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Northern Soul: Football, Punk, Jesus by David O’Brien

June 14, 2016

NSSt Paul was a persecutor of Christians and then had them thrown into prison. Moses murdered a man. So the fact that as priest used to be a punk is hardly notable. Yet there have been newspaper articles about him.

The Rev David O’Brien is now Vicar of Oxon Church in Lichfield Diocese. I heard about him via a newspaper article about punk rockers and where are they now.

After football hooliganism and punk rock, he started to read the New Testament from a Gideons’ Bible.

In an interview he said: he decided to write the book to show people that it is possible to turn their lives around.

“I just want to show people that there is hope,” he says.

“In a way, it’s as simple yet as potentially life-changing as that.”

“My mother had been married before she met my dad and her husband turned out to be an alcoholic. She had eight children altogether, four with my dad who was also a drinker.

“So it was a haphazard sort of life but we thought this was normal I suppose.

“We never really lived anywhere else except when we moved nearer to Manchester. Then my grandad committed suicide when I was about 10. We used the money we got to go on holiday. We went to Holyhead and it was like another world.”

David says he drifted into a life of footy on the terraces, of punks, gangs, and saw some pretty vicious and battle-scarred folk.

“I wasn’t ever like that, I wasn’t really violent, never wore all that facial jewellery or had tattoos,” he says.

But a rare foray south to see Stockport play Telford saw him spending the weekend courtesy of the local police who gave him a cell until he appeared before Wrekin Magistrates on the Monday.

He is not proud of the brawls, the endless wasting of time and the underlying threats these gangs were seen to be to others.

But Rev O’Brien also recognises that it was all part of where he came from and a reminder of where he might have been.

“I simply don’t know where I would have been if things hadn’t changed. Perhaps jobless, still drifting, even dead,” he says.

This book looks like a collection of sermons but is in fact a series of reflections on his own life laid out like sermons.

Unlike many evangelical testimonies, this man doesn’t rubbish his former life. I warmed to him as I read the book.


It wasn’t that we didn’t believe; we just didn’t ever go to church or even Sunday school. Christianity was confined to school assemblies. The nearest we ever got to church or spirituality was hearing the bells of St. George’s in the distance or singing ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’ in school assemblies, saying the Lord’s Prayer and watching Thora Hurd on Songs of Praise. We were not atheists; we just weren’t church people, to be honest. My mum and dad were never married; so whether Mum felt awkward about this, I don’t know. I think it was more that life was so busy we never had time for church or clubs. Each day was about survival. The only exposure to religious ideas in the house was when Mum sometimes got magazines from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. There would be copies of `Watchtower’ and ‘Awake!’ lying around. I think she took them out of politeness rather than any intention to get involved. Other than this, there was a picture on our bedroom wall of Jerusalem with the words “The City of David”. I remember thinking, “That’s my name. He was someone special because I’ve heard about David and Goliath.”

I began to develop my own interior world, which is natural for kids to do. Every child’s mind is a wellspring of story and adventure and mine was no exception. I was always being told, “You have a vivid imagination.” I did, but mine went to a completely different level, even verging sometimes on obsession when facing difficult situations. One day my auntie caught me counting the cracks in the pavement and repeating a phrase over and over again. She told my mum and I received the “if you keep doing that, people will think there’s something wrong with you” lecture. It was the beginning of me finding a coping mechanism for the insecurity I felt. So in fact, there was something wrong with me: I was massively insecure.

A certain youth worker once took some young people to the countryside for the first time. At the sight of a cow walking towards them, they were petrified. These hard-bitten, tough, streetwise kids couldn’t cope outside of their usual environment.

Sometimes we can’t see beyond our own world. This is all there is, we think. But there is a bigger wider world out there. Not just in terms of distance but in terms of our thinking.

The Patriarch Abraham shows us another way to think

I was a lonely introvert who had become adept at self-reliance, but only because I built a wall of protection around myself. It had become my defensive strategy and my safe place.

