TAKE UP THY CROSS AND FOLLOW
I was born of Christian parents in Melbourne, Australia, in 1927. My mother, from a privileged, wealthy background, was converted in 1918, at the age of 25. She had trained as a professional singer, but at the time of her conversion was in the Women’s Land Army. She then joined the Faith Mission. As Pilgrim, she was stationed at Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute, where she met my father, a baker’s apprentice, then aged 19, on holiday from Greenock. When they married, in 1921, neither mother’s family, nor dad’s, was pleased. Although their backgrounds were poles apart, what drew them together and held them together for 57 years was their love for each other and their love for the Lord. Mother died in 1978 and dad, in 1982. The have joined the ‘cloud of witnesses.’ One day we shall meet again! That will be glory for me!
Australia was their Land of Promise to which they went in 1922, when Alex was six months old. Sadly, disaster struck. At ten months old, their son, John, was killed in a house fire. Years of unemployment followed as the Depression hit Australia. Mother’s health declined so much that they feared for her life.
We came back to Scotland in 1929, to endure another two years of unemployment. This is the earliest part of my memory, the day my father was told to report for work. I was then four years of age; Alex was nine.
Dad had linked up with the local Brethren, and mother became a Salvationist. The SA appealed to me greatly. Both my parents were good singers, and mum was the organist. They discovered that I could sing. And an early memory is being stood on a table at the front of the Army hall, and singing a chorus.
It wasn’t long before I was singing solos. Two of my favourites were: Jesus, keep me near the cross, and O happy day that fixed my choice. In Army meetings there was always a ‘testimony period,’ in which anyone could give a testimony or sing a solo. I developed my love for singing at those meetings, and in the Singing Company, the junior choir. Being able to get up and sing gave me great confidence, and I have never suffered from stage fright.
All was not well spiritually, however. I was in the grip of stealing. I stole from my classmates, from shops, and from my mum’s purse, money that she certainly could not afford to lose, for, until dad got work, we were on the breadline. Time and again I confessed and repented. And just as often, I failed. Stealing really got hold of me. I was in great conflict. On the one hand, I desperately wanted to be ‘good,’ and on the other I was fighting a losing battle. Yet the hand of God was on me, and my parents never stopped praying. It was their faith that eventually won through.
I knew the Hand of God on my life when, at the age of six, I was stricken with diphtheria, and for two weeks hovered between life and death. It was at that time that I had ‘near death’ experience, where I was taken to heaven and felt the overwhelming presence of the awesome God.
After twelve weeks in isolation, I came home. The emotional and painful trauma of that experience left me with a stammer, which is with me to this day, but even that has taught me something. In later life I became a writer, maybe something I would not have done. Who knows!
Sadly, although I knew God’s healing touch, I continued to steal. Anyone who has been in the grip of an addiction will know exactly the torment I went through. When we moved from the small mill town in Clackmananashire into the country, the stealing got worse, until it was almost uncontrollable, and it was to get me into serious trouble.
The years 1935 to 1940, were really happy, clouded by an increasing involvement in all sorts of un-Christian activities - lying, swearing, foul-mouthing, cheating, and, of course, stealing.
Things came to head just before I was fourteen. Three of us arranged to steal money from an estate worker. One did the stealing, and I held onto the money. Of course I was caught. Bang went the job in a large estate garden. I knew that I was facing reform school. The Salvation Army intervened and I was put on Bond (similar to Probation) for a year. If I re-offended, that would be that!
On my fourteenth birthday I started work in a nearby coalmine. That was in September 1941. Young as I was, I knew that God was working. I started attending the Army meetings again, attracted by a young lady who had been evacuated from Clydebank. God certainly moves in mysterious ways!
On a certain Sunday, I was listening to the Open Air meeting - from a distance. I pulled out a packet of cigarettes, and as I did so, I felt utter disgust, and threw them in the river. That was a major decision. I have never smoked since.
