course which helped answer a lot of questions I had. There were a couple of people on it that I could relate to, which led me to open up a bit and talk about my life. That was the first time I ever talked about myself with someone other than my Mrs. I would never have talked to anybody about anything before! I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a social person. Anyway, one of these Alpha sessions was about the Holy Spirit. I’d always thought spirits were hocus pocus but that day changed everything. We were told a bit about the Holy Spirit, looked at what the Bible had to say and then we’d ‘wait’ on the Holy Spirit. I was sitting by myself but could see and hear lots of people experiencing something. Some were laughing, some were crying. It was a bit weird. Anyway, a few guys gathered round me and as they prayed I thought to myself, well, I’m not feeling nothing. Then one of the guys said to me, “you don’t have to be ashamed of who

you are Luke. God has made you the way you are, you just have to work out how to direct your emotions.” And that just hit something inside of me. Then I er... burst into tears! Ha! I felt like a complete tit but it didn’t seem to phase the other guys. It wasn’t bringing up a sad memory or anything. But those words hit me hard. Y’see, I’d always believed deep down that I could never be accepted in God’s world because of everything I’d done and the type of person I was. I knew I’d never be able to curb my anger, so I’d never be able to change, so God would never be able to accept me. But when I heard that God had already accepted me and that I was already good enough for Him, it broke something in me. By the end of the prayer I felt like I was on fire, it was really bizarre. I ended up sitting in my car for twenty minutes after I left the venue, trying to compose myself. I was shook up. It was like I’d done drugs - that same sort of euphoria, like my senses had been heightened. I didn’t speak about that experience for three weeks – not even to my Mrs. I couldn’t. It was mind-blowing. So that was the Holy Spirit! From that day on, I thought yeah ok, I’m a believer. Since becoming a Christian it’s not like my temper’s disappeared, but I’ve found it so much easier to keep a rein on it. The change is unbelievable. I feel so much compassion for people. Rather than hurting people, I now want to help people. I never used

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to be like that. I’ve begun to see the good in people. I think it’s because I now realise that God the Father has a lot of compassion for me. When I realised that, something shifted. I find it so much easier not to judge people now. I was always the first to pick at someone, to point out

MY FAMILY THINK IT’S NUTS AND HAVEN’T REALLY COME TO TERMS WITH IT YET. their faults. I guess it was to mask my own. I just started to see the world in a different way - it’s hard to explain. Everything seems brighter. It’s like my eyes have been opened – I can see so much more of what’s really going on around me. I must’ve lived life with

blinkers on before. A lot of people find it hard to believe that I’ve become a Christian and go to church. My family think it’s nuts and haven’t really come to terms with it yet. People I’ve met since say they find it hard to believe I was the person I describe. My mother in law knows what I used to get up to and what I was like; she says the change in me is the biggest miracle she’s ever seen. I mean, I pray now. And pray in front of other people too! If you’d said to me a year ago I’d be doing stuff like that, be acting the way I am or feeling how I do, I’d of said you were having a laugh. I’d never have believed you. LUKE

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GOD THE PUNISHER

I

was a bit of a wild child. My parents were unhappily married and when I was eleven they moved the family to Spain and opened up a bar. They’d frequently get drunk and leave me to my own devices. It was quite isolating. I started to go clubbing and take drugs. What started as a recreational use soon turned into a full blown addiction and my parents, unable to control me, kicked me out of home. I returned to the UK a couple of years later to get clean. I’d seen friends die of overdoses, of AIDS, of all kinds of things and I wanted out. I met my husband Dave when I was twenty-five and we married a few years later. Early on in our relationship I miscarried and it made us realise how much we wanted to have a family. We’d been trying for seven years and hadn’t even conceived. I was miserable. I desperately wanted to be a mum so we started going for fertility treatment. Going through the treatment was hideous. It was the most disappointing thing I have ever been through. Each time I built up so much hope that it’d work - and then my period came. I kept on thinking, what’s going wrong? I didn’t really believe in God but would say a little prayer each time - just in case I was wrong and there was something up there which could help me. “God, please let this work” I’d say but to be honest, I never really believed my prayers went anywhere. I was so depressed. I was longing to have children, to create a family of my own. I felt guilty for marrying

Dave because I felt like I’d taken the opportunity away from him to have children. If there was a God, then I assumed He was punishing me for the kind of life that I’d led when I was younger. By the time it came to the last fertility treatment I was desperate. I decided to take what little control I had left of my life by turning down the final treatment. I knew that if it failed I wouldn’t have been able to cope. I don’t think I would have been able to put myself back together again.

