This is the (SUPER-DUPER) long, rambling story of my experiences with alcohol, its effect on me, and God’s incredible, redemptive, love for me in taking me away from a life of lack and bringing me into one of abundance – one full of his presence. It really is long (there’s a Part I, II, III, IV and V – a bit like the Pentateuch) so I ask one thing: if you start reading, please keep going until the end – if you don’t have time now, you can always read it later. Each part follows on from the next, but they are also fairly self-contained – you can read them one by one.
Peace & Love,
Part I – The Alphabet
I first got drunk when I was thirteen years old. A friend (I’ll call him ‘E’) and I played the ‘alphabet game’ with a bottle of vodka we’d asked a homeless man to buy us (we provided the funds; he got to keep the change). The rules were simple: the first person to drink would say a word starting with the letter ‘a’, then take a swig, before passing it onto the next person, who would say a word starting with the letter ‘b’, and so on. The aim of the game was to get through the entire bottle of whatever it was you were drinking. The closer we got to the end of the alphabet, the greater the swig we realised we had to take to finish it.
Needless to say, we both “won” as we hid behind a series of bushes in a park near-ish to my friend’s house. I’m pretty sure we didn’t recycle the bottle. I felt weird: my balance was off, my throat burned like crazy (though I wouldn’t say painfully) and the words I tried to speak didn’t seem to want to come out properly. I don’t think it was my friend’s first time doing something like this, but it was certainly mine. He seemed to deal with the alcohol a bit better than I did, though I would note that I never felt like throwing up.
Afterwards, we went to the cinema to watch a film: for some reason I’m convinced it was Toy Story 3, but I know that can’t be right, as I was definitely thirteen at the time; perhaps we repeated our exploits a year later. Anyway, I don’t remember the film very well, which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. I do remember swearing immaturely at the other people in the cinema (it was empty except for a small group of girls – the subject of my incoherent abuse), who laughed and threw popcorn at us. My friend, too, thought it was hilarious: he watched with glee as I embarrassed myself in (quasi-)public. We went home, played video games, finished the rest of our sleepover and, for all I knew, neither my parents nor his were the wiser for it.
When I went to Winchester College (the September after) life continued as normal, at least until the end of the summer term of my second year at the school, a few days before term was due to end. Everyone in my house year – there were twelve of us – pooled our money together and passed it on to an accommodating top year, who went into town to buy us a variety of tipples. He smuggled them back to us in secret, and we hid them in our lockable cupboards. I don’t think we much cared what he’d bought, as long as it would get us drunk, or at the very least tipsy.
We were young and stupid and yet, for some reason, we didn’t get caught. That night, we all congregated in one of the three second year dorm rooms and distributed the spoils. Some of us drunk more than others, and some of us got drunker than others (it was the first time a couple of us had even tried alcohol, I believe). Eventually the ‘lads’ got bored and snuck out to join a few friends from other houses, at the back of the tennis courts, behind the PE Centre.
I didn’t go with them that year, but when the end of third year came, I joined them, and discovered that they didn’t do anything especially different; a few people did, however, bring spliffs, and they proceeded to enjoy them; others got out their cigarettes (which were also banned at Winchester) and smoked their way through their supply. I didn’t have any myself – that year at least: I was pretty happy to get through my fair share of alcohol, but I didn’t feel comfortable going any further. Drugs and cigarettes, I thought, would always be where I would draw the line.
It took until my eighteenth birthday party (we went to Porterhouse, chomped our way through some delicious steak, and got through a considerable amount of wine) for me to break one of those taboos. I had never understood why some of my friends smoked, and judged them for it: as far as I could tell, all they were doing was willingly ingesting poison that would have an immediate, lasting effect on their lungs. “Still,” I thought, “I can’t judge them until I try it for myself, surely?” After we left the restaurant, I had a puff of one of my friend’s cigarettes, and promptly started to cough my guts out. It subsided after a minute or two, by which time another of my friends had got wind of what I’d done. He wanted a photo of me smoking and, drunk as I was, I obliged by attempting to get through another cigarette. It was to be my last: for three months after, I had a painful cough that refused to die, no matter what medication I threw at it. I still don’t get smoking.
My top year in general, and especially as more people turned eighteen, became characterised by trips to the pub to celebrate the weekend. Out tolerance grew, and the number of incidents of people having a bit much grew, too, but I don’t remember feeling bad about it at any point – physically or otherwise. To this day, I’m not sure I’ve ever had a hangover.
Things came to a head the day we finished our exams. That night I drank like never before: I remember waking up in the morning at a friend’s house, half lying on his sofa, half sprawled on the floor, with my trousers around my knees, as the sun poured in through the blinds we had forgotten to shut before we collapsed in our respective positions. The only thing I could really recall from our night was one of my friends giving us a pep talk for our upcoming trip to Ibiza: he told us, “Clubbing is so much more fun when you take drugs. When we get there, you need to try it.” His words stuck with me, and I remembered them, even if the rest of the night was a blur or, as some parts were, completely blank.
We landed in Spain, then went straight to our hotel, the Ibiza Rocks, where we checked in and grabbed our wristbands (we’d paid for a package that included several gigs at the hotel itself). We were there for a week, and we planned to go hard. We’d worked our socks off for our exams: now it was time to let loose. At sunset, we walked over to a nearby bar, where we drank until we felt sufficiently jolly, after which we headed off to the club, Amnesia. From the moment we arrived, I couldn’t stop thinking about what my friend had said a few weeks before: “It’ll be better on drugs.” The thought wouldn’t go away, so I let it sit, percolating around my drunken mind.
I had never really enjoyed clubbing before and, for the first hour at Amnesia, that much hadn’t changed. After a while, I noticed that there were a few people scattered strategically around the teeming dance floor who weren’t really joining in, but who seemed to be getting a lot of attention from people around them – every now and then, someone would come up to them, shout something over the music, receive a nod from the person, and go away smiling. It took me a while to catch on, but I realised they were dealing drugs. “There’s no time like the present!” I thought to myself, and headed for one of the men.
I’d never bought drugs before, but it was surprisingly easy: I asked the price, he lifted up all five digits on his right hand, and I paid him there and then with the change I had in my wallet. He handed over a little blue pill, and I contemplated it for a few minutes. “What’s the harm?” I asked myself, “It’ll make clubbing better, won’t it?”
I popped it into my mouth. With that, one of my last big ‘no-no’s was broken. “Couldn’t have done it without you, Mr. Vodka.” I mused. I could also no longer call myself drug-free.
At first, nothing happened. I felt just as drunk as before, and the club was just as sweaty. I still couldn’t understand how people could enjoy having their personal space violated so brazenly. The whole experience could be summed up in a word: gross. That is, until it couldn’t: suddenly, it wasn’t gross. Suddenly, it wasn’t unbearably loud. Suddenly, the flashing lights weren’t eye-gougingly horrible; they were incredible.
In an instant, I was no longer me: I was a wave, or a particle, and I throbbed to the beat of the music, which itself seemed to weave its way through the air. I worshipped at the altar of lights as beams flooded into my eyes and danced around my body. It was so visceral, so tangible that I could almost taste it: it was as if every one of my senses burned, and my mind screamed, over and over, “THIS IS REAL!!! THIS IS MORE!!! THIS IS LIFE!!!”
It was idolatry, and there would be consequences: the high wore off in about an hour and half.
