At Death’s Door
Someone was ill… very ill indeed. I could hear voices – doctors’ voices, low and concerned, whispering.
I knew I was in the ICU. I also knew it was night-time, but not because it was dark. Day and the night were the same in the ICU, the only difference being the voices of the staff were a little subdued at night. It struck me as strange that there were doctors milling about – usually the unit was run by nurses, with the doctors just popping in and out. Then I heard one of the doctors say, ‘We’re losing him.’
Losing who? I didn’t know, but I felt so sorry. In my subconscious I whispered a prayer for the one who was dying. What I did not know was that I was the only patient in the ICU that night.
But as I prayed, I realised how uncomfortable I felt. In fact, I could hardly breathe. It seemed to me that they had turned off the oxygen supply, and I began to pull at the mask, trying to let the staff know that there was something wrong with the flow. Frustrated at my inability to communicate with them, I sucked at the mask like a starving child attempting to suckle at the shrivelled breast of its anguished mother in an African drought. I did not know that my lung was filling up with fluid as I suffered the effects of pleural effusion, a complication of the illness that had put me in the ICU – acute haemorrhagic pancreatitis.
Fear was the main issue. I can remember similar feelings from my childhood when during nightmares I would lie in bed terrified, but unable to call out to my parents. In those times, I thought I could sense some dreadful monster crawling up my bedcovers. I even imagined that I could hear the slight movement of a spider crab’s legs4 crawling up my pillow. When I opened my mouth to cry out, no sound emerged! There was just a terrible silence, broken only by the rustling on my pillowcase. That made me think that there must be some horror moving towards my head, but I think now that those noises were probably made by my hair standing on end! The sense of impotence and loneliness that I felt then were worse than the fear of the creatures in my imagination. Now, I was back in that place of foreboding, some forty years later. I croaked and cried under my oxygen mask, begging for air, but no one seemed to hear me. They stood around looking down at me as if I was saying nothing at all, and that my movements, sounds and gestures were part of some other world. Perhaps they were.
I was choking, and I could feel the panic around me, as well as rising within – but then, suddenly, everything changed. Peace came to me like an unexpected visitor and rested on my bed. For a brief while, I was aware of an intense sense of comfort and the presence of Another. It was what it might feel like to be in the ‘eye’ of a hurricane. After the terror and rage of the elements comes a period of quietness and a deep hush. All was still around me. I felt loved. I knew that I was no longer alone. I was surrounded by a comforting light that was not harsh like the fluorescent tubes above my head. In place of the familiar antiseptic smell of the ICU and the plastic and rubber of the oxygen masks, I could smell the fragrance of flowers and berries, just as if I was walking down a country lane again as I had done so often as a child.
At some point that night I felt as though I was on a journey, moving towards a distant light. As I did so, travelling by foot but not really walking – more floating – I came against a barrier, which seemed to me to block my path like a wall. It towered over me and I stood at the bottom of it, looking for the gate I was sure would be there. I could hear such wonderful sounds of music and laughter coming from the other side of the wall. When I say hear, I mean more than that really. I both heard and experienced the music. I felt the emotion of the music too. It seemed to me to be worship of the deepest kind, which moves your soul and causes tears to flow. It soared in cadences too high for most human vocal cords and the harmonies reminded me of the natural blending of voices in song that we had often heard in Africa while serving there as missionaries. The nearest I can come to describing it is like the experience of ‘singing in the Spirit’ that you may have heard in some charismatic churches, where it seems as if an unseen conductor is leading the music while it blends effortlessly into a glorious and heavenly overture.
The wall was my problem. It seemed as if it were impenetrable, preventing me from going any further. Into my fevered mind came the most soothing voices.
‘Don’t worry, Eric, it will only be a short way now, and then you will be home. We’re here to help you.’
‘It’s only a little distance, Eric, and Jesus will meet you there, when you arrive.’
Maybe those voices were in my imagination, but they made a distinct impression on me, changing my mindset completely. I was so amazed and relieved to be free of the terrible negative emotions of the recent days. It seemed as if someone had just turned off the switch marked ‘evil’ and turned on the one labelled ‘love’. I felt calm and comforted in a way that made me think I was being hugged.
The experience did not last long. Obviously I did not make that final crossing, or I would not be writing about it today. I am convinced that I was near death that night, as was confirmed to me later by a nurse, who served me with such kindness in the ICU, and whose assurance of his own prayers meant so much to me. This was as close to the moment of death as I had ever come at that stage, and it was an experience of great peace, and reassurance. I know, of course, that I will go to that place again one day, probably in very different circumstances. Then I will find the gate and enter through it. But I am not afraid. I have been there before, and I know all will be well. At least, in that sense, not everything that came out of that desperate time was negative. There would be at least one other occasion during that stay in hospital, and a couple of others in the years following, when I came to the brink of death, but this one stands out in my memory for the sheer contrast of light versus darkness. It was my moment of truth. For some reason unknown to me, I was spared, perhaps due to the prayers of my loved ones. I can still feel the effect that it had on me. Death no longer terrifies me as I know there will be help to make that final journey.