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At that time my friend Joanne invited me to her church. It wasn’t like I was becoming interested in Christianity or anything but for some reason I said yes. The church was nice, the people were nice, the music was nice. But it just wasn’t for me. And then at the very end of the service the Pastor explained that their members pray before each Sunday service. He said that often the Holy Spirit gives them ‘words of knowledge’, and if any of these words resonated for anyone at the church that morning, they’d be happy to pray for them. One of the ‘words’ was that someone was struggling to have a baby. I burst out crying. Joanne said “that’s you!” and pushed me to the front. Two ladies came over and prayed for me. I just stood there shaking. I was petrified. I thought, why am I doing this? I don’t even believe in any of this, this is awful of me! But then after all, I had nothing to lose. So I stood there and let them pray for me. One of the ladies said she felt like God was saying that He’d heard my prayers but He also knew that I didn’t really believe they were going to be answered. She said that I needed to believe I was going to get pregnant, that I was going to become a mum. I stood there thinking, how can she say that to me? That’s a bit bold isn’t it?! So that afternoon I thought maybe I’ll give this a go, I’ll see if God speaks to me. I found a Bible and opened it up on a random page. My eyes fell on the words, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you

will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” [Matthew 7:7] I thought, oh this is exactly what that lady was trying to tell me. That day played on my mind a bit but I never talked to anyone about it. Some days later I became ill at work quite suddenly. I went home to bed. A random thought dropped

TO ACTUALLY SEE THE WORLD WITH OPEN EYES, THAT’S WHAT JESUS HAS DONE FOR ME. into my mind: This feels like morning sickness. I pushed that thought aside, thinking how stupid it was. But once the thought had been planted it was hard for me to ignore. When you go through fertility treatment you become addicted to pregnancy tests. I had bought loads and still had some left over. So I tried one. I left it in the bathroom and when I returned it said that I was pregnant. I didn’t quite believe it so made an appointment with my doctor. She confirmed that I was pregnant - pregnant having had no fertility treatment! A completely natural conception. After checking my dates it turned out I was just two weeks gone. When I realised it was exactly a fortnight ago that I’d been prayed for, I cried my eyes out. It was at that point I got down on my knees and said, “OK I think I might believe in You now. I don’t know what I need

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to do, what I need to say, what I need to be, but thank you and please keep this baby in my belly”. The pregnancy was awful; I bled throughout the first trimester. I kept praying and praying and praying, please don’t take this baby from me. I went back to that church every week, partly because I felt like I owed God and partly because I was afraid that if I didn’t keep coming I’d lose the baby. At that point in time that’s something I thought God would do: give me what I’d always wanted and then take it away from me. I didn’t understand that God isn’t like that, that God was kind. Even though God had answered my prayer, I’d not experienced God’s love - so I didn’t know any better. I returned to church each week with plenty of questions and doubts - but something had definitely changed: I was now open to believing that God may be real. I felt like I’d turned a corner in that respect; I wasn’t able to go back and convince myself that God was in the imagination. God did keep that baby in my belly safe, and she is now a beautiful

five year old. Over the past five years I have come to believe that Jesus Christ is living and interested in me. This means that I don’t have to deal with my own crap anymore and I’m no longer on my own. I’ve felt alone for so many years but I don’t feel alone any longer. This has changed my character quite a bit. I’m so much more interested in people now. I help run a food bank scheme in the little village where I live. I wouldn’t have bothered with that kind of thing before. I was very selfish, very self centred before. I wouldn’t have cared about what other people go through. It’s like my eyes have been opened and I’m now interested in people and art and nature. I walked around with my eyes closed for so many years after all, I spent so many days asleep and nights partying! I spent so much time in my own head. To actually see the world with open eyes, that’s what Jesus has done for me. When I hear people say this world is hell, I think, no it’s not. Just open your eyes. There are parts of this life that are rubbish, but there is so much kindness and hope and beauty. NATALIE