Everything shifted, only this time, I wasn’t free. This time, I wasn’t a part of ‘the universe’. This time, I was terrified. I realised that the people around me were pushing me violently. I realised that those closest to me were staring daggers into my soul. I realised that I was immeasurably thirsty. I realised, above all else, that was the club was unsafe. “DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!” Sounded the alarm in my mind; each syllable cut through my brain like a knife, sending bursts of pain from the back of my head to the edge of my retinas.
And kept fleeing.
The crowd kept pushing in on me, as if it were attempting to strangle me, like a boa constrictor does with its prey; I had to fight my way to the club toilet. I searched frantically for an empty cubicle where I could hide, but all I could find were leery men who seemed to size me up. I don’t know why, but I thought they might try to rape me, or kill me, or kidnap me and sell me into slavery. Horrible ideas raced through my mind at a speed of a million thoughts per second.
Again, I ran.
Somehow, I made it to the exit. “There must be a taxi. There must be. Please God let there be a taxi. Please. Please. Please. I’m begging you. Oh please. Don’t let me die. I don’t want to die. Please don’t let me die.”
I spotted one, and rushed in as quickly as I could, telling the driver to make it to the Ibiza Rocks Hotel as quickly as his wheels could get him there. The whole journey, I babbled on in French (the driver spoke some). I could see the worry in his eyes and, soon enough, the worry I saw seemed to turn to accusation. He knew I didn’t have enough cash to pay for the ride back. HE KNEW.
“What do I do? What should I do? What is there to do?” It seemed like I was shouting my thoughts for all the world to hear. It seemed like everyone knew what I had done. I felt naked.
My breaths got progressively shallower until I started to hyperventilate. All I could hear was myself gasping, and all I could think was, “I don’t want to die. I don’t’ want to die. I don’t want to die. Am I going to die?”
We pulled up to the hotel and I explained, in absolute fear, that I couldn’t pay him there and then. I was convinced that he would pull out a gun and shoot me – probably in the knee, for maximum impact – but he didn’t. I almost fainted with relief, as I handed him my phone for safekeeping: he would hold on to my valuables while I ran upstairs to grab cash.
The security guard looked at me strangely as I ran through, and even more strangely when I made it back down, with the cash grasped in the vice that was my hand. The taxi was still there, and I got my stuff back. I tried to breathe a sigh of release – to find some respite – but the trap that was my mind would not let me go: “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY?”
“I DON’T KNOW*£*$&$*£*£&!!!!” I literally screamed. I couldn’t answer the questions that were being fired at me; I couldn’t dodge them. There was no escape.
I sped to my room as quickly as my feet would take me, but it felt like forever. The stairs laughed at me as I sobbed my way up them. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t’ know.” I whispered, now hoarse.
I made it to my room. “What are you going to do now?” The voice in my brain mocked. My phone was in my hand. Maybe someone would know the answer; I didn’t. I started with A, calling every number on my contact list. None picked up; I must have got through a hundred numbers, to no avail. With each “The number you have called is not available. Please call again later, or leave a message after the tone.” I grew more desperate. This time, I didn’t make it all the way to ‘Z’. And this time, it wasn’t a game.
In the irony to end all ironies, I called the father of the friend I had first played the alphabet game with, and it rang. It must have been about four in the morning in the UK, but he picked up. I hadn’t seen his son, or indeed any of his family, for about three years; we had gone down seemingly different paths. It would be great to catch up with them now, come to think of it.
“Hello?” Mr ‘E’ replied, clearly groggy, and clearly in bed, “Is that you, Ben?”
I stood there in silence for a few seconds. I hadn’t actually expected him to pick up the phone.
I was desperate: “Yes!” I gasped.
“What’s going on?”
“Ummmmmmmm…” My thoughts kept racing. What could I say? I blurted out the first thing that came to mind: “Hello Mr E. I think my friend’s in trouble. Someone spiked his drink. Now he’s acting really paranoid – I’ve never seen anybody this anxious. Do you have any idea what I should do?”
Mr E caught on quick: “When did ‘he’ get spiked?”
“About two hours ago.”
“How did he react to the drug?”
“I think it was ecstasy or something like that. He had some very vivid visions.”
“Ben. Listen very carefully to me. Move away from the window and balcony.” A note of authority crept into his tone.
“OK.” I responded, knowing the game was up. He’d seen through my ruse pretty quickly. I moved away from the sliding balcony door. It could have been a long drop.
“Leave your room,” he continued, “find someone to help you, and stay with them until you feel better.”
I grabbed my keys and headed out of the room, my phone still pressed to my ear. “I can’t see anyone, Mr E. What now?”
“Keep looking – you really need to find someone.” All throughout our exchange, his words never wavered; his calm, yet serious and firm voice brought a measure of reprieve to my otherwise jumbled mind.
As he was speaking, I saw some people coming up the stairs at the end of the corridor. “Hey!” I shouted, “Hey! I’m not feeling too well – do you mind if I join you? My roommates aren’t back yet. I’m really scared.”
“Sure!” They called back, “Our room is a floor up – come with us.” They seemed nice. I think I trusted them.
My thoughts returned to my phone: “OK, Mr E, I’ve found some people. I’m going to go hang out with them until I feel better.”
“You do that, Ben. You’re going to be OK, do you understand? You’re going to be OK.”
“Thank you.” Was all I could say as I hung up the phone and headed towards the two friendly Englishmen who had come to my aid. We went to their room, I sat on their floor, and they talked and listened to me patiently for the next three hours as I continued to come down. To this day, I don’t remember their names, but I will be forever grateful. For all I know, they (with Mr E’s help) might well have saved my life.
At some point, I made my way back to my room, and fell asleep. When I woke up (at about midday, I think), I checked my phone: I had about twenty missed calls, and nearly as many texts, all from my parents. My heart sank.
“What have I done?” I thought to myself as I clicked on their contact card to call them back. They picked up within five seconds, and we had one of the most painful conversations of my life. First, they checked if I was okay, and told me they loved me – I told them I was fine – then they told me that Mr E had called them in the middle of the night, and explained the situation to them. They were disappointed – of course. They had trusted me, had assumed I would be responsible, and how had I responded? I’d gone off, bought, and taken a Class A drug on my first night. My mum wanted me to come home that day, but they checked the flight costs, and it would have been exorbitant. They reluctantly agreed to let me stay for the week, as planned, and assured me that we would be having a proper talk when I got home.
The call ended, and a wave of depression hit me. What had I done? I’d never let anybody down this badly before: I had always been a model student, had always presented the idea that everything was OK – indeed, more than OK – and that I could be trusted. In every word they had spoken to me, I could hear their agony and disappointment at what Ben, their cherished eldest son, had done. It hurt them – deeply. They weren’t angry, just broken at my brokenness. I had shattered their trust, and I didn’t know if there was anything else I could do to fix it. The Ben they thought they knew was gone. They still loved me, still cared about my wellbeing, still wanted the best for me, but I had failed them. I had failed myself.
I responded by drowning my sorrows in even more alcohol: every night, we would go out, get smashed, and ‘party’ until dawn. It was the worst week of my life. Indeed, a few days after, my friend nearly died as I encouraged him to try ecstasy (again, after “more than a few drinks”). As you’ll know if you’ve read that story, that was a bad night. To be honest, none of the other nights were much better.
I flew home, spent and broken. My mum picked me up from the airport, and we drove home in silence. When we got back, my dad greeted us. We sat down, sombrely, on the sofa. We talked for a long time. I said I was sorry; they said I would need to regain their trust. I felt empty; I’d lost a part of myself in Spain, and didn’t know if I could find it again. I was an impostor.
Part II – Life? Death?