I remembered that there were a couple of people in the pub I thought may be able to help me. They both claimed to be white witches. So I asked one of them for advice about what I had done and he said not to worry too much about it, although I shouldn’t have done it. However, I still felt oppressed.

I tried another approach in my quest for answers. Sometimes, because ignorance is a source of fear, finding out about the object of fear can be the solution to overcoming it. My mum had subscribed to a magazine advertised on TV called ‘Fate and Fortune’. The publication dealt with spirituality, magic, superstitions and unexplained mysteries of the world. I began to read the magazines and found some interesting ideas but no answers. In fact, I had more questions. Still the feeling of unease persisted.

I was aware that I might find answers at church. But church wasn’t part of my world. None of my mates at football or on the estate went there or, if they did, I wasn’t aware of it. Whenever the subject of God or church had come up, I had joined in the mocking. In fact, I had once sat in the pub at Christmas barracking the carol singers from the local church and ridiculing them. How could I now, after this, turn to the church? And had I talked to my mates, the response would have been, “Never mind, have a pint!” or complete ridicule. I also thought it would be hypocritical to only turn to the church now when I had a problem. Consequently I decided to deal with it myself and discover who or what was out there. If there was a God or some ultimate reality/realities, then I would find out for myself through reading books and observing the world.

Not having any framework of belief apart from a vague memory of the school assemblies, the Lord’s Prayer and ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, I had no idea where to start. I began to spend hours alone in my bedroom thinking. I was becoming like a hermit, locked away contemplating the universe. In reality I was a scared, insecure young man desperate for help. The thinking eventually led to speaking to whoever was there. I sometimes thought of this as `talking to the ceiling’. Do you exist? Are you there? Can you show me? Who are you? Where are you? Last of all, I found a New Testament gathering dust on the bookshelf. I’d read everything else so I at least needed to look at the Bible, even if I was to discount it.

I had no notion of whether the Bible was true and my knowledge of it was nil. Any understanding I had about it was through comments people made in the pub or from ‘armchair experts’: “The Bible’s full of contradictions.” “Who made God?” “It was written by men.” The world was full of experts and most of them were drinking beer in the pub. They had been my only teachers.

So, my search continued as I began to read the New Testament for the first time in my life. A strange thing began to happen when I read the Bible. I imagined myself teaching from it one day. Now I knew I was going insane! During my Oral English exam at school I had taken in a pile of football programmes and said, “These are my football programmes. I’ve got lots. Any questions?” No, that wasn’t the abbreviated version; that was the totality of my speech! I had thought I would die stood up in front of the class. Mucking around was one thing. Doing sensible school things was out of my comfort zone. So, me a preacher? No!

There were other strange things happening too. Following the nasty experience with the occult site, I felt guilty and unclean. The Bible I was reading was a New Testament issued to our Sean when he had signed up for the Army. It had sat on the bookcase for years. And all that time I had managed to avoid it because it was of no interest to me whatsoever. In it, although it was a New Testament, were photographs with scripture verses. One was of a snow-covered landscape in the woods with a quote from the Old Testament ­Isaiah 1:18 — “‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the Lord. `Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” This sounded wonderful but I wondered how. I wasn’t even sure if the Bible was true. Yet I couldn’t escape the fact that the verse spoke into my condition because I felt dirty spiritually, and if there was cleansing available it was exactly what I needed. I also noticed when I read the New Testament I felt peaceful afterwards. There was a big problem though: this person Jesus had lived two thousand years ago, so how could he make a difference now? And anyway, wasn’t all this stuff for those nice, respectable church people? It definitely wasn’t for rebellious street urchins like me.

During this period other odd things were happening as well. I began to bump into tract-wielding Christians. It didn’t matter where I went, there was no escape. You have to realise that I had never met any Christians before anywhere — or at least not to my knowledge anyway. Now they were everywhere. Wherever I was ­drinking lager whilst sat on the bandstand in the town centre, or walking down the road — I came home with a tract explaining the way of salvation. They would say that Jesus died on the Cross for my sins and if I would repent and ask him into my life, I would be saved from Hell and Judgement; I would be a new creation and born again of the Spirit. Each tract ended with a prayer of commitment to say at the end. I thought it wouldn’t do any harm, so I said the prayers of commitment. I must have made at least ten commitments, but nothing changed as far as I was aware.