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A VOICE ON A MOUNTAIN

I

f you would have asked me as a teenager whether God existed, I would’ve said, that’s the most ridiculous question I’ve ever heard. Of course God doesn’t exist! And have given you a hundred reasons why whilst mocking you for your stupidity. Looking back I don’t know why I used to feel so passionately about it. But I remember that people who believed in a God or Creator made me quite angry. I never remember searching for a deeper meaning or purpose to life. I wasn’t concerned with doing anything spectacular in this world, of achieving something great or being remembered. I was just out to enjoy my life and experience as much as possible. I didn’t believe in any kind of spiritual realm, no kind of afterlife. Death was the end. When I was nineteen I applied to Sandhurst. I passed all their interviews but because I was still young they suggested I go travelling for a year to get some ‘life experience’. So I went to Japan. I found out the Japanese mostly follow Taoism or Shintoism, with a bit of Buddhism chucked in. So there was a lot of worshipping and praying to your dead relatives. This didn’t offend me like Christianity seemed to back home. I guess because it wasn’t about having faith in a living being, but seemed more like it was following a tradition or observing a culture. I can sort of understand why you’d have a shrine to your dead grandfather - out of remembrance. It’s similar to how we have crosses

in the UK commemorating all those who died in the World Wars. I didn’t have a problem with that. During my year in Japan I spent some months working as a lumberjack on the Gunma mountains, just north of Tokyo. It was awesome. I’d live in a log cabin halfway up a mountain for weeks at a time. There was no electricity so I didn’t have any kind of creature comforts. After work I’d bath, eat and the only thing left to do was to read. It was proper back to basics. I loved it. One night in September I lay awake after a really giant day –

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fourteen hours. It was snowing so I put on my coat and boots and went outside. It was about eleven o’clock and pitch black. I could see a million stars from the mountain - it was an amazing scene. Then out of nowhere I heard this voice say, “there is more to life than this”. It wasn’t a thought in my head but was an actual spoken voice - a strong male voice. It didn’t come from a particular direction - so it’s not like I turned around expecting to see someone – but it appeared to come from everywhere. I instantly understood the voice wasn’t only referring to there being more to life than what I was seeing in front of me – the mountains, the stars, the snow - but that there was more to life than everything I was living right now in this world. As soon as it happened I instinctively recognised the voice as ‘God’. Now technically speaking, I didn’t believe that ‘God’ existed - apart from in some people’s heads. But I knew what God was supposed to be like. I mean, whatever your theological standpoint is, everyone’s heard of God and what He’s supposed to be like, right? All powerful, all knowing, all present. So when I heard this voice, I was aware it was the voice of ‘God’. I thought about it quite a bit that night but over the next few days pushed it out of my head. To be honest, part of me didn’t want to address or engage in the concept any further. My rational thought process at the time was that I didn’t believe in a higher power. Therefore I couldn’t

suddenly justify the existence of an all powerful being. Even though I was certain about the validity of my experience, my theology at the time overrode and cancelled out any new beliefs coming to light. That was about a month before I returned to the UK. When I did I happened to visit some family friends for dinner. I hadn’t brought up my experience in Japan and they knew I wasn’t religious but they still invited me to an evening church in St Albans called The Burn Church. The family’s younger kids kept asking me to take them as it meant they’d get a lift from someone a little cooler than their parents. I didn’t want to go so pretended I was busy on Sunday nights. They persisted so I tried just saying no, but they kept on at me until I eventually agreed. I drove them there and sat with them through the service, but never made an effort to talk to anyone. I was utterly uninterested. Yet somehow, taking these kids to church on a Sunday night somehow became a bit of a routine. I managed to ignore everything the Pastor said until one Sunday my ears pricked up. He started talking about Noah’s Ark. I’d heard this Bible story before and was more than a little cynical about it. I mean, it read like a fairytale. But this guy started talking about how God was so angry that He literally flooded the earth. That thousands of people would have drowned, that you would have been able to hear people growing desperate, panicking, trying

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to escape, crying and screaming in fear as they died. It would have been utterly terrifying. That really caught my attention. It wasn’t what I expected from a Bible story. It certainly wasn’t a fairytale – more like a Grimm fairytale. I thought ok, now you’ve got my attention. From then onwards I started listening. So by this time I was definitely more open to consider religion and