Two Months and a Graduation Later:
I don’t think I really enjoyed heavy drinking any more, but it seemed to be the done thing at work, for some people in the office, at least. On Fridays, they’d head to the pub next door, and drink their way into the night. I didn’t really get the appeal.
My life was simple: I was on a gap year, and would spend the first half of it (August-December of 2015) working as a paralegal at a law firm. Every day, I’d get up, go to work for 9am, work my socks off (sometimes as late as nine in the evening), and go home to my grandparents’ flat in Vauxhall. They were away for a decent chunk of the time, so many days I would return to an empty house.
When I did, I would make myself dinner, grab a beer from the fridge (because that’s what British people do, right?) and then sit at the dinner table. I’d stare at my food for a bit, think, “What’s the point?” And eventually force myself to eat. I did this all in silence. The only thing I could hear was the sound of my jaw chewing the food I would put in my mouth.
The sun had long set by the time I got home, and I would look out at the city of London, with all its lights and tall buildings. Eight million people called it home, and there I was, alone and spent. The worst thing was, I knew I had to get up the next day to repeat exactly the same thing: same horrible, sweaty tube ride on a packed rush hour train; same burdensome stack of filing, photocopying or other mundane administrative task to complete; same chicken Caesar sandwich from Prêt for lunch, and so on. On Saturdays I would crash, spending most of my time on the sofa watching TV; on Sundays, I would go to HTB Church in South Kensington. I hated it there: I was sick of the way they put the worship leader’s beautiful, blonde face on the big screen during worship, of the fact that I could have only the most fleeting of conversations with the person who happened to sit next to me, and of my feeling of rejection at the Church’s hands: I had tried to sign up for a small group by sending an email to the person in charge (as I was directed to), never to receive an email in response. If this was life, it didn’t seem worth it.
The only break from my routine came in the form of seeing friends from school or hanging out with people from work. Both involved considerable amounts of alcohol. By this point, my tolerance was quite high, but the pleasure I derived from cracking open a cold bottle of beer had long faded. One Sunday, a couple school friends and I spent the entire day drinking in a pub – the entire day. We must have got through at least twenty pints between us. Another Friday, at about three in the morning, and at the tail end of a work barbecue (the sensible people had long gone home), I agreed to down more shots of rum than I probably should have, and ended up doing the ice bucket challenge with a fellow paralegal (if he was going to do it then I certainly wouldn’t back down). An hour later, I could barely sit up straight on the pavement as I tried – and mostly failed, for the best part of twenty minutes – to get my fingers to dial the right number for a taxi home.
To me, the saddest thing about all of this is that my experience was nothing special. Millions of Brits did this, week-in, week-out. It was completely and utterly meaningless. The faith I had been brought up to believe in, and indeed had defended tooth and claw in intellectual debates at school, came under serious scrutiny: I’d been told there was more to life than this, but where the hell was it? I’d been told God loved me and wanted a relationship with me, but where the hell was he? I certainly hadn’t found him at Church. People claim to ‘find themselves’ on their gap year, but who the hell was I? I didn’t know, and at that point, I don’t believe I ever thought I would know. ‘Life’ was a sham.
I kept going to Church; I didn’t want to discourage my parents. I had done enough to hurt them already. It didn’t get any better. The only time I actually remember engaging was when a guest speaker gave their testimony near Christmastime: he talked about how empty, broken and meaningless his life had become (he was formerly an international club promoter, I think), and how, after one night too many of pointless, hedonistic debauchery he had collapsed on a beach in abject despair and asked God to change his life. Long story short, God had, and he was at HTB to promote the charity he now worked for, Water Aid: he believed this was God’s call on his life, and he couldn’t be happier to bring clean water to those who had none, life to those who lived in a place of death.
“That’s all well and good,” I remember thinking, “but what about me?” I could relate to his brokenness, I could agree with his conclusion that the world could only offer futility, and I even wanted God to do the same thing in my life that he had done with this man, but God never answered my prayers, when I did pray them. I had not experienced God, and didn’t know if I ever would. God probably wasn’t real; this guy was most likely deluded. The ‘truth’ was that life sucked, and we just had to deal with it.
My time at the law firm ended mid-December, and I flew back to Hong Kong, where I knew I had about two weeks to get ready for the second half of my gap year: I would be volunteering and living at St Stephen’s Society. I was terrified. It was über Christian. They would see right through me on day one. I didn’t have much time left: one night, I lay on my bed, wondering how on earth I could tell my mum, who was in the next room, that I didn’t really know what to believe any more, and that I had no idea what I would do at St Stephen’s. Still, I had said I would do it. My word was and is important (when I wasn’t drunk, that is). The night before I was due to move into one of their housing blocks, I went on a pub crawl with an old friend and his mates, in Lan Kwai Fong. The drinks helped to numb my anxious thoughts – or at least to put them on hold.
I turned up at Shing Mun Springs [SMS] (where drug addicts who seek St Stephen’s help go to live and recover) the next day – Sunday 4th of January, 2015 – and met the other gap years. They had been there since September and, that week, I learnt that they were already being called ‘the best gap year ever’. Goodness me do I love each and every one of them like family now, but when I first got there, I felt judged – I knew I was out of my depth, and that I really, really couldn’t be called ‘holy’. They were all really close to one another, and I was an outsider – who was I to turn up four months late? I put on my best fake smile; I don’t think it was very convincing.
On Monday (my first real day), I was thrown straight into the deep end. David, one of the helpers in block two, needed me to help with a prayer session with one of the brothers. “Oh no.” I thought to myself.
We sat down in the small room where the ‘new boys’ (new brothers who had yet to be physically purged of the drugs in their system) slept, and prayed. Jonathan – the brother we were praying with – had felt convicted by God to go to Vietnam, where he could tell others about Jesus, and all that he had done in his life since he’d come to SMS. He wanted us to pray with him, to seek confirmation. Thankfully, David took the lead after Jonathan prayed: he proceeded to tell Jonathan what God had told him. It was pretty detailed, and Jonathan took it in with joy and peace in his eyes.
Then he looked at me.
“What’s God saying to you, Ben? Do you feel anything?”
I felt like digging a deep hole and jumping into it. I certainly didn’t feel God say anything to me like he had to David.
“Ummmmmmm….” I deliberated, “I agree with everything you just said. Sounded really good. I think Jonathan should go to Vietnam too.”
David looked at me, slightly bemused, but before he could say anything, we were motioned into the dining room for lunch. That was a close call.
All throughout the rest of the week, the leaders kept asking the same questions: “What is God saying? What is he doing? How do you respond?” Every day, I would see the brothers touched as they either relayed what God was saying through them or received their Heavenly Father’s words of love for their life. These men were hardened criminals – gang members, drug dealers, and perhaps even murderers – and yet here they were, soft, gentle and vulnerable. Many cried regularly. It was weird.
Either they were all 100% insane (and I mean all of them – the brothers, helpers and other gap years), they were participating in a mass delusion or lie, or it was true, and God really was moving in their lives in a personal way. Whatever the case may have been, I didn’t quite know what to do about it and, for the most part, didn’t have to: I could smile, engage in practical tasks and mask my lack of ‘spiritual engagement’ behind the guise of needing to learn more Cantonese before I could participate.
This held up for most of the week. It wasn’t until Saturday that I was really challenged: my timetable took me to an outreach in a place called Yau Ma Tei, where we would be heading to find and love (by giving food and praying for people) the local Nepalese population, most of whom lived in the area. A lady called Grace led our team of five, and we met in a small park to pray.
