I was brought up in a home of wealth and security in England. At seven years old I was sent to a prestigious boarding school in the south of England. My father worked in the city of London and might have expected me to follow suit. I had different plans. Ever since my exposure to James Bond I had wanted to be a spy. My Grandfather—who had worked for the British foreign office for much of the cold war—had introduced me to 007 at an early age and spying had become my obsession. When I was nine years old my parents bought me a book called “The Secret Agent’s Handbook” which became my bible—I studied it and learned every spy trick displayed in this manual for young MI5 pretenders.
Boarding school was a strange place to be when you are that young, but one of the strangest things was that you saw no school friends during holidays. You were either at school—for months at a time—with your school friends, or at home, either on your own, or with your home friends. And never the twain did meet. At the start of every term many of us were dropped at Victoria Bus Station in London and spent the two hour journey to school talking with our friends about our holidays. I had my new book—already tattered and frayed from my obsessive interest—tucked away in my coat pocket. I planned to show it to all my friends, but I decided to hide it. Instead I started telling Ed, who I was sitting next to on the bus, that I had actually joined a real school for spies. He bought the line and so I continued to embellish. I told him that the school was in London and that, as young spies, we were required to spy on the Russians. He also believed this.
When we returned to school I selected a few of my friends and began to enlist them in a spy school of my own. The idea was simple. I would gleam information from my book—which I read secretly in bathrooms and behind other books—and then I would teach them what I had learned. This worked pretty well and soon we were dropping secret notes to each other and practicing our spying techniques. This mostly involved hiding in bushes and watching other students without being seen. The reason they listened so avidly to every word I had to say was that I based everything I said on the fact that I had learned it from some of the best spies Great Britain had to offer.
The scam lasted a couple of terms but had to stop after one summer holiday. I had arrived home with the usual excitement of seeing my family but something was different. In fact someone was different. My mother had changed in a way that made me slightly suspicious. She seemed more relaxed and mellower. I remember that she had completely stopped swearing, but it was something more, something that I just couldn’t put my finger on. This intrigued me so I asked her what had happened to her. She told me that she had become a Christian.
My family had always been to church. I had to attend chapel at school and I presumed that being from England automatically made a person Christian at birth. Besides that, hadn’t we all been baptized? Didn’t we celebrate Christmas, Easter and that other festival with the little cross made out of a dried up leaf? I was indignant at her statement and begun to ask her questions: “What do you mean, you’ve become a Christian? Aren’t you already a Christian?” When she told me that Jesus lived inside her, I was flabbergasted and the ten-year-old cynic that I was went to work: “Jesus is dead” I told her, “no one can live inside you.” My questions became deeper and I became more indignant, but she continued to tell me about her new relationship with Jesus, how he had changed her life, and what he had given her. One thing was clear—what ever had happened to her, it had changed her life, and that much was indisputable.
One hot summer’s day we went for a bike ride. My mother rode an old bicycle with a basket, much like the kind Americans assume that all English country ladies ride. I, on the other hand, rode a Grifter; quite possibly the worst bike ever designed in the history of bikes. It was heavy, with small wheels and thick tires that seemed to go flat after a few minutes of every journey. Years later that bike was thrown into the Lake of Stowe School—where I ended up after prep school—courtesy of a few school bullies who had taken a particular dislike to me. But that sunny day the Grifter paid me a favor. We rode over a field and onto the road and then I saw mum ride on to the next field. I followed, and just as I went over a bump—probably the curb—a strange thing happened. All I can remember is looking down and seeing my bike in a ditch and then realizing that I was no longer on it, but flying through the air. Then I hit the ground. WHOLLOP. The air was knocked out of me like a rugby player after a high tackle and I lay on the ground gasping for breath. My breathing sounded like sawing and my chest hurt so badly that I hated that bike more than ever. After a few moments my mother lay down beside me to see if I was okay. I rasped a “yes” and thought I might try to get up, but she asked me another question that kept me on the floor. I have often joked that she asked me this question because she wanted to make sure that, if I did die, I would go to the right place.
“Would you like to become a Christian?”
I lay there thinking that this might not be the most appropriate place to make religious commitments, but something inside me prompted me to respond positively.
“Okay” I said between gasps.
After I had caught my breath she asked me to pray – anything I wanted to, but it must be to Jesus. Memory fails me at this point, but mum told me years later that I prayed a very simple prayer:
“Jesus, thank you for dying for my sins, come into my life and change me. Amen.”
I expected something to happen, but nothing did. Had I prayed the prayer wrongly? Did God hear it? There was no reaction from on high. There was no booming divine voice introducing himself, “Hi Ben, I’m God. Welcome to the family.” There was no change in my perception of the world. The world did not go soft focus and choirs of angels did not start to sing like in a shampoo commercial. Nothing.
My return to school was as usual: the bus ride, unpacking, and talking about our holidays in our dormitories. I went back to my usual school existence with my usual school friends. Until one day Mr Budden, a particularly large and strict teacher, said something to me:
“Ben, I don’t know what it is, I can’t put my finger on it, but something about you has changed.”
At that moment I realized that what had happened to my mother had happened to me – I had Jesus living inside me. It was now so real that I could not ignore it and I certainly could not deny it. It was also soon after this encounter that I realized that I had to end spy school. Something about lying didn’t sit well with me any more.
I couldn’t figure out a way of telling my band of faithful spies that all I had been doing was lying to them. The cost of making enemies in a school where you couldn’t go home every night was great. Groups of peers could turn on a person who didn’t fit in and make quickly their life hell. But I couldn’t face my conscience. It was as if a finger was pressing down into my guts, convincing me that the only right way was to own up to my friends and face the consequences. So that’s what I did. I told them straight – I had lied, I was sorry; I would like to stay your friend.
Needless to say there was a reaction, but it was not as bad as I had thought. I explained to them that I had become a Christian (bold of me, considering that this was giving them excellent ammunition if they chose to take any revenge on me), that lying was wrong and that I needed to confess my lie to them.
After we talked, life went back to normal. My friends did not completely desert me but seemed to be less close than they were. Meanwhile I had a new interest – telling anyone who would listen about Jesus. This seemed to provoke a response: Some people laughed, some ignored me and others were quite mean. But I kept going, explaining how Jesus could come into your life and change you just like he had changed me.
I remember one day I became so full of a desire to tell my friends about Jesus that I stood on top of a teacher’s desk and began to preach to the class. Despite my meager knowledge of doctrine I think I spoke for quite sometime until the teacher arrived and ushered me to my chair. He seemed more interested in conjugated verbs than issues of eternity that day, but I never gave up. As a result two of the friends of mine who had been members of spy school became Christians. Both these friends met with me for prayer and conversation about God. Now, instead of teaching them how to spy, I taught them about the love of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Instead of what I was saying being based on a lie, it was based on the truth of God.