I WAS WILLING TO CONSIDER THAT PERHAPS THERE WAS SOME KIND OF HIGHER POWER BUT KNEW I DIDN’T WANT TO COMMIT UNTIL I KNEW ALL THE FACTS. spirituality. Because I was coming to church I ended up thinking more and more about what happened to me in Japan. I was willing to consider that perhaps there was some kind of higher power but knew I didn’t want to commit to anything until I knew all the facts. I joined an Alpha course where I was able to ask a load of questions. I found the whole creation theory challenging, which led me to do my own research about evolution. I spent hours studying both arguments. At the end I came to accept that there may be some plausible arguments for a creation theory – although I didn’t necessarily

agree with it myself. At the end of the Alpha course I still didn’t understand the concept of God as a Father or the Holy Spirit – they were just alien to me. But one thing I did begin to understand was Jesus. I’d always accepted that Jesus existed – there’s too much evidence to refute that. Not as the ‘Son of God’ - just as a chap who’d walked the earth. But the Alpha course led me again to undertake my own research. I came to the conclusion that Jesus must be who He claimed to be: that He sacrificed His life on the cross so when I die I won’t have to face punishment. I do now believe that when our bodies die, our souls will continue to live on – whatever that looks like. The more I started to understand Jesus’ sacrifice, the more thankful I became and wanted to become His follower. So I said a thank you prayer and welcomed Jesus into my life. What does it feel like, knowing that someone has paid a price for me? It’s insane. That’s what it feels like. I never asked for it, I didn’t even know I needed it. I owe my life to someone, but He doesn’t want payment for it. It’s entirely free with no strings attached. When I came to understand this, and that I wasn’t bound to obeying any rules in order to keep His sacrifice ‘working’ for me, I remember thinking well that isn’t fair. I can’t just do whatever I want if someone’s been that kind to me. I should be giving something back. It’s less a feeling of duty than a genuine

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desire to give. So I stopped doing whatever on a night out, stopped sleeping around, stopped taking drugs. And made a conscious decision to start caring about people, to actually start living life with purpose. Since becoming a Christian, since accepting help from Jesus, I’ve noticed how my life has become more about helping others. I’m not saying I’m a saint – not at all - but there is a difference in that I do want to give, to help now. I’ve also noticed how much more comfortable I am in my own skin. Like when I used to walk into a pub or a club, I’d compare myself to all the

other guys there and feel a need to compete. I’d go through scenarios of what I’d do if a fight broke out. I wanted to be the hardest guy there, the one who got all the girls’ attention, the alpha male. It’s insane really. I can see it happening with other lads now – it’s really obvious when you’re no longer doing it. My dad still does it and he’s 64! But I don’t need to be that now. I’m perfectly comfortable in my own skin. JAMES

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NEVER GOOD ENOUGH

M

y parents were raised as Christians back home in Jamaica, but they weren’t what you’d call practicing Christians. I think it’s just a part of the culture, y’know, that you believe in God. They weren’t baptised, seldom went to church, they never prayed – maybe if something bad happened. They knew that God existed but just got on with their lives. I was nine when this changed. My mum went to a Christian tent meeting being held on our local common. Y’know, the old style kind with fire and brimstone preaching. She’d only gone for two days before she decided she wanted to get baptised. My dad was really anti. Here was his wife dedicating her life to God and joining this church after just two meetings. I think he was afraid our lives would change. My dad’s life didn’t change much. But mine did. My mum dragged me to this new church every week – with my dad’s agreement so there weren’t no arguing. Although he never went once! Now I did not like this church. Boring. It was so boring. And stern. Boy, the people there were ultra strict. The women wore proper full on dresses and hats like they were off to a wedding, the guys all buttoned up in their suits. And you weren’t allowed to wear jewellery or make up. That was a sin. From then onwards I had to stop drinking fizzy drinks cause they were bad. Pork too. And bacon. And sausages. I was no longer allowed to watch TV ‘cause

that was bad. I couldn’t go out and see my friends on the Sabbath which meant I couldn’t go to the shops or the cinema or to parties on a Saturday. We had to become very

religious; everything was separated into ‘holy’ or ‘unholy’ acts. It was a chore, there was no joy in it - but a lot of guilt. I hated it. Now this church was very big on ‘the end is nigh’ stuff. They read loads of books on the second coming of Christ. I didn’t completely understand all the references but I got the gist, it was gonna be awful