“Father, please would you show us who we should meet tonight, and what we should say to them.” She prayed. I bowed my head and shut my eyes: I thought I was blending in pretty well. We sat, quietly for a few minutes; a couple of the others mumbled away – I think they were praying in tongues.
Grace looked up and opened her eyes. “OK! So what’s God been saying to you? What does he want us to do tonight?” She went round the circle, asking each person. They described people they believed God wanted us to meet, words of encouragement they felt we should share with them, and places to go and find them. I was last.
“Oh. I don’t think God said anything to me.” I stated apologetically.
“Well,” Grace replied, “keep praying, then. I know God wants to say something to you.”
“Oh I’m sure it’s fine,” I squirmed, “we can just go – perhaps I’ll get something from God later.”
“No. You really need to pray now.” She wasn’t at all forceful – just firm. It was incredibly awkward – everyone was looking at me – so I bowed my head again, and shut my eyes really tightly. “Please, please, please God, if you’re there, would you show me something – anything?” I prayed, desperately, in my head. Part of me really wanted to open my eyes and peek round at the others, but I knew what I would see: I was sure they’d all be looking at me intently, patiently waiting for me to ‘hear from God’. The pressure was too much. I opened my eyes and looked up.
“Well?” Prompted Grace, half-smiling.
“I think I saw a rectangle. Like a door.” I said, hesitantly, after a few seconds. It was true – when I’d squeezed my eyes together I had kind of seen a rectangular shape – but it was also a huge shot in the dark. In my mind, I begged her to accept my offering. “Perhaps we need to go through a door at some point tonight?” I ventured.
“Um. Yeah. OK. Alright.” There were limits even to her patience – clearly she could feel how awkward it was too. We got up and went on the outreach.
That wasn’t that, though. My thoughts would not subside. At first, I was unreasonably angry: who was this woman to force me to say something? Then I realised that I was at St Stephens to help love and serve the poor, and that this was one way of doing that. I started to feel guilty for not giving a better answer. At the same time, I couldn’t have lied, could I? She wanted me to say something I simply couldn’t. God didn’t speak to me. Was God even real? Probably not, if the last six months were anything to go by. Then again – why were these people so convinced he was? Why did they hear from him? Why were they visibly affected? Why were they so gosh-darn happy? Maybe God was real. Maybe he did speak to us. Maybe there was a reason I couldn’t hear him. But what? What was it?
All throughout the evening, I looked back at my life. I looked back at my mistakes. I looked back at the drugs, the sexual temptation and the alcohol – oh boy the alcohol – and saw emptiness – a void I had tried, and failed, to fill with the fleeting pleasures of this world. No matter how much liquor I’d poured down my throat, it had never – and could never – be enough. I had embraced the world and it had slapped me in face, over and over; burned my throat and insides over and over; messed with my mind, over and over. Why did I keep going back for more? I wasn’t an idiot, was I? I was a clever guy, surely? I had it figured out, didn’t I? Nope. Nope. Nope. One by one, moment by moment, memory by memory I saw what my life amounted to: nothing. A big, steaming pile of nothing.
And then I looked at Chris, at Grace, at the other people in the outreach team; I thought about Jesus, and I saw the stories people had told about him playing out in the lives of the people around me – the people I was walking on the same street with. I saw they had a relationship with God; they had a meaning, a purpose. I thought about the brothers in SMS, about Jonathan, about David and the other helpers, and I saw wholeness – saw lives full of joy, peace, and reconciliation. I saw love.
I prayed in my head, “God, if you’re there, please would you forgive me for the things that I’ve done? Please would you forgive me for the mistakes I’ve made? If you’re there, please could I have a relationship with you? Please could I know you like these people do? Please?”
Nothing happened. I waited, but nothing happened. We kept walking, but nothing happened. We met people, prayed for them and loved them, but for me, nothing happened. The outreach finished; nothing happened. We went back to SMS, where I collapsed in my bed, and nothing happened. I wanted to cry, but nothing would come out. I was empty, I was numb, and nothing had happened.
Part III – Life! Abundant Life!
I woke up the next day, numb. It was my first Sunday at St Stephens. Naturally, we went to Church, or ‘congregation’ as they liked to call it (Church is for life, not just Sunday). The service started with worship. We sat all the way at the front – apparently that’s where they like the gap years to be. The music started, and as people started singing, I started to feel less numb. Something within me stirred, albeit only slightly. We got through a few songs before Jackie – St. Stephen’s founder and lead pastor – took time to encourage everyone to listen to God: to see what he wanted to say and do, and to come up to the front if they felt God wanted to speak through them.
Several people came up; I didn’t really listen to what they were saying: none of the ‘words’ that had ever been given in services I had attended in the past had been for me. But then Jackie started to share what God was telling her; I was immediately captivated.
“There’s somebody here who has recently cried out for forgiveness – yesterday. They have asked for him to speak to them. They have asked to know him.”
My heart started to beat faster, and I could almost feel my spirit moving within me. Could she be talking about me?
“He wants you to know that he has forgiven you, and loves you. He wants you to know that he hears you, and is speaking to you right now. He knows you, and you can know him every day for the rest of your life. If this word is for you, respond now.”
I broke into tears and fell to my knees as I was overcome by the presence of God. It was more beautiful than anything I can describe in words, and more powerful than anything alcohol or drugs could offer. For the first time, I felt that not only was God listening, but that he had answered me, and cared about me more deeply than I could ever imagine; for the first time, I felt the weight of all my sin and shame disappear, as I understood in my heart that I was forgiven and set free; and, for the first time, I felt and experienced Jesus’ awesome, indescribable love wash over me.
I was me: I was loved! God loved me! God had answered me! I was His dearly beloved child, and that would never change! God had spoken! WOOHOO!
“Thank you, thank you, thank you. I don’t know what to say but thank you. I promise I will spend every day of the rest of my life loving you and serving you. Thank you.” I whispered quietly as my tears dropped to the floor.
My Father in heaven changed me that day: I have never been the same since. He freed me for freedom: over the next few months He broke down my walls, and transformed me with his love. First he granted me grace to deal with sexual temptation, then he let me experience and know that there was nothing that could separate me from his love – I stopped swearing that day; a month or two after that he showed me that he had the power to heal people in the most ridiculous of circumstances; he revealed the tangible presence of his Holy Spirit at my re-affirmation of baptismal vows… the list goes on. I have so many testimonies I could share about his goodness and love, but for now, I’ll talk about alcohol.
If you’ve read Part I & II (I have no idea how you’ve got to this point if you haven’t), you’ll know that the worst mistakes I have ever made in my life I have made whilst drunk, and that alcohol led me down a path to emptiness and despair. I hadn’t fully realized this, however. The opportunities for a drink were few and far between at SMS: most of the brothers were addicted not only to the drugs they came to be treated for, but also for their other addictions (of which there were many) – chief among them alcohol. No alcohol whatsoever was allowed on the premises – so as to take away any possible temptation.
It wasn’t until I’d been there for nearly four months (April, 2015) that I had a drink. They’d allowed me to have the weekend off to go and see the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens. It was the biggest social and sporting event of the year in the former colony: every year, practically the entire expatriate population would crowd into the Hong Kong Stadium, enjoy the weather and rugby, and drink themselves silly (especially on the South Stand).
I planned to take part in the first two of those: I had no intention of getting drunk. One drink though, couldn’t hurt, I thought. It was a lovely day, after all. Jamie – the other gap year who had also been allowed to go to the Sevens that day – and I concurred that it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t get ourselves a cheeky Pimms to sip on as we enjoyed the day’s festivities. We were right: it was absolutely delicious.
