As Israel celebrates another independence day, I look forward to a special birthday of my own in a few weeks.
Yes, the magic milestone reached last year by the modern Jewish state means I was conceived in Cape Town just a few months after Israel’s rebirth.
My own rebirth came nearly 23 years later – on May 20, 1972, at around 10.30pm. And I remember how this rather precise dating of my encounter with Christ proved of great fascination to Labour peer (and former deputy leader of the party) Roy Hattersley.
We were showing South African friends around the small Lincolnshire town of Epworth, famous as home of the Wesleys and only 13 miles from where we live in Doncaster, when I noticed a familiar figure striding up towards me.
I immediately recognised him as he was often rolled into TV studios for political comment, but I also knew him from way back when, as Fleet Street correspondent for the South African Press Association, I would often report on his Dispatch Box statements about Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) or apartheid during his time as Foreign Office minister.
Although claiming to be atheist, he is a great admirer of Wesley, and of the Salvation Army founders for that matter, and has written biographies on both counts.
He was busy doing research for his Daily Mail column on why people like me made pilgrimages like this. And I began by telling him that, though I was not a Methodist, I identified with Wesley in the sense that I had come into an experience of the risen Christ, just as he had done.
In fact, just as with the legendary preacher, I too could name the exact time and place where the change had taken place.
Furiously taking notes (as I used to do when he was speaking in Parliament), Lord Hattersley’s eyes grew wider with amazement. Like Wesley, I explained, I had felt my heart ‘strangely warmed’ as Jesus, at my invitation and at the prompting of another South African friend, came into my life in the north London home of my half-Jewish grandmother.
Wesley’s rebirth took place on May 24, 1738 – also in London – after hearing an explanation of Luther’s introduction to a commentary on the Book of Romans. He was already a clergyman, as was his brother Charles, following in the footsteps of their father, who was rector of Epworth for some 40 years.
But now he knew for sure that his sins were forgiven and that, by faith alone, he was accepted by Christ. The strange warming turned into a raging fire as he passionately proclaimed the gospel for the next 50 years, riding a quarter-of-a-million miles on horseback in the process.
Historians are agreed that the subsequent awakening, also involving George Whitefield and others, averted a revolution of the kind that brought chaos to France.
Although I can’t claim a Damascus Road encounter of the sort that caused the Apostle Paul to fall off his horse, my own conversion was preceded, just seven days earlier, by an experience in which I was stopped in my tracks during a marathon race in Scotland – on the road to North Berwick as it happened.
At 22 miles, at the same point in the 26.2m race that Paula Radcliffe came to an abrupt halt in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, I too ‘hit a wall’, so to speak.
But the disappointment paved the way for my greater openness when my friend, Brian Jackson (an accomplished athlete), challenged me to follow Christ.
I have never looked back, and have become increasingly aware of our debt to the Jewish people, which is why, upon my retirement from full-time work in the newspaper industry, I began serving as a volunteer for the Church’s Ministry among the Jewish people (CMJ).
I am also proud of my own Sephardic Jewish ancestry, and was especially helped in my early Christian life by a lovely Jewish lady called Helen Macintosh, who effectively became a spiritual mother to me.
Helen became a believer through Billy Graham’s 1954 meetings at Haringey in London and always afterwards described herself as a ‘completed Jew’. Like her, I long for the widespread spiritual restoration of the Jews promised in the Scriptures (Zech 12.10, Rom 11.26) following their much-prophesied return to the Holy Land.
And to complete this season of birthdays, I will be heading for Epworth on Saturday May 25th at 2.30pm to watch a play on the Wesleys being performed by friends from Sheffield.
Oh that these islands would ring once again with the passion – in words and music – that awoke sleeping hamlets all over England to the beautiful sound of the gospel!