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and people who didn’t believe were going to hell. I would hear about it all the time but for some reason I never thought this applied to me. I just thought that Jesus may come back but it won’t affect me ‘cause I don’t believe like they do. I imagined Jesus showing up to collect them at one of their boring church meetings and I’d excuse myself, would be like, oh I’m sorry - this ain’t nothing to do with me - y’all carry on. But then the storm happened. We used to live opposite a school which had these great massive bins by its front gates. One night a heavy storm pushed over two of the bins and the noise was so loud that it woke me up. At that moment I didn’t know what was happening or where the noise had come from, I just heard this almighty crash. Somehow I came to the conclusion it was the apocalypse. I thought sh*t, I’m gonna die and I’m gonna go to hell. Because I’m not believing. And funnily enough that was when I started believing that when I died God was gonna judge me. I soon realised the noise was from the school bins falling over and the end of the world hadn’t quite arrived. But that realisation, that one day I was actually going to die, didn’t leave me. Death and the afterlife became more realistic. I thought, gosh, I am a part of this whether I want to be or not. Soon after that I got baptised. At the time I believed baptism was the thing I had to do in order to be ‘saved’ from going to hell. I didn’t do it out of the understanding that God

had already saved me but treated it as the beginning of me becoming ‘good’. So instead of Jesus setting

I FAKED IT ALL THE WAY THROUGH SCHOOL. I WAS ONE WAY TO MY SCHOOL FRIENDS AND ANOTHER WAY TO THE CHURCH FOLK. me free from guilt, I became more of a prisoner. Now I never told any of my school friends that I was a member of this church - I was too ashamed. No one knew and I worked hard to keep it that way. My friends were at an age where they were becoming interested in shopping, in fashion, in parties, and of course, in boys. Interested in these sinful things. Problem was, so was I. I ended up living a double life. I faked it all the way through school. I was one way to my school friends and another way to the church folk. I felt quite ashamed of myself, living these separate lives. I just felt so trapped. When I was seventeen I ended up going to a Christian Youth camp. The Christians I met there were so different to any of the Christians I’d ever met. They were much more laid back. They wore modern clothes, drunk fizzy drinks, watched TV. Just normal really. But the main thing that I noticed about them was that they seemed to love God. I‘d never seen that before. I’d never known what it

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was to love God. I’d been taught how to be good and behave in a way which would prevent God from getting angry with me. But these kids seemed like they actually wanted to pray, to read the Bible; it wasn’t a chore to them. Everything was a chore for me. Every prayer, every abstinence, every offering. Even though I was baptised, I never ever felt good enough. But these teenagers had this desire to just be with God. And they didn’t have the same huge sense of guilt I did. Watching this interaction they seemed to have with Jesus brought up all these thoughts and emotions in me. I was really stirred, kinda excited. I knew that I wanted what they had. Towards the end of the week I went to a Bible study which had a time of prayer afterwards. During this time I got this sense, a kind of picture, of God being outside of my heart. It was like He was waiting there saying, “let me in Denise”. In my mind’s eye I visualised opening up a gate in a field, which somehow meant that I was letting God come into my heart. It had nothing to do with me being ‘good’. God was willing whether I was being good or not, clean or dirty, holy or unholy. I felt really loved and free. That experience changed the way I understand God and has affected my whole life. It trumped my previous belief in God – that He was only concerned with measuring

my failings. Everything I’d ever heard about Jesus dying on the cross for my sins now started to make sense. It wasn’t that I stopped believing in sin – I do. But I now understood that Jesus died to take away all the guilt and shame I feel - not to lord it over me. Over the past few years God has kept showing me that I need to forgive others and let go of my hurt. For someone who’s been brought up in such a judgmental society, this can be hard to do. I was brought up to believe that God held out a ruler for mankind to straighten up and stretch to, and would not lift a finger to help. Through this constant measuring of myself I learnt how to do it to others. The more I began to believe that God accepted me, the easier it became to accept myself and others. Jesus showed me how I built rules and regulations around myself - and others - which I then used to justify why He would bless and why He would not. This seems to be an ongoing process... I guess those parts of me are still there, believing the good things I do deserve reward and the bad things I do deserve punishment. One of the best things about this whole experience is that I became more open about being a Christian because I wanted to start talking to people about this Jesus. DENISE

