On Sunday 5th June, Andrew Knowlman was baptised at Christ Church. Andrew has Motor Neurone Disease (otherwise known as MND, or ALS). The words below are his own:
“I am writing this for my family and friends who I love very much. I think this is one of the most important things I will ever tell them. On June 5th, I was baptized at my local Christian church. For most of my life I was an atheist. What happened?
“In summary, I would say that my coming to Christianity was the work of the Holy Spirit, a few great people, plus my willingness to be open minded.Several years ago I met a colleague, a lawyer, who along with great enthusiasm for his work, shared an equal enthusiasm for his conviction that ‘there was a God and that Jesus was His Son, who had entered the world to live a perfect life, to die on a cross for the payment of sin, and proved it all by rising from the dead’. I’ll be blunt: great guy but I did not agree with him, at all. However, I was intrigued by his conviction and the fact that he otherwise seemed intelligent. I wondered how it was possible for someone to know whether Christianity (or any other religion for that matter) was really true or that there was even a God! This was all speculation. Yet, my colleague, also a former sceptic, challenged me to keep an open mind, explore the evidence, debate and discuss. He assured me that I was much more than a complex, chemical reaction who had evolved by mutation. He also said that there was real hope and significance in discovering who God really is and the fact that this God is not silent: He was discoverable, in a tangible, rational and experiential way. Sin, now that’s a connotation-loaded word, but I’ve come to understand it as meaning attitudes or behaviours contrary to God’s intended design for us.
“No one had ever spoken to me about these things before, or if they had, I had been too close-minded to listen. My colleague shared Blaise Pascal’s (17th century mathematician) views on the “God-shaped” vacuum:
Within every person there is a ‘God-shaped’ vacuum, a void. We all feel it. We spend our entire lives trying to fill that void, with all kinds of things; relationships, spirituality, work, travel, hobbies, etc… But nothing ultimately satisfies: We are always ‘looking around the corner’ for the next thing to help fill this void. The problem is, the void is “God shaped” and, thus, only God can fill it. And through Jesus Christ we can come to know this God.
I thought my colleague was really narrow minded! But I was challenged. I had to admit that I had never looked into any of these matters before; I was devoid of any substantive information in this area. I was only being asked to keep an open mind, and be patient. After all, what if it was true?
As time passed I just could not get all of this out of my head. I was on a business trip to Madrid in 2011, having drinks with colleagues at the Arturo Soria Plaza after work. My colleague was there. I was happy to see him (by then we had worked together for 10 years and had become good friends.) After a couple of hours I suggested to him that we go to a local Argentinian steak house for dinner. I felt compelled to get away from the crowd. So off we went. Once seated at the restaurant, I rattled off several questions that were jumping around in my head: I asked about God, Jesus and the whole faith thing; we talked until late. I admired my friend’s continuing conviction, and our conversation got me thinking, but I remained sceptical after forty years of atheism. However, I do recall one thing in particular that I felt and said at that dinner. I told my friend, “do you remember that God-shaped vacuum thing you told me about? I think I’m feeling it.” And I was…..something was starting to stir in me.
A few months later, my friend and I were working on a deal which required us to meet in New York. We agreed that we would meet at Kennedy airport and share a cab to Manhattan. We would then do something together in the evening before the next day of work. Sitting in the cab, I said that it would be marvelous to go to the top of the Empire State building at night. My friend made a different proposal. He outlined a plan (which I think had been well thought through!) that we go to see a speaker at a local college; this speaker, Tim Keller, was a Christian pastor, theologian, philosopher, and his church “Redeemer Presbyterian”, met at this college. After, there was the promise of a Brazilian restaurant. As I travelled around the world I learnt that people and ideas are more important than sites and buildings and I also fancied the Brazilian dinner. So off we went to hear Tim Keller. His words struck a chord. He was brilliant. It was great to be surrounded by hundreds of people of all ages, listening, being challenged. The music was great (helped by locals who belonged to various orchestras in NYC)! The Brazilian dinner, and the conversation that followed, did not disappoint. More questions, more answers, more questions…my friend patiently answered what he could, and provided things to read and listen to that challenged me to think beyond my prejudices and scepticism. Whether we were talking Richard Dawkins, the Apostle Paul, the reliability of the Bible, evolution, nothing was out of bounds. Very refreshing.
In January 2012, I found myself boarding a flight to the U.S. in order to take part in a four day Christian retreat in the Florida Keys. When the United States immigration officer asked me about the purpose of my visit, I said that I was attending a Christian retreat. I really couldn’t believe it was me who was saying that! Well, during the retreat there was great discussion, transparency, and a genuine sense of fellowship among the 30 or so men in attendance. I shared a lot and felt good doing so. More than anything, I saw and felt that the other people there really believed this Christianity thing. I met some wonderful people: friendly, bright, professionals in their own fields. Our speaker, Jerram Barrs, a professor from a well known theological college, was brilliant. His teaching was piercing and I felt really touched by it. It made me more curious; could Christianity really be true?