I also revisited the very brink of death during the aftermath of major surgery in 2017. In fact, in the early stages, I thought I had died, and was in a kind of elevator or stairway to heaven. Pundits of passing away claim that when you are in the final moments of death your whole life is portrayed before you, like the conveyor belt of prizes passed before the winners of the BBC’s one-time quiz show The Generation Game. I have not really noticed this, except in this situation in Newcastle. During the period that followed, while I was kept in High Dependency, I developed serious, potentially fatal complications, including pneumonia. I found myself reliving the early days of my life of faith five decades previously.
My hallucinatory episodes in June 2017 were all about experiences I had undergone in the 1960s, and the period that followed my Christian conversion. This spell of ten days after the big operation was marked by great distress of mind, and pain, together with a major infection that nearly claimed my life. But, in some ways providing relief to me, all during those ten days I was living in the swinging sixties! I ‘saw’ people as I had seen them during that period, dressed in the contemporary fashions. They were working with me to spread the good news of the gospel through open-air services, leaflet distribution and the use of music. I had been the lead singer of a gospel band called Soul Enterprise at that time and in my addled and drug-induced state of mind, I was back in the venues where we had sung, chatting with folk who had been there too, at the age they were then. Other people, now my age, I saw in my visionary state as little children. I really was ‘away with the fairies’. In the confusion that is typical of folk who are so ill, I thought that all this was very real, and that I could travel through time at will. I would have been able to make a lot of money if that were true!
None of this is easy for me to write about. I am normally a sane and, so people tell me, likeable guy who has got his stuff together. I am an ordained minister with a PhD in theology. By calling and by nature a carer, I have been offering pastoral care and counselling to scores if not hundreds of needy individuals and families over the years. Through the twenty-two years of my serious ill health, though, I have at times been as helpless as a baby, needing to be washed, turned and nursed in ways that I found deeply embarrassing and sad. Yet at these times, and especially in Newcastle, I also knew deep within that I was loved and that all would be well. Thankfully that turned out to be the case.
Losing my mind
What was difficult to cope with, though, was the fear that I had gone out of my mind. Not for the first time this worry proved a real terror to me. During that time in the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle I remember the nursing staff trying to help me to stay awake or return to full consciousness. They were gently but persistently slapping my face and speaking in very loud voices right in front of me, enquiring whether I knew my own name, who the prime minister might be, and what my date of birth was. I recall telling them that my name was Robert, as that is my middle name, but it did not seem to satisfy them. As for the prime minister, who was at that time Mrs Theresa May, I replied that it was quite easy to give that information as the prime minister of Great Britain was Margaret Thatcher! She, of course, had been dead for a few years but had made quite an impression upon me decades before. As for my date of birth, we strained together for what seemed like ages, without success. When I could not even recall the month in which I was born, a nurse ran through the twelve months of the year, urging me to identify whether it was the appropriate one. I had no idea whatsoever, and the fear that I was losing my mind grew exponentially within me. Of course, this proved to be a temporary phase in my recovery but due to the nature of my illness and my frequent spells in hospital, undergoing more than thirty operations and spending long periods in high levels of toxic fever, it was sadly one that has been repeated many times. Alongside this deep confusion of mind has surfaced from time to time a very dark degree of paranoia. Years ago, I might have used the word ‘paranoid’ to describe anyone who was in a heightened state of curiosity or concern about a subject. I do not use the word lightly now, as I have come to know the full terrifying grip of paranoia on my mind.
One of the most distressing aspects of the mental anguish I have been through in extreme circumstances is the effect that it has had upon my relatives and carers. It can be very hard for them to understand what is going on when their previously placid or good-natured loved one is suddenly manifesting symptoms of extreme distress, perhaps vocally, physically or verbally. During my original long stay in ICU in 1997 I was often vocal. I used to cry out to the Lord for help and deliverance. When they were doing things to me that I found frightening, I would call out the name ‘Jesus’. On other occasions, I would speak in tongues (see Acts 2:4), sometimes at the top of my voice! One doctor turned to my wife, Diane, and said, ‘Is it true you spent time in Africa?’
‘Yes,’ she replied.
He nodded. ‘I thought as much. I believe he’s speaking in an African language!’
From one Sunday morning, however, I began to scream very loudly indeed, uncontrollably and without my own volition. This continued without stopping for thirty-six hours. I did not know what was happening to me, although in my subconscious I could hear the staff trying to lessen my obvious discomfort and get me to breathe more easily. I just could not stop making this dreadful noise. It was as if something deep within me was yelling out. Some of the staff had seen this before, but others had not. Some held to the theory that some deep inner distress was surfacing – a catharsis – and perhaps it would be for my good.