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AFRAID TO LIVE ON A LIE

M

y parents would take the family to church during the Easter and Christmas holidays but they weren’t what you’d call ‘believers’. I suppose they just thought church was a good thing to do. So although I’d experienced church, I wasn’t brought up believing in Jesus. I remember hearing stories from the pulpit about miracles happening in places like China or God’s Spirit meeting with someone halfway up a mountain in Peru. These stories sounded amazing but they led me to question why I never heard about such spiritual experiences happening here in England. The church told me that God was all loving, all powerful and ever present with us. But I had never really seen that. I’d reasoned with myself that if this whole thing is true then I need to follow it, even if I didn’t particularly feel anything. Because if it was true, I could rest in that knowledge and that would be enough to make up for any absence of feeling. But I was still undecided as to whether this was indeed ‘the truth’. I think I was conscious that I didn’t want to base my life on a lie. My indifference with these stories soon led to suspicion over their validity. I decided that either, the people having these experiences are truly holy and God is responding to their holiness, or they were poorly educated and easily persuaded to attribute any unexplained phenomenon as an act of God. I leaned towards the latter and reasoned that such stories aren’t

told in England because we’re a lot smarter. When I was about seventeen a friend of mine, Juliet, invited me to a gig she was playing at. She’d previously told me about how she’d ‘found Jesus’ and how much this had changed her. I remember thinking that’s nice for her but, very patronisingly, concluded that all the drugs she’d taken in her ‘previous

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life’ had clearly created the need for a crutch. Although I believed her faith in Jesus to be sincere, I concluded her experience was probably imagined. Like all the people in China. But I liked Juliet so went to her gig and met some of her band and friends. The gig was actually an evangelistic event so the subject of faith naturally enough arose in our conversations. I must’ve spoken about my own beliefs because it didn’t take her long to ask me, “do you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit?” Because I’d been confirmed in the COE when I was fourteen, I felt like I should have known what she meant by that. I didn’t at all - I just pretended to. So I said, “sure.” Juliet got really excited. I thought she was making a bit of a fuss, so suggested we go somewhere quieter where I’d feel less on show. We found a small spot above the main stage floor. A few of her friends came along to pray for me too. I clearly remember having three distinct thoughts at that moment. The first was, “what if God turns up and is really angry with me for all the bad things I’ve done?” The second being, “what if nothing happens?” But strangely enough, my biggest fear was, “what if I imagine something that doesn’t actually happen and I end up living the rest of my life based on a lie?” So anyway, a few of them started praying for me with a couple ‘praying in tongues’. It sounded different, kind of weird, but I wasn’t freaked out

by it. After a few minutes I started to tremble. And then I experienced something similar to breathing in cold air. I felt that same sensation as you do when you breathe in cold air on a winter’s morning - only this was more silky. It was such a shock at the time that I remember saying to myself, “what is that?” Then I started to feel this incredible heat over my face and a very real sense of another presence close to me. It was like an incredibly warm blanket, very comforting. The people who were praying for me then left to go to the gig. I was happy to be left alone as it allowed me some time to figure out what I was experiencing. I felt physically heavy at this point so just stood still. Then I heard someone say, “if you want Jesus in your life, He will walk into it”. The voice was from someone in the room next to me who must’ve been addressing the crowd at the gig, but I heard their words come through the walls quite clearly at that moment. I said “yes” to this, and then started to breathe more deeply and more quickly. The heat on my face, it became intense. Hotter and hotter whilst my breathing became deeper and faster. And then I just stopped breathing. It was that moment between exhaling and inhaling, that comfortable little pause. Except I remained in that state for some time. I recalled a memory of a trip my brother and I had taken to a zoo - we’d read about how animals can hold their breath for long periods of time if they’ve been breathing in

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and out deeply. I reasoned that that was probably what was happening to me. It seemed to go on for ages though so I glanced at my watch and decided to time how long I wasn’t breathing for. It got to about three minutes - which is ridiculous. I said to myself, “right Ben you’re clearly making this up. So count to three and after three, take a breath in. One. Two. Three.” I went to take a breath and nothing happened. My lungs felt like they were made of iron. It wasn’t painful or suffocating; they just wouldn’t move.