The day couldn’t get any better, I thought to myself. Out of the blue, Andrew appeared. “Hey Ben!” He called over.
“Hey!” I called back, surprised. Andrew’s father was part of the management board of Cathay Pacific – one of the two main sponsors of the Sevens – and an old family friend. It was through him that my family had been able to get hold of tickets. They were incredibly generous, and Andrew kept up with tradition there and then: in each of his hands was a very tall, large cup of what looked like beer.
He noticed me looking at them. “They’re for you!” He exclaimed. “I brought them all he way from the Cathay box – thought you might appreciate it.”
I looked down at my empty Pimms glass, then up at Andrew. I really didn’t want to have another drink – I hadn’t eaten anything that day, for starters, so I would be drinking on an empty stomach – but, equally, I didn’t want to disappoint Andrew. He was my oldest friend, and the Cathay box was indeed quite far away – it must have taken some effort to get the beer to me largely full (drunk, rowdy expats have a tendency of bumping into people). I decided to show that I was grateful: I took the beers off him, and proceeded to down them both as quickly as I could. I thought I could pee it out soon enough.
It was a miscalculation, and a bad one at that. Within about ten minutes, I could feel each of the bubbles I’d ingested working their way up to and through my nostrils, and wreaking havoc with my head. I was drunk. Clearly my tolerance had plummeted: my head spun as I struggled to concentrate on the rugby. I was right about one thing, though: soon enough, I did need to pee.
I stumbled my way up and out of my seat to the loos behind the stands, and stood in the queue for the cubicles. People in them seemed to be taking their sweet time, and, meanwhile, the pressure in my bladder became unbearable. I started to pray: “God, I need you now. Could you relieve the pressure? Oh man this is not comfortable.”
I tried really, really hard to listen to his voice, but nothing came through.
“God?!” I asked, slightly panicked. Where was he? What had I done? Ever since God had revealed himself to me at congregation, I had experienced his presence, and seen, felt and heard what he was saying to me – in the days after I knew I was forgiven, he showed me innumerable pictures and visions, both in worship and in life more generally. Now, though, I couldn’t hear or see anything, and I could only feel the slightest pull of his presence.
“God? Where are you? What’s going on?” It was like I was submerged in a swimming pool, and God was there with me, under the surface: every time he tried to speak, I could see his lips move, but wouldn’t hear anything other than a jumbled, watery noise. It was horrible. Why was this happening?
It was pretty obvious, wasn’t it? I was drunk.
Finally, a cubicle opened, and I rushed in. I relieved myself at pace, then took a few breaths before I started to pray again: “God, I’m so, so sorry. I hate this: I hate that I can’t feel your presence or hear your voice. I know I should be able to – that that’s a part of being your child. I never want to be in this situation again, so please would you take away my drunkenness? I really didn’t mean to get myself into this situation, but I didn’t want to hurt Andrew’s feelings. I know I’ve separated myself from you; please, please would you cleanse me.”
I finished praying, then stood up to get out of the cubicle. I felt fine. “What?” I wondered. “I do answer prayer, you know.” Came God’s voice in my head. I couldn’t help but laugh as I left the toilets and returned to my seat. It was incredible. I was completely, instantly sober. God had healed my drunkenness! WOOHOO! God was good! God is good! ALL THE TIME! I was filled with his joy as I felt his presence envelop me perfectly once more. I sat down, beaming, and told Jamie what had happened. He stared at me, almost as surprised as I was. Whodathunkit? God can make people sober!
Part IV: Amethysts, First Year and the Whole 30
September 2015 – June 2016
I wish I could say I never got drunk again after that but, alas, that was not to be the case. In my first year at university, I made quite a few pre-believer friends, whose primary means of socializing seemed to be through alcohol. We made frequent trips to the pub, and although I had set myself a one (maximum two) drink rule, I soon broke it.
I was competitive. Oh so competitive. You know what they say: pride comes before the fall. When Connor* challenged me to drink more I could hardly refuse – I wasn’t a real man otherwise. My masculinity was in question. Scores had to be settled. My honour had to be maintained. I was, in short, a tool, or, perhaps, more biblically, a fool.
Thankfully, I never did anything stupid beyond the drinking. Each time, I would just go home to sleep it off. I had, however, broken my own rule – violated a promise to myself and God. Over the first two terms at LSE, I got drunk no more than three, perhaps four times, but I would always feel disappointed with myself afterwards. God’s love for me had to trump peer pressure, surely?
Every time we’d go out drinking, I would inevitably get hungry; very often I would grab a cheeky kebab or stop at a fried chicken joint to sate my hunger in the late hours of the morning. The alcohol and junk food helped neither my complexion nor waistline. Something had to give, so I started the Whole 30 diet in February of 2016.
The rules were strict:
- No added sugar or sugar substitutes at all
- No dairy
- No grains of any kind
- No legumes (beans; this also included peanuts and peanut butter)
- No junk food/snacks of any kind – even ones with ‘approved ingredients’
- No alcohol – not even for cooking.
I was allowed to eat “moderate portions of meat, seafood and eggs; lots of vegetables; some fruit (two of the normal five-a-day); plenty of natural fats; herbs, spices and seasonings.” It proved to be the perfect excuse: I went on a diet for health reasons, and was able to cut out alcohol entirely – I took the teetotal plunge, as it were.
Round about the same time, I was praying about where I should live the following academic year – bear with me I have a point – as several different groups of people had been asking me if I wanted to live with them. Each time they had asked, I had felt God say no, so had politely declined. God had not, however, provided a backup plan as of yet and so, some time in late January or early February – I can’t remember exactly which – I took the time to really ask God about it: “Who should I live with? Where? What have you got to say about my housing situation? What are you going to do?”
God answered, as he often does, in a very indirect way.
That was it. That’s all God said. I suspect he enjoyed a light-hearted chuckle at my expense. “OK, I thought; better than nothing, I suppose.”
[For the purposes of this story, “Coral” is irrelevant – though I may write about it in future (SPOILER: it led me to live with some awesome people, in an awesome flat). We’ll focus on ‘Amethyst’ for now.]
I spent some time researching the gemstone in Scripture – perhaps the answer lay there? The word ‘amethyst’ appears three times in the Bible: twice in Exodus; once in Revelation. I was particularly struck by the last instance of the word, in Revelation 21:19-20 – “19 The foundations of the city walls [of the New Jerusalem] were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper […] and the twelfth amethyst.” Funky. The city where God himself would eventually make his home (after making “all things new”) was to be built, among other things, on an amethyst foundation. And it was twelfth. Why did that strike me? Well, as you may know, my name is Benjamin. In the Bible, Benjamin is the twelfth son of Jacob, and gives his name, therefore to the twelfth tribe of Israel – the Benjaminites.
It gets better. The following is an entry from Easton’s Bible Dictionary:
“One of the precious stones in the breastplate of the high priest (Exodus 28:19; 39:12), and in the foundation of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:20). The ancients thought that this stone had the power of dispelling drunkenness in all who wore or touched it, and hence its Greek name formed from ‘a –’ (“privative”) and ‘–methuo’ (“to get drunk”). Its Jewish name, ahlamah’, was derived by the rabbins from the Hebrew word halam, “to dream,” from its supposed power of causing the wearer to dream.”
To summarise: amethysts dispelled drunkenness and that was SUPER COOL given what had happened to me at the Sevens. I wasn’t sure about stones curing drunkenness, but I knew God certainly could – indeed, had. The proof was in the pudding or, if you will, the evidence in the ethanol.
