Monday, 1 November 2010

My Story

I'd like to tell you a story, well actually, I'd like to tell you my story. Forgive me for the indulgence, but as I reflected on elsewhere, I think people like hearing each others stories, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to tell you mine. This may take some time, so grab a cuppa.

I was born on the 13th July 1981, the youngest of identical twins by 12 minutes. My birth mother had Indian parents who had moved to the UK before she was born. My birth grandfather was from the Punjab region of North West India while my birth grandmother was from Assam in the Seven Sister states of North East India. They met in Kolkata (then Calcutta) when my birth grandfather was tying to get into films as an actor, a desire that caused them to move to the UK.

My birth mother and father were no longer together when we were born so we were adopted at 6 months old onto a small island off the coast of Essex called Mersea. My parents had already adopted a boy and then two years later, a girl, so the six of us grew together in the countryside of the idyllic Essex island. My mum stayed at home and looked after us as being a mother had always been her strongest desire in life.

My Dad was a fish merchant and built up a considerable business through my early childhood. We never saw him much because of work but this never felt like an issue to me, it was just the way life was. Family life always seemed pretty happy with its usual ups and downs, but in the late 80's early 1990's things got quite tough.

Dad's business went under and the house and everything else was tied into the business. As a result we moved into my nanna's one bedroom bungalow and began to figure out a new life together. I had known things had been difficult for sometime because, as a child, I could pick up on feelings and the general atmosphere of home life. That with the house being where the business was it was apparent something wasn't right. I know my mum and dad went to hell and back and it's not right to go into details, but I believe it is a testament to them that they are together today having fought with blood, sweat and tears to stay together. In a society that gives up so easily on marriage they are a walking example of what can be achieved if you are willing to sacrifice and wrestle.

Having lost everything my mum decided to sell prawns and cockles out of the front window of an old oyster packing shed that was situated at the water front. My Dad had brought this shed a few years before and my mum knew that we needed to find some cash from somewhere. From the late eighties I knew things were tough financially even though my mum tried to hide it. Looking back life was very strained, but everyone sucked it up and got on with it because that is what you do. So mum doing this provided us with money and slowly it grew into a business in its own right. People came and ate their prawns and cockles inside the shed. Mum started selling wet fish landed by the local fisherman. It grew and grew to today be something quite unique and special. Read here to see what the Guardian made of it.

The very first time I got drunk was when I was ten years old. I found a bottle of cider and I don't know how much I drank but I do know I was very sick! When I was 13 I began to drink on a regular basis and I was 14 when I first drank a large bottle of vodka to myself. Smoking and doing cannabis was a regular part of my teenage life, but it was the drink that really gripped me. By the time I was 15 drinking was a normal part of my lifestyle. I always seemed to be the one who drank more heavily than anyone else. I didn't know when to stop and time and time again I would pass out somewhere to be found by mates who would take me home. One time when I was 14 I passed out on the beach near the waters edge. The tide was coming in and it was only because my mate tripped over me in the dark that I was dragged further up the beach away from the water to sleep it off. Passing out because of drink was a regular weekend experience for me even though I still at school.

Despite all of this I left school with pretty good GCSE's and decided to go to college and do an art A level. Art is something I am naturally able to do and thought this might be something worthwhile. However, after two months of being stoned and drunk and not turning up to class I decided to leave and get a job. I got a full time job working in a convenience store on the Island.

I would drink everyday by this point and there were times I would fall asleep walking to work because I was so tired from the drinking and late nights. Sometimes I would wake up in the morning after a heavy night with no idea where I was. People would come into the shop and ask if I was ok because they had seen me collapsed in the street outside the pub. These were weekly occurrences and I remember nothing or very little about them.

When I was eighteen I was invited to Spain to do some labouring work for 6 weeks. My time there was a pretty much a replica of my life in the UK. We would start work at 8am and then have a break at 10am with a drink and a joint. We would then work till lunch and have another couple of drinks before working through till about 6pm. A quick shower and change and then we would go out all night, sometimes without sleep to start work again the next day.

After getting back from Spain I spent about 3 weeks in a ski resort before quitting and then went back to my job at the convenience store. I remember one time drinking solidly until 6am and going to work at 8am, still very drunk. My boss sat me down in his office and told me to straighten my life out because he believed in me and could see real potential. I will always remember that because there was a man who saw something in me that I didn't see. However, I was now at a point in my life where everything revolved around drink. I distinctly remember thinking to myself that I could not even think about not having a drink just for one day. I honestly didn't know how I would cope if I didn't have a drink. I enjoyed escaping into a fantasy world thinking I could do anything and be anyone. The problem is that when I woke up the reality would sink in. I reached a point when I was drinking in the mornings too. I'm not sure anyone to this day realises the extent to which I drank.

