At a very early age, I developed eczema. By the time I was two, this had turned so bad that the doctors decided I had to be sent away to a nursing home.
The home was in Devon, and we lived in London. It could have been the end of the Earth. I have no memory of this time, but it was clearly one of the most traumatic events of my parents' lives, and only rarely will either speak about it. Possibly the worst part was that the whole ordeal turned out to be pointless: the eczema cleared up in one place, but broke out in another. I suspect we largely gave up on the medical profession at that point.
Since that point, eczema was the single most important factor dominating my early life. It is impossible to describe: constant exhaustion, as you can't sleep at night, constant pain, constant activity as you seek to distract yourself from the itching, constant rejection as people shun any contact with you, inability to engage in any sporting activity without intense pain, and inability to be like other people.
People often have suggested that my eczema might be 'stress related' - I think that means they think it is psychosomatic. Clearly, the state of the mind affects the body, but in my experience, during the years when it was worst, the two most stressful times (my final year of university, and the three months in Finland) were also the times when the eczema was least trouble.
The milestones in this area were:
It is currently much better: not entirely healed, but kept in check through prayer, saunas and moisturising cream.
Went to the University of Surrey. After my conversion, probably the most significant event in my life.
To put it as simply as possible, I encountered God through His people. I experienced His love and acceptance.
My theology was, on one level completely unchanged; on another level, it was completely turned upside-down. Up to this point, my faith had been based on the necessity for sound doctrine. Believing the right things - that was what Christianity was all about, I thought. I suddenly discovered the obvious truth that God chose to communicate with us fully and perfectly in the Person of His Son - a human being! - not a work of Systematic Theology.
Up to this point, I had always thought that God had made a mistake - although I would never have put it this way!. Essential doctrines were not clearly enough taught in Scripture, so sincere Christians sometimes ended up sadly mistaken on important matters. At this point, it became clear that the centre, the essence of the Christian faith is not a set of doctrines but a person. Truths might help you understand the person, but they could never be a substitute for the person.
In the Autumn of 1976, starting my second year at Surrey, I was put in a Fellowship Group based in Cathedral Court. As a member of the CU Committee, I did not want to lead the group, but towards the end of that term the leader stood down. At the start of the Spring term, I found myself leading the Fellowship Group with Catherine Wright as my assistant.
I knew the pastoral side of the job would be difficult and hard work. So it was, but incredibly satisfying at the same time. What I was completely unprepared for were the Bible Studies.
I had been leading Bible Studies for maybe four years at this point. I had attended Bible Studies since the age of four, and had learned a great deal from them. I thought I knew quite a lot about Bible Studies.
We decided - I don't remember why - to look at 2 Corinthians, starting at the beginning of chapter 4. I think we decided that chapters 1 to 3 were an extended introduction, and wanted to get straight in to the 'good stuff'. In retrospect, I think the key difference at this point was that I suddenly had a pastoral responsibility towards the people I was leading in the Bible Study. This probably stimulated much more prayer that God's word would touch peoples' lives. It certainly changed my approach and motivation.
As a group, we encountered God through the Bible. Each week, God spoke to us. Yes, there were doctrines, and they were a vital part of the experience, but God was speaking to us as people, not just as minds which needed to understand and believe the right things. Bible Study became, for the first time in my life - I think, in each of our lives - exciting.
In the past, when asked to lead a Bible Study, I had done one of two things. Either I had decided what point I wanted to make, and chosen a passage to fit, or I had gone through the passage and selected some verses I particularly liked and prepared a meditation ('blessed thoughts') on those verses. I had never actually approached a passage and asked what God wanted to say through it. And I had never before approached Scripture with such a sense of need, knowing that I had nothing with which to meet the needs of the people, and unless God spoke to to us, they would go away hungry.
Two things stood out from this time. The first became clear very quickly: God wants to speak into our lives, and will do so if we only give Him the opportunity. The second took me longer to recognise: God was using me to open up the Bible and speak into peoples' lives.
I was so familiar, by this point, with the idea that I had a great deal of theological knowledge and understanding, but nobody was interested in such things. I had done a lot of different things over the past few years, which had been useful. I had seen God answer a number of prayers. But I had never known before what it was like for God to work through me. To be a channel of His blessing to someone else. To enable God's love to touch and transform someone's life.
I had known in my head that God can use anyone. I had believed that we are all members of His body, and each part has a vital contribution to make. I had contributed a fair amount to the Body of Christ in various practical (and therefore, so it seemed, relatively unimportant) ways. But I had never known His supernatural power working through me. And with this realisation came the absolute conviction: if God can use me, He can use anybody.