Despite the disturbance that I caused to the ICU and the nearby operating theatres, they decided to allow this awful row to continue and to subside naturally. They also dared not sedate me further for fear of suppressing the only indicators that I was still alive. So, I screamed on! Diane found this so disturbing that for a couple of days she felt unable to visit. When she rang the unit to see if I had quietened down, she told them that they need not bother answering her question because she could still hear me yelling incoherently in the background. This prolonged period of mental and physical distress was probably caused by the perfect storm of toxins being produced by my diseased pancreas, high fever as infection soared, opiates being pumped into me for pain management, and the lack of oxygen reaching my brain.
Some people in my area of churchmanship would presume this episode to have been demonic, like the occasions in the life and ministry of Jesus when He cast demons out of people who screamed or threw themselves about. I don’t hold to that theory for one moment, having seen much demonic activity as a missionary in Africa and as a Pentecostal minister in the UK. This was a purely medical and psychological phenomenon, which was distressing but temporary and within the bounds of normality. It does not help sufferers of mental or physical conditions when demon infestation is the default position of those who are praying for God to intervene in conditions we simply do not understand. The mind and body are so intricately intertwined that there are huge areas yet to be explained.
During that time, though, remarkable prayer was happening on my behalf. People were fasting and interceding, in the UK and overseas. Others were praying through the night for me (and I am humbled and grateful for their love and care). When I finally became silent – my voice gave out completely and left me unable to speak for some days – the worst had passed, and my confusion and distress began to recede.
When Diane saw me the following Tuesday (incidentally, a day of concerted and intense prayer for me among friends, especially at the church in Cardiff where I’d been the pastor), she could see my distress had lessened and that I was quiet. All I remember of that period is being totally unable to control my shouting. It felt as though a force beyond me but deep within me was groaning loudly. At the time of writing this, Diane’s dear only sister is in care because of Parkinson’s disease with dementia and she often groans for long periods and appears unable to stop doing so. Romans 8 tells me that creation groans in its fallen condition, that we groan as we long for the deliverance that the Lord’s return will bring. Also, the Holy Spirit groans when He prays through us prayers that are in the will of God. Perhaps some of that groaning was happening in me during those long hours of crying out. I don’t know… but at the end of it, I was much calmer.
Is he still in there?
It is incredible how fearful we can become when in the grip of trauma about matters over which we have no control. Now that I can look back on those prolonged periods of mental striving, I see one thing quite clearly that was previously invisible to me. Throughout all those times of dreadful confusion, paranoia, groaning, deep coma, hallucinations and dark depression, my spirit was intact and my relationship with God had not changed. This is a vital insight, not only for those of us who are enduring mental or physical trauma, but also for those who love and observe us. There were many occasions when Diane asked staff whether I was ‘still in there’. Watching my distress or seeing my inertia during prolonged periods of induced coma led her to fear that the real me was missing. But I wasn’t, I was being held in a vice-like grip by the love of God and by the Spirit of God, even in the most extreme circumstances.
I could also hear everything that was being said around me, and this should never be forgotten by carers, nursing staff or visiting pastors. Even when my life was hanging by a thread, I heard nursing staff arguing about their pay and conditions and chatting about who they were dating or would like to date. They probably had no idea that I was listening because I could not react in any way, but my hearing had not deserted me.
Once when I was being turned over by two nurses in an ICU, presumably to avoid bedsores becoming a problem, one nurse said to the other over my prostrate form that she hated her job! This frightened me greatly because I knew how much I was relying upon them and I just thought to myself, as if I could speak to her, ‘Well, please don’t give it up yet, because I need you!’ I also heard very dark comments about the likely outcome of my condition on more than one occasion when staff thought that I was inert and unaware. When in the presence of an unconscious or comatose patient, please don’t ever just presume that they can’t hear you. Rather, use soft and encouraging words, assuring them of your love, and if appropriate, read soothing and helpful scriptures to them, like parts of Psalm 46 and Psalm 23.
Yes, I was still in there, and I was no less the person I had been before all this started. I still bore the call of God in my life and was precious to Him. My experiences were fitting in with God’s purpose for me. According to the Bible, ‘we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28). I wonder if you can reflect over tough times and still say in them that this comes into the ‘all things’ of this verse? I believe that, through it all, God was at work to change me within and to cause my trust in Him alone to grow. He wanted to give me faith to overcome and not just to persevere. Perhaps this is what Paul meant later in Romans 8 when he wrote about being ‘more than conquerors’ (v 37)?
So, hard as my circumstances were, and as yours may be, there is method in this seeming madness, and if we do love God and have responded to the call of the gospel, we should take the advice of Paul Billheimer’s book title Don’t Waste Your Sorrows.5 I have not come to that conclusion in five minutes, but rather, through decades of making mistakes and learning to trust in God’s strength and not my own. That process has not been an easy one.