I left the shop and went to work for a photography company which actually helped curb my drinking a little because I had to drive to all over the place. The hours were pretty long too so I wasn't able to go out as much as before. That only lasted 6 months before I'd had enough and went to work for my father as an oyster fisherman.

Oyster fishing has been in my family for eight generations. My father came into it when his dad died. My dad was at uni when his dad died of a brain tumour, so my dad left uni and took the family business over. His dad had never wanted him to do it because it was too much hard work, but fate often deals its own hand. The oyster industry suffered badly though because of disease and so my dad left it to become a fish merchant. He continued to have a hand in the oyster industry and when his business went under he took his family trade up again and, with a couple of others, worked the ground until oysters were once again spawning naturally in the Blackwater Estuary. He now has a thriving oyster trade and oysters are strong once again.

I began working for my dad with a view to one day take the business over. The problem was that I wasn't very good at it! I could run the business from land and pack and ship the oysters. I was organised and able to sort the stock and deal with customers, but when it came to working on the water, I wasn't great at it. Don't get me wrong, I could do it but, compared to my Dad and others in the trade, I wasn't very good!

By the time I was 21 I was drinking one litre of vodka a day along with wine and beer. I was a womaniser and a drinker. I hurt a lot of people. I'm sorry for that.

As I reflect on all this while I'm writing, memory after memory are flooding back of people I hurt, places I collapsed in, stealing, moments of shame and regret. I have a thousand stories I could tell, and a thousand reasons not to tell any of them.

Through various circumstances I came in contact with the local Baptist Church on Mersea. This was in about the year 2000 when I was 19 and I sporadically went along to different meetings they had there and became good mates with the assistant minister of the church who was training at Spurgeon's College. We would talk and discuss many issues. Looking back I was probably agnostic. I believed there was perhaps something when you died, but what that was I wasn't sure. I remember mocking much of the theology I heard about this belief in the Christian God. I remember being utterly bemused by the church and how it viewed life.

Shortly after my 21st birthday I was invited to Soul Survivor, a big youth Christian event. I went, not really wanting to go, but intrigued by it. I spent 4 days watching and living among thousands of people who seemed to see the world so differently to me. I saw great naivety and innocence. Yet there was something about it, something I had not encountered before in such a strong way; everyone seemed to be so full of love. It was an incredible experience. To these people God was more than a philosophy or abstract idea. I saw people generally believing they were experiencing God’s presence. Now I know this was true of Christians I knew already, but to be surrounded and to live among a community in this way seemed to drill it home. Yet I also saw a lot of hype. I questioned some of the way in which an atmosphere was created to get a response out of people. Yet despite this, I was intrigued about all that I had experienced.

I went away from there wondering if I needed to, for the first time, consider who this Jesus was. I got back to Mersea and went to my local pub. I sat in there and, for some unknown reason felt really out of place. I didn't know what to do. I thought about leaving and going to see my minister mate and talk to him about how I was feeling. I thought about it, and then had a drink, and then another, and then another. I spent a month drinking more than I ever had. Life seemed to spiral out of control and I felt completely out of control. I had no regard for others and, more than ever before, woman were nothing but an object to me.

About a month later Carl asked if I would share at church one Sunday morning about what I thought of Soul Survivor. I agreed. On Sunday 22nd September 2002 I went to church at 10.30am with a massive hangover and a desire to run away. Yet I had made a promise and something compelled me to keep it.
I stood up the front about an hour into the service and, with nothing written down, began to talk. I spoke about Soul Survivor and what I thought of it as a someone who wasn’t a Christian. I spoke about how God seemed more real because of the love I had witnessed. I spoke of shame. I began to expose my soul. I then looked at the large empty wooden cross that was hanging on the church wall. As I looked at it, I had what I can only describe as a vision and it was as if I could see Jesus himself hanging on this cross. In a second I realised that he had died for me, that he was calling me to follow him and become a new person. As I spoke I gave my life to Jesus and everything began to change.
I walked to the back of the church at the end of the service and saw a girl. I tapped her on the shoulder and she turned around and hugged me. I remember falling in love with her on the spot and believing I would marry her. Her name was Sarah and we began going out in December 2002.