One Sunday afternoon I met a guy giving out Gospel tracts in Platt Fields, Manchester, a park near to where City’s ground used to be.

He said to me, “Have you ever heard about Jesus Christ?” Well, I had!

I was with five other punk mates, who said, “Come on! Don’t talk to him!”

I replied, “I’ll catch up!” But when they were out of earshot, I answered yes to the man’s question.

He then said, “Do want to ask him in to your life?”

“Yes!” I said. So I repeated a prayer there in the middle of the park on a Sunday afternoon with loads of people milling around. I was stood there with bleached jeans, Dr Martens boots, and a shaved head. I wasn’t aware of anything happening to me, but I now wanted it to. In fact, I tried to find the church named on the leaflet he gave me. I eventually found it but no-one was there.

So I walked home and met another man giving out tracts on the way. Then I met this same man a couple of weeks later as I was on my way to the pub. He asked a similar question about knowing Jesus Christ and gave me another tract.

Neither of these men knew I had been talking to the ceiling and reading the Bible. The time period from the scary experience, through to wondering about spiritual reality, until the event which changed my life, was about ten weeks.

I had increased the level of talking to the ceiling. One night it was really hot; all the windows and curtains were open. It was late but still light, midsummer. I lay on the bed trying to stay cool and began to talk as before.

“Are you there? Do you exist?”

All of a sudden I felt a peace and a powerful presence descending on me from above. Was this emotion because of my heightened state of stress? Was this happening because I wanted it mc..h? W’s this smie sort of emotional euphoria? No, because the power wasn’t coming from within me; it was definitely coming from above, from outside of myself. The peace came over me and into me, wave after wave. With it also came a real sense of being washed by this most beautiful, pure liquid love. I couldn’t believe how clean I felt; I couldn’t believe this was happening! On and on the waves came for about half an hour, although time was a bit meaningless. I was stunned but in a good way.

I hadn’t known that what had just happened to me was possible or real. I lay awestruck, not knowing what to do. The feeling of being clean and new remained, however. Even now I find words difficult to describe the experience I had. From being sceptical about God and the Church to searching and not knowing what, if anything, to expect, I had moved to a place of knowing that God existed. I’m not talking about head knowledge but a real, tangible experience, a revelation. For me the metaphorical curtains had been pulled open to the point where I asked myself, why have I not seen this before? How stupid of me! It really was like the line in the hymn Amazing Grace, “I was blind but now I see.”

Now the next part should read, “I then told everyone what had happened, went to church and became a world evangelist.” Sorry, no, I didn’t do any of those things. Instead, I kept it to myself.

Whom could I tell? Who would understand? Before, I had

ridiculed this stuff. Anyway, I thought to myself, can’t The a private Christian? Yes, that’s what I now was: a Christian. But I was still a

skinhead with bleached jeans and Dr Martens boots, and the only people I was really close to were the guys in the pub. I’d also never been to church except for my sister Rachael’s wedding years ago.

So I carried on the routine as normal: pub, football match, nightclub, Punk concert, drink. It was all different though. Instead

of joining in with the cynical mocking conversations when the subject of God came up, I found myself doing apologetics’. I didn’t even know that word existed and I’d never been to college, but that is what I was doing. I would defend the idea of God and have a respect for other people.

I had a heightened conscience as well. Even before this experience of conversion (for that’s what it was) I had been a mild, laid back person; a rebel but a nice one, cheeky and mischievous. The acts of football stupidity were never aimed at seriously harming anyone. I had no hatred towards my fellow men, and to be honest I was scared most of the time. I just acted in stupid ways because by now stupidity and larking around had become my identity and my safe place. And I did ‘being stupid and larking around’ well. How else was I supposed to cope in a big, frightening world without any anchor point or guiding framework?