The Making of a Man
Staring into the rising sun can be both exhilarating and dangerous. The same light that dazzles, inspires and beckons us can also cause migraines, damage our eyesight and even result in complete blindness. Hoping in God, and that a new and different day would eventually dawn, has kept me going through some tough times, particularly over the last couple of decades. But, that very life-giving hope carries safety warnings. ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick,’ wrote an ancient scribe in the book of Proverbs and he was right (Proverbs 13:12). The very same stuff that helps and heals can also send the acid rain of disappointment.
I have found it helpful to take short glimpses at hope and then knuckle down to the daily grind of just hanging in there. For most of my long walks down paths of suffering I have tried to find help in God’s written message to us – the Bible – early each day, and to glance at it now and again as I go. Motivation also comes in tough times through recalling that God is at work on my character, refining, changing, training, disciplining, preparing and providing for me. My road is neither random nor my pathway meaningless. I am heading someplace even when I can’t see very far ahead. In the words of Marilyn Baker’s great song title, ‘Jesus, You Are Changing Me’.6 In any case, on any path which includes suffering, the shadow of the cross shades us from the most blinding rays of the sun and comforts with the knowledge that God has been there before us.
But how did this rough path all begin?
An old head on young shoulders
Born in Guernsey, the second largest of the British Channel Islands, in 1952, I was the middle brother of three. My older brother by two years struggled with learning difficulties due to Down’s syndrome. This meant that through most of my childhood I was responsible for keeping an eye on him. Both my parents were required to work in the tomato industry, toiling away in blazing hot greenhouses or the packing shed, getting the ‘toms’, as we called them, ready for despatch by lorry then by sea to mainland UK. When I think back, it feels as though my brother was always there with me. I bore a heavy responsibility for his safety and well-being. He was bullied and abused by neighbourhood kids. I had nightmares about him being hurt by the cruel taunts and occasional physical attacks of the toughs who lived on a nearby council estate and even, on occasion, waded in to defend him with my fists too. It wasn’t the Bronx, but it did cause me to grow up fast.
This may have contributed to my having an ‘old head on young shoulders’ and being given a lot of responsibility at a relatively young age. As a child still at primary school I joined an organisation called ‘The Love Apple League’ (‘love apple’ being the old name for the tomato, for which Guernsey was then famous). I went on to become one of its leaders before I was aged in double figures, even being introduced to the island’s Lieutenant Governor and honoured for this work. The charity used to raise funds to buy and send flowers and gifts to children in hospitals around the country. I also became head boy at primary school and a young prefect and sports captain at the Guernsey public school, Elizabeth College, to which I was given entry by scholarship aged eleven.
When I was in my early teens I became very interested in the sport of shooting. It was to be pivotal in my coming to faith, although I had no idea about that then. I began taking an interest in all things ballistic when told to do basic rifle training as part of my initiation into the college’s Combined Cadet Force at age fourteen. I found that I loved the smell of cordite and was a deadeye shot! I had never been very good at sports of any kind, being quite rotund and heavy, so lying on the ground and using my trigger finger really appealed to me. I started attending an air rifle club in the evenings, in addition to shooting small-bore rifles twice weekly at school and full-bore long-range weapons in the summer. Soon I was fascinated and really hooked. I attended and took part in national rifle competitions both on the island, shooting for the Guernsey side against the UK National Rifle Association team, and in the UK at Bisley, the national home of competition shooting. Annually each July I travelled to this mecca of international shooting for the public schools’ finals, becoming captain of my college team for the last couple of trips. I also stayed on after the cadets’ event to take part in the all-age championships, even joining the illustrious final 100 in the famous Queen’s Prize one year. In 1969 I was selected to tour Canada with the Athelings International Public Schools team, being looked after royally by our Canadian hosts and having a real ball. Sadly, in the international tournament we lost to the home nation. But what an experience this provided me with, expanding my horizons way beyond the tiny island on which I had been born.
I had no real interest in Christian things during most of my childhood, dropping out of our neighbourhood Congregational Church Sunday school once I was old enough to be self-conscious and nervous about performing in any kind of seasonal or anniversary celebration. It all seemed so incredibly dull and boring to me; I loved the outdoors life. I was someone who enjoyed playing in the open air and swimming in the sea. I had a great respect for people with faith but found it hard to feel sure of any such thing myself; I wasn’t ‘a believer’. When all the young teenage boys in my year were required to be confirmed in our Church of England college, I asked to be excused as I had nothing to confirm – other than my confusion about what exactly was going on during the Anglican ritual to which the whole school was subjected daily.
The first stirrings of my awareness of the claims of Christianity came because of my being required to be present in the school chapel one Good Friday. The drama department was putting on a passion play out of sight behind us, up in the organ loft, so that the whole school listened to the events surrounding the death of Christ portrayed in sound only, as if it was being performed on the radio. I sat through most of it unmoved and bored, until the awful moment that the wrists and ankles of Jesus were nailed to the cross. When the mallet thudded into the metal, something jarred my heart. I felt the dreadful unfairness of what was done to someone who only seemed to want to help others and was doing no harm to anyone. Maybe the injustices of the assaults and abuse heaped on my poor helpless brother were being stirred in some subliminal mental porridge, bringing spiritual sympathies to the surface. Whatever, I left the building profoundly unsettled in my mind, wanting to know more about the mystery of this man’s life and death.
