Atheism, alcohol and abortion – Steve Downes recounts his remarkable story of meeting with the God who heals, and who sometimes does not. ‘Does God heal today?’ It’s the catchy title for one of the sessions on Alpha courses. It’s also a question that I wrestle with more than any other. But nine years ago, it wasn’t something I even considered. For how could God heal when he didn’t even exist?Atheist beginningsThat was the natural conclusion I drew from my typical post-1960s English upbringing. Born in Norwich and brought up at Cromer on the north Norfolk coast, my life was good. My parents were kind and loving. I found school pretty easy, had plenty of good friends and spent my spare time playing or watching football.I wanted for nothing (except perhaps fewer freckles and hair that wasn’t ginger, but beggars can’t be choosers!) God was not in the equation. I was brought up as an atheist by parents who weren’t hostile to Christianity, but simply nonplussed by it. Being a fiery redhead with opinions to burn, I saw their atheism and raised it. Like Saul of Tarsus, minus the stonings, I was on a mission to persecute Christians. (With the benefit of hindsight, I was the devil’s advocate. But at the time I believed I was spreading the truth to the poor, misguided Christians of the world.)Christians who I encountered, including my best friend Alistair Purdy, suffered the abuse of this opinionated know-it all with frustrating good humour. I occasionally went along to church youth events to be disruptive, and once burst into a late-night Christmas Eve service at Cromer Parish Church while completely drunk. I caused a scene and was frogmarched out of the building by the shocked and harassed sidesmen.On another drunken night out, I walked home along the seafront and saw a pile of stones with a Scripture Union Beach Mission flag fluttering at the top. I triumphantly pulled up the flag, threw it in the North Sea and congratulated myself on my heroic victory for the forces of truth.An alcoholic hazeAs is probably pretty obvious, alcohol was a big part of my life. From the age of 15, barely a Friday or Saturday evening passed without my friends and I having a skin-full of cider, vodka, or nauseating mixtures of any booze that could be bought, borrowed or stolen. We were your typical teenagers – drinking, dancing at the disco, latching on to any poor girl who crossed our path, and taking home road signs as souvenirs of our night. At 18, having coasted through GCSEs and A-levels with decent enough grades, I applied for a job as a trainee journalist atthe Eastern Daily Press in Norwich. Remarkably, despite my earring, ponytail and gauche behaviour, I got in.The next five years was a blur. On weekdays, I was the semi-respectable suited and booted reporter, moving from office to office in Norfolk and learning my trade. But at weekends, it was back to Cromer to get smashed with the lads and chase girls – or off around the country to follow Norwich City, always with gallons of beer a crucial part of the trip. By now, cannabis was also a big part of my life, and in December 1995 the lifestyle reached its peak (or nadir, depending on how you view it) when I was moved to the newspaper’s Cromer office and got a flat with a good mate in the town. For just over a year there were no limits and no moral code. Women were a means to an end, while being a five-minute walk from my favourite pub meant weekend binges soon spilled over into seven-nights-a-week after work.Never mind that I used to wake up some mornings with an unnerving feeling of emptiness. It was easily solved by heading straight back down to the ‘Welly’ and arranging a therapeutic date with my old friend Holsten Export. Looking back, I was at a crossroads. At the age of 23, I could easily have stayed in this alluring world of drink, drugs anddebauchery for many years to come. I could have become one of the prematurely-aged barflies who could not function until they had their first Special Brew or house double of the day.
Church marriageThankfully, things changed, and suddenly. In the pub that was becoming my second home and my unknown nemesis, I met a woman called Yolande who bowled me over (metaphorically, not literally). I fell in love almost overnight, and within six weeks I had moved into the house that she shared with her two children. At the same time, in an unexpected attack of commonsense and responsibility, I stopped smoking and taking cannabis and cut down the drinking to levels unknown to me since I was 14.
In no time at all we were engaged. To this day I don’t know why she took the risk, but she obviously saw beyond the bluster of the drunk and concluded that there were some character jewels within me that were worth mining. Yolande had been married twice before but, despite my years of anti-Christian vitriol, I was determined to get married in a church. It was more from a feeling of wanting to “do it properly” than a softening towards a belief system that I was still convinced was a crutch for the insecure.
The local Methodist minister, Keith Bamford, agreed to marry us. But, to my horror, Yolande said she would only get married in church if we attended it for length of time on Sundays in the lead-up to the big event. Reluctantly, like a child being dragged round the shops, I moped along with her and the two children. I watched the hands of the clock slowly drag round as a succession of people spouted from the pulpit what I believed was errant nonsense. The relentless tedium paid off, though, and on May 23rd 1998 we were married. And, though Yolande and the two children kept up their trips to church, I was set free to go back to Sunday football.
Alpha and, almost OmegaWithin a few weeks, a letter dropped on our doormat from Mr Bamford, inviting us to attend an Alpha course. I was typically disparaging about it, but Yolande said she wanted to go. I tried ridicule, then attempted to be the big man by ordering her not to. But she was set on it and, to rub salt into the wound, told me that if I wouldn’t take her she would go with her Christian friend Sara. I wasn’t having some loony Christians getting at my beloved wife, so I told her I would go (obviously to protect her from brainwashing and to convert a few of the misled believers to my godless worldview.)