On Sunday 3rd November 2002 I was baptised by full immersion. As I stood in the baptism pool a verse of Scripture was read out to me:

‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. The old has gone, the new is here!’ 2 Corinthians 5:17

As that was read I felt a wave of joy come over me. I knew that God was transforming me. I knew that the shame and guilt would be washed away in the waters of baptism. I knew that Jesus had made me into a new person. As I went under the water it felt like slow motion and like I could see magnificent light all around me. I was raised out of the water and joy and peace swept over me and I began to laugh and laugh out loud. I knew God had filled me with His Spirit and that nothing would be the same again. From that day Jesus became everything to me. Now that’s not saying I have always put Him first, I wish I had, but unfortunately I haven’t. But I knew from that day that my life was now God’s and devoted to Him.

In February 2003 Sarah found out that her mum had breast cancer and that it was pretty aggressive. Understandably this rocked Sarah's world. Sarah had already been suffering from depression, and this obviously did not help. I remember one evening when Sarah and I were praying together shortly after we'd found out about her mum. I remember us reading the Bible together and God's peace resting on us in an incredible way. Sarah fell asleep in my arms as we sat on the sofa together and rested. It was the first time in a long time that I saw peace on her face and somehow I knew that everything would be ok.
Sarah's mum fought off the cancer with prayer and chemotherapy and has now fully recovered.

Early in 2003 I felt a strong sense that I wanted to do more for the church than simply be a part of it; I wanted to tell people about Jesus. I spoke to Carl and some others and they seemed to think that I might be an evangelist. I asked what one of those was, and Sarah and I began to explore what this might look like and I very quickly took on a fair bit of responsibility within the Free Church on Mersea. In late 2003 Carl and his wife Sarah decided that at the end of his training they would move to a new church, so the Free Church began to look for someone to replace him. Only this time they felt God leading them to appoint an evangelist. The leadership felt strongly that God was looking for them to appoint a trained evangelist who had been working for some time in this kind of ministry. A few people had asked me whether I had considered applying for this position and I told them that I did not feel it was the right time for me. I wanted to get married, have children and then pursue a calling into ministry.
About a week before the closing date, April 2004, various events took place whereby I felt compelled to apply for the post. I knew in my heart that I needed to and 'random' people and events took place whereby I knew that it was the right thing to do. So after refusing and resisting, I applied for it.

The in May 2004 Sarah and I got engaged.

Apparently at a church meeting someone who did not know I was applying for the post said that they felt God saying to them that when Israel were looking for a King, God gave them a shepherd boy...
I was interviewed and subsequently called by the church to be their evangelist, which I started in September 2004.

Not a shepherd boy, but an oyster boy.

I began working for the church 'part-time' whilst also working for my Dad part-time. Working for the church and working in the community proved to be something very valuable. I was able to balance what I was hearing and seeing in church with what I was hearing and seeing in the community. I was able to stay relatively grounded and not get caught up in the church bubble, detached from reality. And God in His grace did amazing things in people's lives. But it was tough, really tough at times.

About a month into my new ministry Sarah and I were sitting in the lounge of the church manse watching tv one evening. The manse was on the church site and our kitchen window looked out onto the church car-park. I heard a knock on the kitchen window and went to have a look. A man I knew was standing by the window covered in blood. I told Sarah to go to my study and I let the man in. He had cut his wrists and the back of his legs and was clearly in a very bad state. I got him in the house and tied up his wrists and legs and then called the ambulance. They came and took him to hospital. He was a troubled soul who I had been trying to help. I learnt a lot.

About 3 days later Sarah and I were baby-sitting for a friend who lived a few miles away. They lived in a terraced house in a busy part of town. Their front door opened directly into the lounge and Sarah and I were watching tv again on this evening in the lounge. We were both still very shaken up by what had happened and were wondering whether we were cut out for ministry. There was a knock at the door so I got up and answered it. Three men were standing there all in balaclava's. They barged at me to get into the house. Sarah screamed and ran upstairs to the baby. I grabbed the front door and, as I did, it slammed shut keeping the men outside. I believe God closed that door for us. We found out that an armed robbery had taken place that same night and that we had been randomly selected by the robbers as a distraction to the police. While the police where with us the armed robbery took place.

These two events rattled us a lot, but by the grace of God we continued and through God’s love saw many people become followers of Jesus.

In August 2005 Sarah and I got married, one of the happiest days of my life. I still remember seeing Sarah walking down the aisle. I looked at her and began to cry because I was so so happy. She looked so beautiful and continues to grow in beauty everyday and I knew that day that God had blessed me beyond words. I hold on to the vows we made so closely. I have promised to love her unconditionally, for better or worse. I have promised to honour her with all that I am. And I pray that I will always be the husband that God has called me to be. Sarah is an amazing woman with an inner strength that has sustained me in my dark days.