Sometime later, while still in Guernsey attending the sixth-form college, I was invited to church by a fellow team member at the air rifle club where I went shooting in the evenings. Bill turned up at my home one Sunday at around 1pm when I was still in bed after quite an eventful evening out the night before. My mum pounded on my bedroom door to wake me with the news that he wanted to speak with me. Once roused I blearily staggered to the front door in my underwear, greeted my much older friend and enquired why he was troubling me at such an unearthly hour on a Sunday! He said that he had just come from church, where the preacher had challenged everyone to go away and invite a friend to return with them to the evening service. I was intrigued but annoyed at the disturbance and the embarrassment it was causing me, but I really did not want to disappoint Bill or curb his obvious enthusiasm. So, I accepted his invitation, and that evening accompanied him to his local Baptist church. There I sat in the congregation and sang the hymns as we were instructed. I felt warmed by the singing and the company but most of all by the good-looking girls in the choir! For that reason alone, I decided that I would return the following week.
Within three weeks of first attending I found myself once more confronted by the message that the death of Christ on the cross was deeply significant. I went to an after-church evangelistic meeting at an Elim church at Delancey in the north of the island. It was in January 1968, and I was invited by one of the girls. I did not have much petrol in my motorbike – petrol was unavailable on Sundays on the island in those days – so I nearly said no, but if she was going then so would I.
I drove carefully to eke out my meagre petrol ration and when I got to the building it was packed with young people. There was so much young flesh that they were even stacked in the aisles and windowsills. Walking in as an unbeliever, I had no idea that in a dozen years I would return to that building as its minister. Diane was also present at that event. She had become a committed Christian about a year earlier and was deeply troubled that she might be left ‘on the shelf’ at the wise old age of sixteen! She had scoured the island churches for eligible young men without success. When she saw me walk in, she said in her heart, ‘Lord, that’s exactly what I’ve been asking for! Please arrange for us to meet.’
The atmosphere pinged with expectation and joy. There was so much more than gas-fired warmth that January evening. There was also far more than the enthusiasm of the crowd and the speaker. I now believe that the Holy Spirit was revealing the good news about Jesus to my heart. The evangelist made it clear that there was a link between what happened to Jesus on the cross and my own wrongdoing. To a very real extent, it was my sin that nailed Him there, despite His innocence. Christ had died for me, the just for the unjust, in order that I might be forgiven and go free.
When an appeal was made for people present to commit themselves to Jesus in a prayer, I followed those words intently and closely in my mind, meaning every phrase. I told God that I was not sure if He existed but that if He did, would He please make Himself real to me and change me within. I knew I needed forgiveness for my wrong attitudes and actions, and I felt that night that this could really help me. So, I accepted Christ as my Lord and Saviour on a freezing January evening in 1968 and would never be quite the same again.
My life took on a change for the better. Now, instead of partying on a weekend and drifting aimlessly from one week to another, I felt I had purpose and goals. I recall being in an English class the day after my visit to the Elim church event and, while distracted and bored, I thought about what had happened the evening before. As I did so an amazing sense of peace and well-being flowed over me. I knew that I was accepted, loved and forgiven. I felt that Christ was real and that He truly had become part of my life, even though at that early stage I knew so little Christian language or teaching.
I was still quite interested in girls, though, but all that stopped when I did actually meet Diane, who had first spotted me that January evening. She was the organiser of a young people’s group car treasure hunt at her church, Vazon Elim Church in Guernsey. I went along with friends from the Baptist church I was attending. I confess, I was smitten from the start. This smiling girl with high cheekbones and naturally curling brown hair spoke to the teams with humour and real presence. She was dressed in an attractive light brown corduroy smock dress over a blue blouse. As she stood at the podium giving out instructions to the various car drivers and teams, my heart was dancing a jig. I loved her radiance and her laugh. She looked so enchanting and attractive with her natural smile and twinkling eyes. This was on a leap year day, 29th February 1968, but I didn’t waste any time waiting for her to take the initiative as is customary on that day. When, after the treasure hunt in cars, we returned to the base, it came time for refreshments. Diane came over to me, offering soup, and I realised my chance had come.
‘Yes, I’d love some please. Um… I didn’t quite… catch your name?’ I said, on the brink of palpitations.
‘Diane with one n – Diane Guille.’
‘Oh, I know some Guilles! What’s your dad’s Christian name?’
‘Wilson. Wilson George Guille. Why?’
‘Oh, no special reason but I don’t think I’ve met him yet.’ What Diane didn’t realise then was that I was only after her father’s initial so that I could locate her in the phone book!