So I lived a private spiritual life and lived an unchanged outer life. To come out in the open and tell people would risk ridicule or even a loss of friendship, and I didn’t have an alternative. How could I go to the church where all those nice, squeaky clean people went to? I may have had an experience, but if they knew how bad I had been, what would they think? How could I tell anyone about my past and still be accepted’?

Internally I was spiritually and emotionally torn. The division and pressure were awful. Instead of the turmoil of fear, I was in a turmoil of conscience and denial. I would still drink, but strangely it gave me no satisfaction. The alcohol couldn’t numb my conscience. I was different, regardless of how many pints I drank. Quite often I would walk home from the town centre after the pubs had closed and the last buses had stopped running. I enjoyed the space to think as I walked. I guess those were my times of prayer and reflection.

For three years I kept up the pretence. During this time I still did silly things at football matches, but I sensed I was on borrowed time and needed to make some kind of decision about my faith in the near future.

When my mum’s boyfriend, Wilf, was dying of emphysema I had sat with him for hours. Wilf was an atheist and I wanted to tell him about God but didn’t know how to. And then, when he died, I felt guilty that I hadn’t. What made matters worse for me was that Wilf in some ways had been the nearest to a dad I had experienced. He had tried to give me advice and tried to guide me. I guess I was too set in my ways to be able to accept a male authority figure. But he had meant well. He had an inspirational story of his life. When he was a teenage engineering apprentice he had lost his left hand in an accident. With a false hand he learned how to ride motorbikes and how to drive. He eventually became a driving instructor working with the police and went on to have his own driving school. This is where my mum met him and he taught her to drive. She eventually became a driving instructor as well. So feeling unable to help Wilf left me feeling guilty. I thought, what does God think about me now?

The conviction about my experience of God, together with my impotence to help people in need, weighed on me. It led to a crisis point of decision. I couldn’t go on denying the work of God in my life. I had to do something — and soon.

The following week I went to the pub and told my mates what I was doing. The response was, “As long as you don’t stop coming out with us, we’re not bothered.” And then another said, “Yeah, I thought you’d changed.” Unbeknown to me, he had seen a difference in my life even before I had said anything. Now this was out in the open I felt relieved.

Prayer was a major part of that life now. I’m not saying I was any good at it. I certainly wouldn’t pray out loud; not even in a house group because it was an ordeal for me. But I would spend hours reading the Scriptures and meditating, imagining Christ sat in the lounge with me. There were times when I could feel the presence of God.

She had also been told many years before, by her Sunday school teacher, “One day you will marry a vicar.” I didn’t yet know about the vicar bit, but I did feel called to pastoral ministry and preaching. Lots of strands from both of our backgrounds were coming together. I was still introverted and self-sceptical, thinking this desire was far-fetched. But it persisted. We were in love and it felt right. We married eighteen months later on 22nd May, 1993.

One of the ways that I recharge my batteries is the same as when I started in the Christian faith. Each day I try to read portions of the Bible. I find it a bit like food. I don’t sit there analysing my dinner; I eat it. And when I eat well, I’m healthy. I don’t worry about ingredients or calories. I just know it does me good. I don’t memorise Scripture; I just read it on a regular basis. When I need a verse or a word, I find it there at the right time. So it proved now. I found encouragement and purpose in some wonderful verses in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 which speak about the “God of all comfort” and how “we comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received”. So nothing is wasted, and “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’. This isn’t just some trite reflection; Alison and I have learned this on the hard anvil of experience. There is also the mystery of spiritual warfare.

I believe true theology is the experience of the knowledge of God. This means we go through trials that build Christ-centred character in our lives, and therefore nothing is meaningless or wasted.” Like Paul, I wasn’t longing for this weakness but knew that, as God had done with all my other challenges, he would use it for his purpose. It was a mystery to me that whilst I firmly believed in divine healing, my health came through medical provision. I sometimes oscillated between thinking I needed more faith and placidly accepting everything as God’s will; and yet mysteriously the providential hand of God was clearly at work. I found a balance in the fact that God can, and does, use medical intervention — but He isn’t limited to it.

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