Awesome! So God had given me a word and it had related, in a rather roundabout way, to my name and to part of my walk with Him. “Now what?” Would be the question on my lips for the best part of three months: life moved on, and I forgot about ‘amethyst’.
I love Koinonia: it’s a charismatic, ecumenical, intercollegiate fellowship of Christians (big words I know) – it’s a society in the University of London. Come June, I was at its closing weekend away, for which we had trekked south, to Kent. Unfortunately, the conference centre we had booked – an entire year in advance, mind you – was taken by reason of an administrative error. We were forced to look elsewhere. This was a bummer at first, but it soon turned into a blessing: we had great fun staging impromptu times of worship and prayer in a couple parks and on a local beach, and, on both nights we spent in Canterbury, God miraculously provided places for us to stay. On the first night, the thirteen of us booked into a hostel – they said they would never normally have space on a Friday evening, let alone for people who booked on the same day – and on the second, we stayed in a different hostel on the way back to London – one that had enough room for the murder mystery evening we had planned. It was OODLES of fun: 11/10 would recommend.
The weekend ended at the Men’s Household, in London, with a final time of prayer and worship. It was powerful: the presence of God was there, and he was moving in people like wildfire. If you are a Christian, and you are reading this, you probably know that nothing can compare to God’s overwhelming love and joy, and that, as you draw near to him in times of worship, you feel truly alive. To quote the Westminster catechism – a John Piper favourite: “the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever”. Such fun – literally.
To my surprise, God shook me out of my reverie. “Ben, listen carefully. I need you to give me Chris, St. Stephens and all the brothers there.”
I don’t know why, but my immediate response was a twisted, Gollum-like, “NO!” I felt something squirm inside of me. How could God ask for that: for my best friend and for the memories of a place where so much good had happened to me? I was indignant for a second, before I realised where my train of thought was headed.
“Wait a second,” I deliberated, “what kind of reasoning was that? Why would I say no to God? What had happened to me? He loved me, and wanted what was best for me; he had never let me down before, so why would he start now? Why had I had such a violent reaction to such a simple request? What was this, this thing inside of me that resisted God’s will?”
I kept asking myself these questions until, hesitantly, painfully, I came to a decision: “OK, God. I give Chris to you. I give St Stephen’s to you. I give the brothers to you. You are trustworthy and faithful.” The words did not come out easily: odd as it may sound, it was one of the most difficult choices I have ever made in my life and, as I made it, I was launched into a waking vision: I saw myself reach into my chest, take hold of a chunk of my heart, and rip it out in a single, brutal motion.
Blood sprayed everywhere, and I collapsed to the floor, dying. I lay there, facedown, for what seemed like an age. The floor turned crimson as my blood spread in a pool around me. Then, out of nowhere, a hand appeared. It lifted me up before reaching gently into the gap where the piece of my heart I had been. It covered my heart and the flesh around it, resting lightly on the wound for a few seconds, before lifting off. The moment it did, I started to breathe again, as my heart restarted. I looked down and there, where the hole had been, was a beautiful, glittering purple amethyst. It was breath-taking.
“Ben, I love you. I define who you are: you are loved. When you value other things above me, you make them idols, and lose your identity. I say that you are my son, and that you are royalty. I say that you are consecrated before me, and that I will use you to build the New Jerusalem. I say that I love you.”
I couldn’t help but cry as God spoke these words over me. For the past year, I had grown proud of my time at St Stephen’s; I would tell people in Church circles: “I spent my gap year with Jackie Pullinger” as I knew it would earn me Christian brownie points. I had valued the gifts over the giver, and yet God showed me grace, as he always did. Though I had tarnished his creation with lies, he had removed the dirt and spoken truth and life over me: I was loved, and I was precious. Among other things, I resolved not to drink again (I hadn’t since I’d started the Whole 30 diet) until, at the very earliest, I graduated. I would find my joy, identity and wholeness in God, and God alone.
I cannot emphasise how liberating and powerful an experience this was: at the time, I was once again working at the law firm where I had spent the first half of my gap year, and once again I had felt drained by the experience. Sometimes, I wouldn’t leave work until half past eleven at night, as deadlines mounted and the pile of work grew taller. To be sure, God was with me, and had acted miraculously and with great kindness in my time there – he would help me find tiny documents in huge stacks of paper immediately where it might otherwise have taken hours, and had greatly improved the relationship I had with my co-workers, and he had given me the strength to continue, day in day out. Still, it could be a slog and, at times, highly pressurised. God’s promises of identity and love, therefore, really, really lifted me up.
I wanted to commemorate the event in some way. “What could I do?” I wondered. Slowly, a thought dawned on me: I could get a crucifix with an amethyst at its centre! A few months prior, the cross necklace I had bought off Amazon had broken – it was cheap and flimsy, and rusted easily when I forgot to take it off to play sport. I prayed, “God, I’d love to remember what you’ve done and who you have said I am in a tangible way. If it’s right, I’d love to get a cross to wear with me at all times, and I’d love you to show me where I can find it. The timing is up to you.”
It took until the ninth and final week of my summer job (a month and a half after the weekend away) before God answered me: on my penultimate day of work, July 14th, my boss sent me to the Royal Courts of Justice to file some papers. I was about to head in, when, all of a sudden, I felt the Holy Spirit say “Nope. Turn around.” I promptly did, and followed his lead: I turned away from the RCJ and started to walk across the road. “Where was I going?” It wouldn’t take long to find out: directly opposite the courts, and slightly to the left of the zebra crossing, was a jeweller’s. “Fun fun fun.” I thought to myself, excitedly, and pushed the door open to go inside. “Hello?” I ventured, as I poked my head around the corner, “Anybody there?”
“Back here!” Came a voice further in. The shop, Alsal Watches, was long and narrow, with arrays of jewellery, watches and other precious items lining its sides in a long, glass casing. It wasn’t well-lit, but each product seemed to shine, regardless. I walked to the back of the shop and found a man standing behind the counter. He was dealing with another customer, so I had a closer look at their wares: lo and behold, there was a stand to my right, which displayed a wide variety of crosses and accompanying chains. Some were ornate, with etchings of Jesus himself, some were gold, some silver, some were plain, straight and simple, and others still were Gaelic or baroque in style.
“Can I help you?” The man asked; the other customer had finished his business.
“Yes! I’ve been looking for a crucifix, and I just so happened to stumble in here today: could you, by any chance, make one with an amethyst in the middle?” I explained.
“Hmmm. Our gem-setter – Guven – isn’t in today, but he’ll be here tomorrow. Could you come back then? He might be able to do something.”
“Sure!” I replied.
The next day, Guven was indeed in, and he could indeed make me a crucifix with an amethyst setting. I chose a white gold cross, with a sterling silver chain – I didn’t want to ratchet up the price too much. How much would it be? “£150” I gulped at his response before praying and feeling a sense of affirmation from the Holy Spirit. It was payday at work; I could just about afford it, and it was meant to last for the rest of my life. I would take it. When could it be ready? Would Monday week do? It would. Phew!
I was travelling to Northern Ireland the coming week, to help as a leader at a Christian children’s camp in a village called Dunloy, and would be getting back late on Sunday 23rd, before flying out to Hong Kong for a six-week stint at St Stephen’s – my flight that day (Monday 24th) was in the evening, so I had just enough time to pick it up in the morning. Pick it up I did, and when I did, it was beautiful. Whenever I looked at it or felt it hang around my neck, I knew who I was in Christ – who he said I was – and nothing could take that away from me.
