Evangelicals have commandeered the word "testimony" so that it refers to the story of how someone became a Christian: the idea being that a sort of before-and-after comparison serves as a testimony to God's power and grace. From Paul the Apostle through to modern-day believers, Christians testify to the fact that being converted is far more than just changing your beliefs. God literally converts us from one sort of person into another. We become new creatures. This is the story about the way it happened to someone I can remember being and yet who is not me. It happened a long time ago - back in 1973 to be precise.
My father called himself an agnostic - in practice he was effectively an atheist. My elder brother was, and still is, atheistic; my mother was a nonconformist. I dare say she prayed for us kids but she didn't share "her faith". At the tender age of five, a Sunday School teacher told us the horrific story of how they tortured and killed Jesus by nailing him to a cross and leaving him to die slowly in the sun. He then promptly led us into prayer asking God to make us all just like Jesus! That was the first of many prayers that I did not feel I could say "Amen" to.
I became an atheist at around eleven, I think - partly on account of my brother's assurance that all the miracles could be explained away. As I grew up, I was fascinated by science and I concluded that simple physical laws could explain everything that exists. This view is widely held by adults and, despite the fact that it doesn't actually work for even the most obvious matters, the Church has not been very good at opposing it. Even at University, the Science Club was putting on film shows of astronomical discoveries, particle physics, expeditions to volcanos and chimpanzees in the wild; the Philosophical Society was debating Hume and Kant; DramSoc was putting on Shakespeare - but the God Squad was stuck in a rut handing out cheap-looking tracts called "The Four Spiritual Laws". They told you about the love of God - and that you were damned if you didn't believe it.
While at University I discovered psychedelic drugs. These are the ones that primarily affect the way you perceive things rather than giving you a high, though they do that as well. They include LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and the much gentler cannabis. The favourite drug of the rave scene now, "Ecstasy" has some of the effects (and different) but by no means all. Psychedelics were popular with the hippy mystics. It's impossible to describe precisely why a chemical-induced state of mind should be such a convincing experience, but it is. (See my article kindly published by cannabis.net.) Perhaps this is why I am always sceptical about people who claim to "know" things without producing anything to support that claim! Conversely, the euphoria of this type of drug (I don't know about hard drugs at all) isn't a patch on being "drunk in the Spirit". If anyone wants a real "high", come to the Most High! But I digress! I earned a reputation for being stoned most of the time, to the considerable detriment of my studies, and although I used dope recreationally, my primary interest was in achieving a mystical experience.
After I scraped my degree I hung around in Bristol for a while, returned briefly to the parental home and then moved out to Oxford and continued experimenting with psychedelics. It was then that my mother's minuscule Christian input started to worry me. Suppose there really was a God? I vaguely imagined an unapproachable being rather like the Wizard of Oz - how could anyone really know such a God? So, armed with "Timothy Leary the-o-ry", I decided that the only way I would settle this problem would be to meet the "Christian God" while "tripping". (Leary was a psychology researcher who studied LSD, ironically trying it out first on some volunteer theological students. He got very enthusiastic about the substance, believing it to take you to spiritual enlightenment, and was behind its popularization in 1963, coining the slogan "Turn on, Tune in and Drop out".) The way I felt about gods, Christian or otherwise, meeting one was quite a decision, but it had to be done or there would be this nagging worry for the rest of my life - which I had decided ought to be spent following chemical mysticism.
So it was that I planned to spend a weekend with trusted friends back in Bristol, doing my own thing, meeting "the Christian God" (or so I thought) while my brain was rendered infinitely more open to Him/It by my choice of psychedelic, mescaline (note 1). Fortunately for me, "the Christian God" was in full agreement that we should meet; but He had considerably different plans as to how it should happen.
Oxford to Bristol is a straightforward road but, for a hitchhiker like myself, there are a good few places to avoid being deposited as you may find you'll be waiting there for hours. Thus it was quite late at night that I approached Bristol. The driver was clueless and for some reason headed across the Severn Bridge. As midnight approached, I found myself prowling around a service station on the Welsh side wondering what I was really up to. At this point a bright cheerful face came up to me and asked me where I was trying to go. I said "Bristol." He said, "Oh good, so am I. Would you like a lift?" I looked around, there wasn't a car in sight. "Oh that's Ok, my parents live in Bristol, I'll get them to come and fetch us." Great! "Where are you from?" "Oxford." "So am I! Which part?" So I told him. "That's just the next street from me! What do you, er, do?" he added, looking at my disreputable leather coat. "I work. In electronics. I'm basically a physicist." "Oh wow! I'm doing my doctorate in physics right now." We chatted for a bit. It turned out he had decided to hitchhike from practically next door to me, on the same day, to the same place - and had suffered the same navigational mishap at the hands of similarly deranged driver. Then came the killer question: "Umm, did anyone ever tell you about Jesus?"
Oh boy! This is just what I need! I could sleep on a pin, I've got to meet God tomorrow, no sleep for another 24 hours probably and here comes a Jesus Freak yakking on about his God and my soul...
We swapped addresses. Mercifully, his dad shortly arrived with the promised car, and I was duly cast out into the blackness of Bristol some time later.
Needless to say, I didn't meet the "Christian God" that weekend. Not in any way I recognized anyway. Interestingly this remarkable series of coincidences did not strike me as significant. I'd resolved to "meet the Christian God" and a Christian decided to speak to me about Him; I'd hitchhiked and got lost and he had done likewise; we were both in physics. Yet it was all wasted on me at the time. However, when I got back to Oxford, I did look him up and he explained the gospel. I argued and he explained again. This cycle repeated itself for many weeks late into the evenings, until, now-haggard, he finally said "Derek, there's nothing more I can do for you. I don't KNOW how you move from unbelief into belief. I'm sorry." During this time I'd even inflicted a small cigarette burn on myself on the mistaken principle that if you wanted to follow Jesus you must be prepared to suffer. But I still didn't believe in any of it at all; I just wanted to be sure. So I decided the only thing for it was to take the bull by the horns. Never mind all this "You must believe" stuff. "God, if you exist then I believe you are like the Christians say and I know that you will honour a sincere prayer looking for you. So please make me a Christian according to everything [X] has told me", I said, thinking about the gospel as I understood it, which, by that time, wasn't all that far in error, thanks to my new friend's efforts. I wasn't aware of anything happening except a sense of relief that I'd done all I could.
Two weeks later I was convinced that Jesus had died for my sins and that I was a new creature in him. (That was around the 6th June in 1973.) I was baptized in water three weeks later (three weeks too long!) in the River Cherwell. I can still taste the muddy water. [X] was a member of a house fellowship with connections to South Chard Christian Fellowship, which I joined. Shortly after water baptism, I was baptized in the Holy Spirit. I had tried drugs once more, very shortly after conversion (not all of his input had fully sunk in!), and discovered to my surprise that the sense of God's presence evaporated immediately. I flushed the rest down the toilet, preferring God's gentle presence to anything that mind-searing chemicals could ever offer.
Note 1: I gather that these days you would probably be sold LSD if you bought "mescaline" on the streets. Back in '72/'73, who knows?