I saw Sarah grow from a girl to a woman over this time. She is incredible. She has a prophetic gift and is always able to see and have insight to things and situations that reveal God’s will and plan. She has a sensitivity to situations that seems to be from the very heart of God. She has a pure heart, and it is the pure in heart who shall see God.

In September 2005 I started Spurgeon's College one day a week as an independent student. The church released me for a day to do this while I continued to work for them and my dad. During this time I was heading up something called Causeway and had an amazing group of people who worked with me and supported me, encouraging and correcting me. Causeway saw some great things happen with many many people getting baptised, exploring faith for the first time or discovering a freshness to their faith that had been lost. It was a really exciting time.

In March 2006 Sarah discovered she was pregnant and we welcomed our beautiful daughter Grace into the world in December 2006. She is a delight and joy to us. Becoming parents has been an amazing blessing and Sarah and I are eternally grateful to God for the gift of Grace to us. I muddle through as a husband and a father and hope that I can always be a source of love and grace to my beautiful family.

In early 2007 I began to have quite a dark time with God whereby I felt utterly alone. I could not pray or find any peace. I felt anxious and alone and it was only when Sarah held me or when I held Grace that I had any sense of peace or comfort. Looking back now I think college, working for Dad and working for the church, plus being a new father, was pretty tiring. Not only that but I was really struggling with drink in that, while I wasn't getting drunk or anything I felt the Beast raging.
From the time I was baptised in late 2003 I still struggled with drink. At my baptism my addiction to cigarettes was taken away so that I went from smoking about 200 a week to nothing, overnight. Yet as always, drink was the tough one.

I battled daily with a desire to get drunk and would constantly be fighting within myself. If I had one drink I would always want more. Sarah would keep me in check and make sure I was not being stupid, but I just could not completely let go of drinking. I felt like it was something I needed. Then in 2007 while I was reading the Bible I came across a verse in the book of Judges where God tells Samson's mum that no wine is to pass his lips. I felt God speak into my life and tell me that this is what he wanted for me. So I took myself off to a field and spent the day praying and wrestling with God and came away with a strong resolve and peace to never drink alcohol again. And over 3 years later, by the grace of God, I still haven't. Read here for more on this.

In mid 2007 I went through ministerial recognition to be accredited as an evangelist within the Baptist Union of Great Britain. I was accepted and in September 2007 I began as a Baptist Union student at Spurgeon's to be accredited and ordained as an evangelist.

As a result I had to stop working of my dad because of time pressures. This was a tough thing to do. I felt as though I was letting him down because I was the eighth generation oyster fisherman in our family. Yet my dad was so supportive and I know that to this day he has been proud of me as I went through my training as a minister.

In 2008 Sarah and I both were sensing that perhaps God was calling us to explore new ways of church. We knew loads of people for whom church was not something they wanted to be a part of, or even explore. We began to wonder how church might respond. College continued to go well and I met more and more people from college who were feeling the same as me. So began many conversations, voicing frustrations, hopes and dreams. More and more I knew I was not a 'traditional' Baptist minister and that God was calling me to something different, yet at the time I was unsure of what that might be.
The college then offered an opportunity to go to India and work with BMS for 3 weeks in Kolkata. Sarah and I spoke about it and we both felt it was a great opportunity and that I should go for it.
In the summer of 2009 my profile began to be sent out to churches looking for a new minister. Looking at the list of churches and the kind of ministers they were hoping for I wondered if I would ever be called anywhere. At this point Sarah and I knew that God was calling us to move off Mersea and begin a new ministry elsewhere.

In September 2009 I travelled to India for 3 weeks with a group from Spurgeons and we travelled around West Bengal visiting churches and Christian organisations in and around that area. My time there was life-changing. It was amazing to be in the country where my birth

family had come from. To stay in Kolkata where my birth grandparents had met. To be among such a beautiful people was overwhelming. At times it felt almost transcendent as I considered where generations of my birth family had grown and lived. I felt a deep connection to the people and the country. In 2003 Tom and I met our birth mother for the first time and over the years we have discovered more and more about our birth family.

The church in India is quite amazing. It is growing at a tremendous rate and by watching, experiencing and listening I began to reflect on what lessons the Western church could learn. I saw so much poverty and injustice. I saw villages that had been wiped out by floods with people who had very little losing everything. I saw compassion and justice, extravagant love and amazing grace. A significant time for me was when I witnessed eleven people getting baptised who had become Christians. They lived in a Hindu village having been practising Hindu's their whole lives. They got baptised in a pool in the middle of this Hindu village, a pool where people bathed and washed their clothes. They were not hiding in a building. They were not leaving their village. They were dwelling among their community, living as authentic Jesus followers in the heart of their community. It was truly incarnational.