Part V: Mountains & Valleys
In the Bible, physical places very often have figurative meanings attached to them. Mountains, for example, are normally places of intense joy – at their peak we can rejoice as we draw near to God and look out over His good creation – and their complement, valleys, are normally places of death and suffering – there are multiple mentions of the “Valley of Death” and a “Valley of Dry Bones”, for example. Suffice to say, I was on the mountain: I LOVE St. Stephen’s and was overjoyed to be back, loving and serving the brothers and hanging out with the awesome helpers on my days off. It was especially great to see Chris after nearly a year apart – the bromance continued in full force. My necklace, moreover, was the subject of much curiosity; I delighted in telling the story of God’s goodness and guidance, in the hope that others, too would be encouraged to listen to God and hear what he had to say about them, about their identity.
Time flew by: it was like heaven on earth (except for the sweating – I had so many showers – and the occasionally grumpy brothers – they were limited to two showers a day, so perhaps their frustration was understandable). In John 10:10, Jesus promises that, “I have come that they [mankind] may have life, and have it to the full.” I can wholeheartedly affirm that right there, right then, I was living life to the full. It could be tough physically, as the heat and close quarters could make things a bit cramped, but it was always worth it. Every day, I saw and felt God moving in my life and the lives of those around me, bringing his love and mercy wherever he went.
One night in block four, our house leaders, Luke and Sarah, led a ‘sharing’ about the fruit of the Holy Spirit. They encouraged all of us to pray, and to ask God which ‘fruit’ (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – Galatians 5:22-23) He wanted to reveal in our lives that week. I prayed, and felt God say, “Find joy in the valley.” Luke and Sarah had given us little pieces of paper, which they had cut out into red apples. They asked us to write down what God had said to us. This was mine:
[“The valley –> pursue joy there (frustration with the brothers, cleaning, fatigue, etc.)”]
Nehemiah 8:10 says, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” I placed the piece of paper in that page of my Bible, as a bookmark, and resolved that, in the coming week, I would find joy in the valley, no matter what happened. I have kept it there to this day.
It wouldn’t be long before I was put to the test: that weekend, I went on a camping trip to Lantau island with Steve, one of the helpers, and four teenage brothers. It was my second in two weeks; on the first we’d had loads of fun. We had camped on a beach, cooked dinner by moonlight, and roasted marshmallows on an open fire before going to sleep. The only downer from that weekend was the fact that there were a ton of ants: we were all bitten at least ten times.
This weekend would be a little different. We were going to a proper campsite, and you could see the excitement in the brothers’ eyes. They didn’t often spend time out of SMS, and they relished their freedom when they did. We arrived, and set up our tents on the grass, before collecting some stones and arranging them in a circle – where our campfire would be. We then found as much as dry wood as we could, for the fire we planned to build later in the evening. When we were completely unpacked and set up, Steve suggested we all cool off by jumping off the pier into the ocean – it was a five-minute walk away.
We didn’t need much encouraging. Each of us changed into our swimming gear, and ran off to the pier. There weren’t many people about, so we left our camp as it was, assuming our things would be safe if they were sufficiently covered.
When I got to the pier, I took my shirt off, and realised that I was still wearing my amethyst necklace. What should I do? I had a choice: I could either run back to our tent and leave it there, hidden in my Bible (or something like that) or I could risk it and keep it with my towel and t-shirt there on the pier. I decided to go with the latter. As carefully as I could, I folded up my towel, making sure to keep the necklace exactly in the centre. I folded my t-shirt up, too, and placed it on top of my towel, which I had rested on top of a small bollard. I left it there and jumped straight in. “Wahoo!” I shouted as I plunged into the water.
It was positively delightful: the top three feet or so of the water had been warmed by the sun, but if you dove further under, the temperature dropped, and the current cooled my skin. It also got quite dark, quite quickly, the further down you went. I looked back at the pier, underwater; I could only see about a meter below the surface of the water.
Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder, so I surfaced. Mistake: as soon as I did, I was buffeted with water from all directions. The brothers had snuck up on me, and were ambushing me. With a cheeky grin, I dove under and swam away from them, before returning and getting them back from the other direction. We laughed, a lot. Was this paradise? It was certainly a glimpse.
Steve – what a guy – suggested that we all swim to the beach. It looked like it was about half a mile away. Two of the brothers wanted to go, two didn’t. I volunteered to look after the two who wanted to stay. We took turns doing cannonballs and other jumps off the pier, and generally swimming around, enjoying the feeling of the water. After a while, I wondered how far Steve and his two brothers had gone, so I climbed up the pier steps to get a better view. It looked like they were hanging out on the beach, chatting. The two brothers under my charge were trying, and, amusingly, failing to catch a fish with their bare hands. I looked out across the ocean, at peace.
Before I went back into the water, it occurred to me to check the bollard. My towel wasn’t there. It was hanging up on a nearby railing. “Phew!” I thought to myself – would have been awkward to skin dry. Plus, I really liked my towel. I always bring it with me when I travel, as it’s extremely portable. My t-shirt was hanging up too.
I was just about to jump back in when alarm bells started to ring in my mind. What was wrong? “Oh no.” My face sunk as I realised, and I ran over to the bollard and my towel. I searched frantically. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, nooooooo.” How could this happen? Perhaps it had fallen off, and had caught on the edge of the pier? I scoured every inch of the surrounding area, but I couldn’t find it.
I couldn’t help it: I screamed in exasperation, frustration and desperation. Where was my necklace? What had happened to it? The brothers, worried, came up to ask me if I was OK, and it seemed like Steve and his two brothers had heard me too; they started to swim back. I explained that my cross was gone. Their faces dropped too: they knew how special it was; I’d told them, among others, the story. Soon, all six of us were looking around the pier. We looked everywhere, including the water. Steve dove down as far as he could, but he couldn’t see anything in the darkness. It was gone. My necklace was gone. I felt like crying: God had been so good to me, and his words to me had been so uplifting; how could I have been so careless with what he had given me? Steve and the brothers commiserated me and encouraged me as best they could. I calmed down a little and told them I needed some time alone. I went back to our tent to pray.
I made a beeline for my Bible, and it opened on the page I had last bookmarked: Nehemiah 8. “Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” I looked further down, at my bookmark: “Find joy in the valley.” I know they should have been comforting, but the words stung: “Why God, why? I loved that necklace so much! I loved what it meant – what you said about me. I loved the story – how it pointed to you. How could I be so stupid?” I ranted. “Now the story’s broken, and it’s my fault. I lost what you gave to me. How could I be so irresponsible?”
“Ben. Listen to yourself.”
What? What was I saying? I made perfect sense. I was justified: it was right for me to wallow in self-pity. I was hurting. Why couldn’t he affirm that? Why couldn’t he tell me he loved me, and that it would be OK? Isn’t that what Job did?
A thought cut through my complaint: I should listen to the song, Mountain, by Bryan and Katie Torwalt. I did, on repeat. Each time it played, the words grew more powerful, and eventually they drowned out the other noises in my head.
This is the chorus:
“High on the mountain,
I will be lifting my voice.
And in the valley,
I will be dancing for joy.
In every season,
You are worthy.
In every moment,
I started to sing along, and as I did, I started to believe the words. Eventually, I stood up, and started to dance – for joy. The situation sucked, but I would find joy in the valley. I had made a mistake, but I would find joy in the valley. I had been irresponsible, but God was still good, and I would find joy in the valley. I found joy in the valley.
As I did I realised why God had told me to listen to myself. “Now the story’s broken.” What did I mean? How could the story be broken? Had my identity changed? No, of course not. Why, then would I say something like that? I thought about the events of the past few weeks, racking my brains for an answer.