My experience with exploring faith is that it must come from both a ‘heart’ and a ‘head’ perspective. How to explain the ‘heart’ part? Well, in my case I felt something was missing (God-shaped vacuum) and also that there must be a greater purpose to life than what we experience through our daily life. I guess this was the Holy Spirit working in me. Then comes the ‘head’ part. Miracles, resurrection, died to forgive our sins, the claims Jesus made, God, supernatural being, holy spirit, angels; all very difficult things to grasp. Many friends, a lot, told and tell me that it is not true, the church made it all up to strengthen its own power. Also we live in a Western society where Christianity is seen as old fashioned; further the church is seen as a place of excessive wealth, deviant bishops and ‘’religion causes most wars’. Many celebrities, as they are called, would not go near Christianity. But I have learnt in life that if you do not go near something, you will never learn about it. And it’s very easy to live with preconceived notions.
Do you know that feeling when you have a question which won’t go away? You can choose to forget about it, but it just never goes away. What if Christianity is true? How could I possibly at least not check it out? If it’s true, it means so much for our life. My friend suggested I read a few books, which examine the evidence and tell people’s stories. Of course these books come to the same conclusion. I also checked out the contrary views. The more I read what the authors were saying, and as I read parts of the Bible, the heart part kicked in again and it all felt very right. The Old Testament prophecies are fascinating by the way.
I think the clincher for me was this. C.S. Lewis (famous atheist turned Christian, a prolific author, Oxford professor) wrote that Jesus Christ was either a Liar, a Lunatic or our Lord. You had to pick which one He was. Jesus made some startling claims, so he had to be one of the above three. A few of the claims are:
‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one can come to the father except through me.’
‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’
‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live.’
‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.’
As Lewis put it, when Jesus said these things he was either wrong about it all, or he was right. If he was wrong about it all then either (1) he knew he was wrong about it all (that makes him a Liar) or (2) he did not know he was wrong about it all (that makes him a Lunatic). The evidence, Jesus’ profound influence on the world, the actions of the apostles (who would not have knowingly died for a lie) convinced me that he was not a Liar or a Lunatic. Thus I came to believe that what he said about himself was true. Some big claims; in fact only claims which he has made. God incarnate, only way to God is through belief in Jesus, believe in me and have eternal life!
The part I struggled with most was that God sacrificed His son, to pay the penalty for our sins. Indeed, that is what the bible says “the wages of sin is death.” And, thus, this is why Jesus died. To pay the ‘wages’, the penalty, on our behalf. To the Jewish people of Biblical times, sacrifice had a meaning which is lost on us today. But, I could relate to it when Jesus said “no greater love than man has than to lay down his life for his friends.” That is what Jesus did. I came to realize that I too needed a saviour. Jesus took care of this for me at the cross. He rose from the dead, as he said he would, to prove it. The evidence to me was convincing. As I said, it is a combination of head and hard for me; there is faith, trust.
I don’t have all the answers, and I still have a lot of questions, but I believe in the historical reality of who Jesus claimed to be, his death on the cross for me, and his resurrection. I trust the rest will fall into place.
There is another important aspect of my coming to faith. I believe that the world is so incredible and finely tuned that there must have been an intelligent designer behind it. To suggest that the detailed complexity of life, and that emotions, affection, love, are merely products of random chemical mutations is tough for me to swallow! This does not exclude some element of evolution, but there is for me clearly a designer.
Now, I am a liberal at heart, meaning that I value being very open to and tolerant of the ideas of others. This includes many religious viewpoints, and I suppose this is why I was willing to be open to the claim of Christianity. I have stood next to the Ganges in Varanasi and watched the Hindus; I watched my Turkish barber go to the mosque in the middle of my haircut. I have seen the marvellous mosques in Cordoba and Casablanca. I admire the beauty of the temples in Thailand. Hundreds of millions of people following their belief. Many of my loved ones, and many acquaintances, have different and strong spiritual views and practices. I see them often at such peace; indeed, my friend likes to say “God’s truth is God’s truth no matter where it is found.” However only one worldview makes the claims that I have come to believe in. This has been a very difficult process for me.
So, how has my ALS/MND affected me in all this? I’ve had plenty of time to feel this and think about it. Out of the circumstances, I have come to believe with ever increasing clarity in God and what He has done for me through Jesus Christ. In fact I believe He has a purpose in me having this illness, though this often so hard to accept. Some would say my illness created a crisis and that is why I have ‘found God’. In a way that is true; my crisis finally humbled me enough to ‘stop’, pay attention, to seek, to learn and discover.
I love the community aspects of church. It was nice to find a welcoming church within an powered wheelchair ride from my house! It’s great to come together every week and to “stopforamoment”. It’s great to be together with people, to listen to the singing, and to be together in worship. I guess some people might say it is the same as watching a local football team, but here we are giving thanks to our creator. Members of a church can be a force for good, as can people of course who don’t go to church. I like the fact that so many different types of people attend the church.
I think in the end it is about faith and trust. It’s not blind faith though. It’s a rational faith, a reasonable ‘leap’. My life has changed for the better as a result. Thank you for taking the time to read this. I am blessed by all of you.
You can follow Andrew’s blog at www.stopforamomentpeople.com