The following week at the close of the evening meeting, when the appeal was given, the thumping of my heart nearly suffocated me. I lost count of the number of times I had ‘gone out’ in the previous ten years, and knelt at the Penitent Form; a plain, brown varnished bench, with ‘Jesus Saves’ painted in yellow on it. How often I had felt the arm of the officer, or someone else come round my shoulder to hear my heart-felt prayer for forgiveness. Always it was ‘I want to be a better boy.’ ‘I want to stop stealing.’ ‘I want to stop telling lies.’ I suppose I had become disheartened that I was still just as addicted as I ever was. Don’t tell me the Devil isn’t real! For while my heart thumped full-speed, the Devil was sitting on my shoulder. ‘How many times have you tried?’ ‘People are fed up with you.’ ‘You’ll never keep it.’ ‘You’ll make yourself look a fool - again.’
This was my time. I knew it. I think I almost ran to the front. I have no memory of what was said, but I knew things had changed. We can’t, mustn’t rely on feelings. But God flooded my heart, my mind, my whole body with such wonderful feelings that, like Bunyan’s Christian, my burden rolled away. We ended the meeting with wonderful praise.
We lived six miles from the Army hall, which meant catching three buses. I missed the third one that night, but I ran the last two miles, uphill for most of the way. I felt that I could run for ever. Never had the stars shone so brightly. Never did the world look and feel so good. My heart and voice were filled with song; songs that I had known since the age of four. Sunday, fourteenth of November, 1941 is the most wonderful red-letter day in my life.
I dashed into my parents’ room and almost shouted: ‘I’ve been saved!’ At last my parents’ prayers had been answered. They knew and I knew that God had worked anther miracle. And what timing!
Dad left on the Monday evening to join the Royal Navy at Chatham. Alex, by now, was working away from home. I walked dad the two miles to the bus. Dad was always a man of few words. He tugged at a lovely white silk scarf he had been given. ‘Here, Bill, you take this.’ He knew how much I admired that scarf. Gripping me by the hand, he said, ‘Take care of your mum. You’re a good lad.’
The bus took him away. My heart was broken as I waved in the darkness. He may have waved, but if he did I wouldn’t have seen him through my tears. Would he get through the war safely? What lay ahead of us?
That was 60 years ago, and I have just celebrated my spiritual Diamond Anniversary by giving my testimony in the Methodist Church where I now worship. It is wonderful to look back and see God’s hand and blessing on my life.
He brought a wonderful woman into my life, Margaret, and we have been married fifty-three years. And we were blessed with five children. I am now into my fourth career! Margaret and I (with the children) travelled half-way around the world in my twenty years in the Royal Army Medical Corps (I served in every rank from Private to Captain); firstly as a nurse, and then as a social worker, and counsellor and writer. On retiring from the Army in 1974 I worked in nurse education for nearly fourteen years, and then spent four years as a Student Counsellor/Lecturer in one of the large London Colleges of nursing.
In 1991, when the College ran out of money! The Lord brought me in contact with the Institute of Counselling, in Glasgow, a distance learning college which teaches counselling skills. I became a tutor in 1992 and these nearly ten years have been probably been the most rewarding time in my counselling and teaching career.
Now in my 75th year, I look back on my walk with God and I rejoice. I wanted to be a Salvation Army officer and then work as missionary. God chose differently. I wanted to sing the gospel; I do that and am one of three organists at our church. I have tried to live a godly life and bring blessing to other people. One day I shall know just what my ministry has been.
There are now more of my loved ones in heaven, rejoicing in the presence of Jesus, than there are left here on earth. One day I shall join them, and spend eternity singing the songs of the Redeemed. Until the Lord calls me, my desire is to continue serving him and telling of how he saved me and how he keeps me.
If you want to know more about my life, you can read my autobiography Pigswill and Caviare online, available free. Also available free are my devotional books. May these books inspire you in your walk with the Lord.