Within a few days we became ‘an item’ and have remained inseparable ever since. Although it would be more than four years before we married, we were close and committed to one another and to Christ from the start. Thankfully, it is still ‘Eric & Diane’ today, more than fifty years since that treasure hunt, and we pray that it may continue. I truly found the treasure that night.
Soon after this I moved from Bill’s Baptist church to join Diane in Sunday worship at Vazon Elim. I joined a gospel music group called Soul Enterprise and we set about telling other young people about Jesus. I was no musician, but I loved singing and the band began with a young Salvationist called Vic on lead guitar, my future brother-in-law, David, on rhythm guitar, and me as lead vocalist. We started taking bookings to sing in churches, even though our new-fangled technology was quite shocking to some of the older folk who did not think it appropriate to use guitars, amplifiers and microphones in church. Still, we persevered, and then got invitations to play at secular events like dances, parties and children’s meetings. We led an hour-and-a-half-long programme of Christian music, competitions and stories for kids in a theatre called Candie Gardens, as part of an evangelistic mission which brought in 700 kids one day and then 900 the following month. We also played and sang in the open air on the streets of the island’s capital, St Peter Port, on one occasion raising the profile of the charity Christian Aid. Later we also travelled to the sister island of Jersey to conduct a youth mission week in a youth centre in the capital, St Helier.
Before we ended our couple of years’ playing and working together in the band, we even recorded our very own LP at a recording studio located at the Elim Bible College in Capel, Surrey. During all this I was learning to articulate my faith clearly for the sake of people who had no Christian experience or faith of their own. It was a great training ground for a keen young Christian who was starting to sense the call of God on his life.
Power to serve
During an island-wide evangelistic mission on Guernsey, led by the US evangelist Perry Ellis, we linked up with young people from several churches to run an evening Christian coffee bar in the town centre. The Popular Café, right next to the island’s main Town Church, worked during the day as the ‘Pop-in’, a greasy spoon café and a regular haunt for locals. Each evening we would transform this café into a special venue with tables at which believers would sit ready to chat with visitors. The band would sing and play for short spots as a kind of cabaret and then also mingle with the folk attending.
We did this for the couple of weeks of the mission, but were finding it hard going. Then out of the blue Vic got a phone call from the pastor of the Delancey Elim Church where I had first accepted Christ. He had attended the coffee bar one night and said that we were doing well but that we lacked what he called an ‘anointing’. This sounded like a chest rub so we were intrigued but a bit confused. He asked us to meet with him at his home.
As Vic, Dave and I settled into the front room of his manse, we listened with rapt attentiveness to him explaining that we needed the baptism in the Holy Spirit. This was what the disciples of Jesus had received on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. We had all been baptised in water following our conversion experiences – even including Vic, though this was not part of his church’s tradition – because we really wanted to do all that God expected of us. As the pastor explained to us the biblical background for this teaching, we were getting hungrier and hungrier for this kind of spiritual experience. Recognising our interest, he asked if he could pray for us. We agreed but said that we would like time to think about this and to seek God to discover if what he had said was right for us.
After that meeting, we committed to meet up again on Saturday evening and, if necessary, to even pray through the night until we had received ‘power from on high’ (Luke 24:49). We did meet up for that night of prayer, and once we had done so and become convinced that this was something for us, we asked the pastor to see us again.
When we did, the other two guys were both filled with the Spirit and even spoke in tongues just like the first believers at Pentecost, but I was left empty, confused and frustrated. My only consolation was that I felt that God spoke to me from the second half of the verse in Acts 1:5, ‘but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit’. A couple of days later I was still desperate to know more. I waited for Diane after she left the local Grammar School for Girls and we went together to see the pastor, this time in the church building itself. There, with the two of us kneeling together at the front, he prayed for us and we both received an overwhelming sense of God’s power coming upon us. Diane wept, and I laughed uproariously with immense joy as the Spirit of God swept over us both, and we spoke in another language we had never learned, just like so many have and, of course, as on the original Day of Pentecost.
As soon as we had gathered our thoughts and could respond again, I said to the pastor that I wanted to go straight out and find somewhere in the open air where I could preach! I felt that my mouth was on fire. The very next day, Diane went back to her class and gathered all her friends in the lunch break to tell them what God had done in her life. At least two of them became interested enough to come to church with her and went on to become Christians. I went to college as usual but my chemistry master told me, when I met him again four decades later, that my face was glowing. He recalls that he said to me in front of the other students, ‘What’s going on with you, Gaudion?’ and I replied, ‘Oh, sir, I’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Neither he nor any of my classmates had the slightest idea of what I meant but they saw the effect. The real outworking of that story, however, took place back in the Pop-in coffee bar. We decided to keep it going after the original fortnight and it lasted a further month, during which we saw more than fifty young people commit themselves to following Jesus. The difference in the atmosphere and results was phenomenal. We had been given a new source of power for service. This ‘anointing’ was no chest rub!