It hit me. Beauty – or more specifically, Beauty and the Beast. That was it. Beauty and the Beast (of Pornography). My latest story. It had amassed over three hundred views on my blog, and around fifty ‘likes’ on Facebook. People left right and centre had congratulated me for my bravery and writing ability. “So great of you to share. I was really touched – it was a beautiful story.” Was the average response. I had taken it in my stride. “All glory to God.” I had thought to myself.
Or had I? Had I meant it?
“I am the end of the story. I am the alpha and the omega.”
I fell facedown as God spoke again. God was the end of my story. He was. “Before Abraham, I am.” I had twisted my blog, which was meant to bring peace and encouragement, into something it wasn’t. I had tried to put God in a box – to assert that I knew better than he what the perfect story was. But I was wrong, and overjoyed to be wrong. I stood up, and kept singing, “High on the mountain, I will be lifting my voice, and in the valley, I will be dancing for joy!” Adding in, occasionally, shouts of “He is the end of the story! My God is the end of every story! Hallelujah!”
After a while, my excitement faded, to be replaced with a gentle peace. My identity had not changed; I was still who he said I was, and would find joy in the valley. I was his, and he was mine. I prayed, content, “Father, into your hands I commit everything. I give you my life, I give you my necklace, I give you my all. May your kingdom come and your will be done. If you want to replace the necklace, so be it. If not, so be it. You are good, and your love endures forever.” I went to sleep quietly happy that night – the brothers couldn’t understand it – and enjoyed the rest of our weekend.
The camping trip ended, and the last of my six weeks in Hong Kong did too. Everybody prayed for me at congregation before I left – I really did want to stay – but God told me to go back to London, back to what he had prepared, so I went, in peace. I landed, my mum picked me up from the airport, and I told her, with joy, everything that had happened (beyond that which I’d already shared over the phone/WhatsApp). As we got home, my mum remembered: “Oh yeah – while you were away, Emma Chang [a friend of the family] sent you and your brothers a red packet. It’s in your room”
“How nice of her.” I thought. “Please could you thank her for me?” I asked.
I lugged my suitcase upstairs and started to unpack. My mum had placed the red packet on my desk; I’d open it later. When I had finished, I went to my desk, grabbed the red packet, and looked inside. I had been expecting to see £20, maybe £30. I pulled the cash out. There were four £50 notes. I sat there, dumbstruck, for a moment.
“I am the end of the story.”
My Heavenly father’s words echoed around my skull. I ran downstairs, gushing. “God is good!” I really had to thank Emma.
A few weeks later, at the beginning of my second year at LSE, I made my third trip to Alsal Watches. I explained what had happened, and asked if he could set another necklace for me. He seemed just as bummed as I had been on the pier when I told him, and took pity on me – “Tell you what, I’ll cut the price of this one for you.” He even let me have a white gold chain – I wouldn’t have to polish it anywhere near as much – all for the price of £160. It was a wonderful deal; I agreed, and would come pick it up soon. He said I could pay when I picked it up.
It took a while (about two months), but I didn’t mind. I gave one of the £50 notes to Wayne, my friend – he sells the Big Issue outside the Natwest on the Strand, for his birthday. He was overjoyed, and I was blessed to be a blessing. Maddie and Eunice – both of whom I love dearly as the people who taught me what it meant to have sisters in Christ – offered to fill in the now-missing £10 for my birthday. Once again, God showed his sense of humour: Guven finally had it ready by November 17th, my birthday. I picked it up, and have worn it ever since.
I love it, but not for what it is – for what, or better who it represents: a God who is love, and who loves me – his beloved. I know I may lose it at some point, or it may be stolen, or something like that – it may even last until my deathbed – but none of that really matters. His love for me, and hopefully mine for him, will never fade, and that is more than enough.
You’ve made it! It’s over! This story is done! God’s story, on the other hand, hasn’t finished yet. I’ve written all of this for and with him, in the hope that you, dear reader, might be encouraged, and in the hope that you might know him for yourself, and thereby live life to the full. What started off as a story about the sad effects of alcohol on my life finished with a tale of God’s goodness, provision and love, and the meaning of that love for me – for my identity. Every word of it was true. There’s no reason you can’t have an equally wonderful, equally joyful story of your own.
One day, every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. While we live on this earth, we have the ultimate privilege of getting to know God – the maker of the heavens and the earth and, more importantly, of us. We are his children, and he wants us to know that no matter what pit we find ourselves in, no matter what lie we have taught ourselves to believe, he offers us a way out. He himself has travelled to the pits of hell, and he himself has set the captives free: Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again – for you – that you might know him and call him friend, saviour and Lord. He wants you to know, above all, that you are loved and that he does not condemn you. He wants to save you, to heal you. Take it from me: he can and will, if you let him.
If you do not know Him, I would love to talk and pray with you. Contact me here, through Facebook, or any other way you can find. If you would rather go straight to God, then know that you can talk to him any time – you can pray right now. If you need help praying, the following resource is really helpful:
If you do know Him, then know this simple truth: He is love, He loves you and He defines you by His love. That will never change. I have made mistakes; he has always shown me grace; he will always show it to you too. Do not let yourself be separated from him – be it through alcohol, relationships, blog posts, porn, or anything else. Always be honest with him, rest in his embrace, and go on an adventure of his choosing – live life to the full.
In Peace, Joy, & Love,
 My parents had always let us have a sip of whatever they were drinking, from the age of five. I remember hating Pastis (and liquorice more generally), but otherwise quite enjoyed whatever I was allowed to have. Alcohol was never taboo in my family.
 Upper Sixth / the final year of secondary school.
 We believed it was illegal for our housemaster or house tutors to gain access to them.
 The people who were good at sport and/or had prior experience with sex/drugs/drunkenness.
 We’d arranged it as a post-exams, school-leaver blow-out.
 Our room was on the sixth floor, if I remember correctly.
 Or at least it felt like it. They were definitely away for a whole month one time. Overall, I’m not sure – many other times I’d come back to a wonderful home-cooked meal and the abundant love of my grandparents; others I’d have to stay at work far too long, and would get back too late for supper – which was nearly as depressing.
 I do actually quite like Prêt, and their chicken Caesar sandwiches. They’re legit.
 This is not a review of HTB. I hope my experience was more a reflection of the place I was in mentally and spiritually than of the Church / Church environment itself. I know it’s done a huge amount of good for the Kingdom –the benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing.
 I’m sure I was imagining most, if not all of this.
 We’d known each other since our time in Indonesia – from the age of five.
 This one in particular is an absolute nightmare. As it turns out, practically ALL food has added sugar as an ingredient in your local supermarket. It’s straight-up crazy-town, and super annoying for the purposes of the diet.
 Have a read of Revelation 21 and 22 if you’re curious: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+21-22&version=NIV
 Quick note: no scholar thinks that the tribes of Israel / sons of Jacob are actually connected to the foundations of the new Jerusalem – or indeed to any of the other references to gemstones. It just resonated with me on a personal level.
 Every year, Koinonia has a men’s and a women’s household, in which members of the society live together and commit to serving God and the community. I’m in the men’s household this year.
 John 1:12-13; John 3:16; Romans 8:35-39; 1 John 4:16; 1 Peter 2:5, 9
 It was by no means bad before; this time, though I was able to share a lot more of God’s love for them.
 Revelation 22:13: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
 John 8:58
 The campsite actually flooded that night – we had to evacuate. I had already found joy in the valley, though, so all was well.
 Romans 14:11
 John 15:13-15
 John 3:17
 1 John 4:8