MY FRIEND GAVE ME A LIFT HOME AND EVEN IN THE CAR, THE SENSE OF A PRESENCE REMAINED WITH ME. I WAS BEGINNING TO RECOGNISE THIS AS JESUS. And then I felt this incredibly strong impression, almost like a Voice, which said, “Ben, how are you?” Without any hesitation I replied, “I’m OK” and then “but I’m not breathing.” The Voice said “yes” and then, “but how are you?” I answered, “I’m fine.” I recalled that children’s song He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands, which I was identifying with at that moment; it did feel like God was holding me in His hand. I found myself in this dichotomy - being entirely safe

in God’s hand but at the same time utterly aware He could take my life away at any moment. I said to Him, “I should be dead.” He said “yes. You should be dead. But how are you?” I thought about it and said, “I’m fine.” Then He said, “remember that. I’ve got you in My hand and you’re absolutely fine”. A few more minutes went past and then, all of a sudden, I felt this huge breath of air enter my lungs and I started breathing again. I made my way back to the gig where I found the band packing up their gear. It had only felt like ten or fifteen minutes to me but two whole hours had passed! I was so overwhelmed at what had just happened that I was finding it hard to communicate. I remember thinking to myself, oh my goodness, God is real. I’ve never taken drugs and only sipped a lemonade that night, but my experience had left me feeling quite elated. The night didn’t end there. My friend gave me a lift home and even in the car, the sense of a presence remained with me. I was beginning to recognise this as Jesus. During the journey I had what I can only describe as an open vision. The best thing to compare it to, I guess, is a daydream. Only completely different! It was incredibly vivid - even the memory of it is vivid. I was sitting in the car passenger seat watching the road go by, and then a beach appeared before me. I became immersed into the vision and was no longer in the car. This beach was just beautiful and

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the sand felt amazingly soft. I didn’t freak out but felt perfectly at peace and ease. There were trees to my left and the sea to my right. I looked down at my hand and saw someone take it. When I looked up I saw Jesus standing in front of me. I’d heard so much about Jesus at church; He’d always seemed so arrogant and confusing. But the Jesus before me was so different to that! It may sound strange to describe Jesus this way, but He seemed so normal! He was the same height as me - which for some reason struck me as funny. And His eyes! I can’t even begin to describe. His eyes looked straight into me. And then He spoke to me. He said, “Ben. We’re on a journey - we’ve started it already - and it is going to be the best journey you could possibly imagine!” I didn’t get excited. I don’t think I even particularly believed him. I just said, “oh, OK”. But He said “no, no, you don’t get it. It’s going to be amazing!” He started laughing, then grabbed me by the shoulders and gently shook me saying, “you don’t get it, you just don’t get it. It’s going to be incredible!” So I started laughing because He was laughing. And then I slowly came out of the vision, back to the car and road. It wasn’t like anything I had ever experienced, nor have I since. In a daydream you’re aware that it’s your imagination; it’s you who is in full control. You set the scene, you direct the characters. Daydreaming takes effort and you can be easily distracted

or can choose to snap out of it at any point. With the vision, I was not directing it. I was not deciding where I went or what happened. It demanded no effort on my part; I just allowed it to happen. If I hadn’t had wanted the vision to continue I believe I could have chosen to stop it or come out of it – so it wasn’t threatening in that way. It was different to a dream too. A dream is obscure and random and rarely makes sense. Dreams tend to be emotionless, but this vision had so much emotion, such a depth to it. A dream is often forgotten after a few days, but the reality of this vision remained with me vividly. Even now, seven years later, I get emotional when I think back to it. That night I went home to bed. For the next two weeks, I’d wake up in the morning and feel the same warm blanket I felt when Juliet and her friends started praying for me. I don’t think I’m particularly special or ‘chosen’. I’d previously thought the only people who had visions were either really holy - like Mother Teresa – or at the other end of the spectrum – desperate souls or pure fanatics. I consider myself somewhere in between - that is, plain ordinary. Since my experience I have become convinced that God is fully interested in making Himself known to ordinary people like me. BEN

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Published in 2013 by THEVINEYARDCHURCH | ST.ALBANS 7 Brick Knoll Park | St Albans | AL1 5UG www.thevineyardchurch.co.uk Text copyright Š 2013 THEVINEYARDCHURCH | ST.ALBANS The right of THEVINEYARDCHURCH | ST.ALBANS to be identified as the compiler of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from THEVINEYARDCHURCH | ST.ALBANS. Note: Some names may have been changed for the sake of privacy. Creative Editor: Emma Blustin Designers: Roger Chouler & Emma Blustin Printed by MWL Digital Solutions

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Vineyard stories vol 1