I began to wonder what incarnational church might look like in the UK.

While I was in India Sarah, Grace and a friend of ours went for a holiday together in Tenerife. About 5 days into the holiday one evening while they were getting Grace ready for bed, they heard a noise in Grace's bedroom. Two men walked into the lounge having broken into the apartment through Grace's bedroom window. The men ran away and the girls were all ok, but as you imagine it left a sour taste in the mouth and a tear in the eyes for quite sometime. The police never showed up and Sarah, Grace and Cas were really rocked by what happened. However, what the devil meant for harm, God used for good. Sarah found a deeper and ever closer relationship with God through what happened. She found in her weakness that He was her strength and what happened began to give her the strength and reliance on God that she needed for the big changes that were coming around the corner.

While I was in India a friend rang me to tell me that they had heard about a possible church planting opportunity in Newton Abbot, Devon...

When I returned from India I realised that there were things in my life that needed to change. One of those was my debt that I had built up, initially through my heavy drinking before I was a Christian, and then through buying an expensive car that I didn't need. I felt God tell me to sell my car and clear my debts. The poverty in India was shocking. Children washing in puddles and sifting through waste for food gives you a wake up call I tell you to how obscenely rich we are in the West. I spent more money on a pair of jeans than some of these brothers and sisters of mine earned in a year. So I sold my car and managed to clear my debts.

In December 2009 I saw the church planting opportunity in Newton Abbot was now being advertised so I submitted an application form. In January 2010 Sarah and I were interviewed and were subsequently called by SWBA to plant a church from scratch.

We believed God was calling us to plant an incarnational community. In other words, reflecting on God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus, church would 'incarnate' itself within Newton Abbot. Read here and here for my theology on all of this.

I completed my studies in June 2010 and graduated from Spurgeons College and was then ordained as a Baptist Minister in July the same year.

We moved to Newton Abbot at the beginning of August after living in Essex our whole lives. While we still have many family and friends on Mersea, we feel very settled here in Devon and are enjoying the adventure that we are on here. The strength God gave Sarah and from the India experience enabled us to come to Devon and start a new life. His continuing grace enables us to be here. We moved here not knowing anyone, yet God has provided us with so much love and support from so many different sources.

In November 2010 our second daughter was born. Lizzie is a delight and a joy to us and is so very different from her sister. Grace is sensitive and thinks with her heart first. Lizzie is a force of nature with a spirit of the pioneer. Both of them reveal to us the love and heart of God. And I am still muddling through as a father.

We are here in Devon to plant a church from scratch, to explore what church might look like to those who never go. To see what it might mean to live authentically and love extravagantly just as Jesus did. To see how church might grow from within the places where people dwell day in and day out.
My story will continue, this is not the end of it. My blog is a place where I can continue to tell my story, even if no-one is listening! I like stories and I'd like to hear your story sometime. I hope mine hasn't bored you too much, but that you find something of my story that will inspire you in yours.

I believe this story I have told finds its purpose, goal and significance in the Person of Jesus. I believe He alone has been the One who has transformed my life. I could not have done it. He, in His love and grace, rescued me from the pit and is redeeming me day by day. He is amazing and it really is all about Him. And in some mysterious way He has allowed my story to get caught up in His story, His story of love, grace and redemption. I believe Jesus is significant for all our today's and that He gives us hope for every tomorrow.


Tess said...

Wow. Thankyou. Bless you.

Tom Haward said...

Excellent bro. Some of that I felt like I was reading for the first time. Love you.

Sam Norton said...

Thanks for sharing that Joe, bless you and yours.

Julie said...

Thank you for sharing this amazing story - I continue to pray for and your ministry

Joe Haward said...

Thank you everyone.

Lloyd said...

Thank you for sharing your heartfelt testimony. May our Lord continue to shine through you and your ministry. Blessings, Lloyd

heather joy said...

What an amazing testimony. May the Lord continue to richly bless you and your family, and keep you safe as you seek to serve Him with your life.
~ Heather Joy

Joe Haward said...

Thank you guys.

lynn said...

your story is amazing and encouraging, especially the day you shared about Soul Survivor as I remember that Sunday very well! (awaiting the birth of my second child!)

Bless you as you go dwell....

Joe Haward said...

Thank you Lynn. It seems that on that Sunday new life was on its way all over the place!
Blessings on you too!

lynn said...

thanks for the follow. Have reciprocated. May our families "dwell" richly where God has planted us!!