The course, which was jointly run by the Methodists and Anglicans of Cromer, began. I showed my resolution by sitting still and saying nothing – while secretly quite enjoying the evenings. By now, Yolande was expecting our first child. At the halfway point of the pregnancy we went to hospital for a routine scan. It was anything but routine as our lives were shattered with the news that our child was suffering from cystic fibrosis. With time short to make a decision, and the medical staff edging us towards the “compassionate” (and, in the long-term, cheaper) option, we agreed to have a termination.
The terrible day arrived, and we packed our bags to head to the hospital. We sat down with the consultant and he asked us one last time: “Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?”
At exactly the same time, unprompted and un-discussed, Yolande and I said “No”. We both wanted to keep our baby, and only said we didn’t because we thought it was what the other wanted. The relief was enormous. The tears flowed as we felt a new strength to cope with looking after our child, whatever the condition.
A God who healsWe returned to the Alpha course for an evening titled, ‘Does God Heal Today?’ The session was held at our house, and the Anglican curate, Tim Mitchell, asked if he could lead prayer for our unborn child – who we knew by now was a little boy. We agreed, though I was seriously spooked by what I thought was mumbojumbo. As Tim and the people on the course prayed, Yolande began to cry and felt heat going through her womb. A return trip to the hospital soon ensued, and we braced ourselves for more confirmation of the heartbreaking diagnosis. But as the staff ran the scanner over Yolande’s tummy, they were silent, with incredulous looks on their faces. All signs of the cystic fibrosis had gone and, despite their attempts to find experts to explain it away or discover where the condition was suddenly hiding, they had no explanation. We were confused. We had no faith in a God of healing power, but had witnessed something out of the ordinary and mind-blowing.
A God who speaks Within a few nights I had a strange dream where I was arguing with Yolande about what name to give our son. She wanted the name Malcolm, which was the name of her father, brother and ex-husband. I wanted us to call our boy Ezekiel. It was a name I had never even heard of, and when I shared the dream with my wife in the morning we were confused. At the Holy Spirit Alpha away day, Tim explained who Ezekiel was and said that his name meant “strength of God”. It seemed apt.
Tim also suddenly realised that the evening before my dream, he had been praying for the people on the Alpha course. He was wrestling hard with God about me, because I was such an entrenched non-believer. In a throwaway line, Tim said to God: “Speak to him in a dream.”
By miracle or coincidence, the dream happened that very night. Now we were beginning to really warm to the things we were learning on the course. We bought our own Bibles and looked at a host of others in bookshops. Every time we opened a Bible at random it opened to the book of Ezekiel – not exactly the most well-thumbed scripture book!
My long road to Damascus was now almost complete. I began to see the hand of God in the series of ‘coincidences’ that had occurred. As the Alpha course ended, we felt a sense of acute emptiness. We talked together and realised that there was a space in our hearts for God. On my 25th birthday, December 20th 1998, we knelt on the floor of Tim’s study and simultaneously gave our lives to Jesus – the same Jesus who I had blasphemed, ridiculed, persecuted and abused for a quarter of a century. Two months later, our son was born completely well. And yes, we did call him Ezekiel which, with his dark skin and his fearless commitment to truth and justice, really suits him!
Times of trialClearly, with a miraculous healing and two extraordinary conversions behind us, we have gone on to be ‘super-Christians’, full of faith and daring-do. Have we gone around moving mountains, and telling fig trees to uproot themselves and jump into the sea?
Actually, we haven’t. The reality, as most Christians will understand, is never that easy. Christianity has certainly not turned out to be the crutch that I so dismissively believed it to be. Instead, it has been tough, with friendships sacrificed along the way and mild ridicule suffered in many places (what goes around, comes around).
But the hardest thing to deal with has been the issue of healing. God healed little Ezekiel of a potentially lethal condition. However, another child who is a close member of our family has spent the last few years dealing with diabetes and coeliac’s disease (intolerance to any food containing gluten). We have gone through stages of praying without ceasing – but then we ceased. We have taken this lad to a Benny Hinn meeting in Manchester and believed for his healing – only to come away disappointed and feeling more than a little bit betrayed by the showmanship of the event. We’ve also, egged on by people who we looked up to, ‘named it and claimed it’. But the result is the same – a child with two debilitating and frustrating conditions.
More ridiculously, we’ve even been to prayer meetings where people have said: “Thank you God for healing this boy” – even though nothing has happened. It’s almost as if they think God can be backed into a corner. Many times we have felt like secondclass Christians, punished by God because of a lack of faith. And wellmeaning fellow believers have unwittingly reinforced that feeling by telling all who will listen that all you need is faith and God will grant you all your wishes.
In my very humble opinion, however, I believe the reality is somewhat different. In every congregation there are numerous people who have been seeking God’s healing in their lives and the lives of their loved ones. They have faith, they love God – but they see nothing happen. They need love and support from the body of Christ – not to be made to feel somehow inferior. I’ve learnt to accept that God is God. He knows what is best and will do it at the right time. In the meantime, I can rejoice at my salvation and the healing of my son.
Steve Downes is Education Correspondent and Leader Writer for the Eastern Daily Press newspaper in Norfolk. He lives in Cromer with his wife, two sons and two stepchildren.