Early steps into ministry
Soon I began preaching and was still only sixteen when I preached my first sermon to an all-age congregation. I was amazed to discover that people became Christians in response to what I was saying. One young man who made a commitment that first time I spoke in public went on to be ordained as an Anglican minister.
I loved to speak in public and felt encouraged by the results. I also felt that God was calling me into Christian ministry. I was very young, of course, and both my parents and my pastor advised me to wait and do something else in the meantime. Fired by youthful enthusiasm, I ignored them all and started making enquiries about training for ministry. It would mean undertaking a two-year course at Elim Bible College (since renamed Regents Theological College), then situated at Capel in Surrey. So, at just eighteen years and one month old, there began a period of life-changing training and tutelage. I was still a real rookie, but the principal, Reverend Wesley Gilpin, and his wife, Marguerite, were so patient, kind and helpful to me. They seemed to believe in me and, despite my being the youngest member of my academic year, appointed me to be head student in my final term and a half.
I needed to prove that God could and would supply my needs. My parents were not happy to fund all the costs that tuition, flights and maintenance required. I did not qualify for a grant from the local government and so I struggled to raise the necessary funds. I worked for a year or so prior to admission, as a sub-postmaster. I was on my own there, as the previous person had left suddenly, so on the first morning I was handed the keys to the safe by the shop manager next door. I opened the front door to welcome in a long line of eager but tetchy pensioners expecting their pensions in cash from me. I had never heard that post offices paid out pensions and allowances. The first couple in the queue showed me how to stamp their books, while the postman delivering the cash helped me to change the date on the stamp and explained how to sell stamps and postal orders. During that year in the post office I saved every penny I could get hold of, though tithing7 my income faithfully as taught in our church. I managed to save up just enough to pay for the first year at Bible college but had no idea where the rest would come from.
During the summer holidays at the end of year one, the other two members of Soul Enterprise took me aside and gave me a bank savings book.
‘We have been paying into this account for the last year while you’ve been away, and we want you to have this to pay your second-year fees and costs.’
I was overwhelmed by their kindness, relieved and comforted by their love. Dave and Vic were quite a bit older than me, but they obviously believed in my calling. I took this as God’s provision and set off for Capel again knowing that when God calls, He also provides. Diane and I were going to have to remind ourselves of this several times in the years ahead.
During my final year at college I was selected to spend a month in Luton to look after the Elim church in the absence of its senior pastor, the late Rev Wynne Lewis, who was away conducting an evangelistic mission in Wales. Bearing in mind how young I was and how rough the area around the church in Luton was, this was a very hard assignment.
One evening while I was attending a huge youth club in the church hall, my Morris Minor was attacked in the car park and all four tyres were slashed. One Sunday evening while I was leading the service in the church, a group of hecklers began yelling and shouting, and I had to ask the stewards to remove them from the building. During a similar service a lady fainted clean away in front of the pulpit while a soloist was singing; the soloist then dissolved into tears and fled the platform. Once again, I had to cope with that while still only a teenager. But God was gracious to me and enabled me to survive this month and learn many lessons from it. I returned to the college glad to be able to undertake the duties of head student and get my head down into my studies once again, leaving the troubled suburbs of Luton far behind.
Following graduation, I became assistant pastor at Eastbourne Elim Church, working under the leadership of the then-president of the Elim churches, Reverend John Lancaster. I helped him in pastoral work and preaching and took special charge of the extensive youth work in the church. Ten weeks after arriving at Eastbourne, Diane and I were married on 9th September 1972 and began a ministry that was to see us serving churches in Weymouth, Whitehaven (Cumbria) and Delancey on our home island of Guernsey, and then overseas as missionaries in Seychelles and Zimbabwe. We would return to the UK to serve as leaders of the City Temple church in Cardiff before my ill health would force us back to our native Guernsey.
While serving at the Elim church in Delancey where I had first become a Christian, our only son, Matthew, was born in 1981. It was a busy six and a half years there as I led the congregation in erecting and opening a brand-new church building on the seafront. Towards the end of that period we felt that God was calling us as a family into missionary service. After quite a process of thinking, praying, discussing and taking advice from those who knew us well, we set off to live and work overseas. We moved to Seychelles, a wonderful chain of more than 100 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, to work with what was then called FEBA8 Radio (now Feba).
The Seychelles are more than 1,000 miles from the nearest land and quite isolated. We love islands, so were excited about living in this tropical paradise. Due to its position, the main island, Mahé, had proved to be a great location for the building of a short-wave radio antenna array on the coral reef near the harbour. This enabled Feba to broadcast Christian radio programmes to areas as far apart as East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Being very near the equator it is always hot in the Seychelles, and extremely humid, with sometimes 100 per cent humidity. It was challenging to live and work there, but there were many compensations, not least the lovely warm sea that we could swim in after work.
I threw myself into the work of a missionary broadcaster with great energy, mainly in Seychelles but also travelling widely in India, Singapore and East Africa, gathering material for programmes and setting up leadership training initiatives by radio. It was not easy to transition from leading growing churches to serving as a new boy in a missionary community and I found it harder being there than Diane did.
The occasional mission trips that I made away from the islands to gather material for the programmes gave me opportunities to preach. In Seychelles, most of our many local staff were linked to either the Roman Catholic Church or the burgeoning Pentecostal Assemblies of Seychelles. We found fellowship mainly with the latter and I was asked to teach in their evening Bible school, which I found to be thrilling. The students were brimming over with enthusiasm and raw excitement about their new-found faith. But I was really missing the day-to-day work of a pastor.
When the station director, Peter Bayes, who had recruited me to Feba, died suddenly from a heart attack, the whole community was stunned. His funeral on the day following his death was a huge affair. It poured with tropical rain as we stood on the exposed hillside graveyard outside Victoria, the capital, overlooking the amazing Feba transmitter masts which had been built out to sea on the reef below. We were soaked to the skin and felt keenly the loss of this gentle and gracious man.
As our two-year assignment moved towards its conclusion, I felt increasingly that while I knew God wanted us in mission, my gifts of pastoral work, leadership and preaching were probably not being used to their best advantage in Seychelles, or even in Feba. We had kept in touch with friends in Elim and were asked to consider a post with Elim International Missions in Tanzania. We were very interested in this possibility and decided that on our way back to the UK on furlough, we would visit Dar es Salaam and look at the opportunities.
The trip was arduous but exhilarating. We travelled long distances in a hired Land Rover on roads pitted with potholes. All alongside us lay the discarded wrecks of broken trucks and vehicles from previous crashes. We each got ill with tummy bugs and existed on a diet of bananas and eggs.
When we arrived at the proposed house that we might use in Morogoro, a town nearly 120 miles west of Dar, it was so isolated it could only have been reached by four-by-four vehicle. I knew the role would entail long periods of my being away from home, serving a church area the size of England with no good roads, and Diane and Matthew would have been stuck out there without me. The security situation was also not good, with banditry and violence towards whites not uncommon. At the house, eight-year-old Matthew picked up a bow and arrow weapon from the garden and asked what it was for, only to be told that the night watchmen used it to fire at any intruders! That was not a great introduction to our potential new home.
Finally, we left Tanzania feeling quite certain that it was not for us and returned to the UK and to Guernsey for a break. Immediately after I notified Elim HQ of our decision, they called me back and asked if we would consider an appointment to the Elim churches and mission work in Zimbabwe instead. Strangely, on this occasion, neither of us felt the need to go and see it. We felt at peace with the offer straight away and were happy to allow the process of applying for a three-year residency permit to begin. It was very unlikely to succeed as the government of Zimbabwe had already begun expelling white Europeans and restricting incomers. In fact, several people, both from within Zimbabwe and elsewhere, told us that it would be impossible for us to get a permit. We had to wait several months for it, but wonderfully it was granted.
During that year, as we waited to move to Zimbabwe, we never lacked financially. I was asked to oversee one church during its pastor’s three-month sabbatical leave, and as soon as that ended the pastor at Vazon Elim Church offered me a role for a further three months as his associate minister. By the time that ended the visas had been granted and for the remaining months we were supported directly by Elim Missions. God is good and once again He had proved His amazing provision.
In 1990 we moved to Zimbabwe to work with Elim International Missions, where for three years I was engaged in leadership training and church planting, together with drought relief and sharing in the oversight of the national Elim churches. This was another busy period, when my generally good health and robust constitution were great assets as I travelled widely within the nation and beyond. This was a really challenging and thrilling period in our lives, during which I had to learn the local language, Shona, and adjust to the totally different customs of this ancient and proud African culture. It was a real joy and privilege to be there and see the obvious spiritual hunger of the local folk, who would gather around us in crowds in the open air when we preached or gave out literature. They also welcomed us so warmly into their homes and villages when we went visiting, the ladies often ululating for joy at our approach. I would have stayed on in the country much longer, but the political hostility towards outsiders was growing by the day and it was increasingly unlikely that my work permit would be renewed.
When Mr Mugabe’s government decided not to renew my work permit and visa, we had to leave a land that we had really come to love. Our leaving was softened a little by an invitation from our old friend and mentor John Lancaster to join him on the pastoral team at the City Temple in Cardiff as co-pastor and then to become its senior pastor upon his impending retirement.
Moving back to the UK, and into the city centre of Cardiff, was no easy assignment. There can be as much culture shock returning from the mission field as there is in going there in the first place. We were small town people, used to the open bush and the slow pace of life in rural Africa, as well as the calmer culture of our island home. Both Diane and Matthew took at least a full year to settle in and adjust to city life. Meanwhile, I really loved it, and was thrilled at the opportunity to lead such a large gathering with so much potential for the kingdom of God, including among the many university students there.
Little did we realise when we moved to Wales in 1993 that just over three and a half years later, we would leave again under very different circumstances.