Friday, 25 November 2011

The most memorable memoir I've read

Photo: Ian Morgan Cron
Photo credit: Thomas Nelson Publishers

I’ve found some of the Christian books I’ve read a bit cringey. Sometimes the subject matter is good but the writing style is poor or the super-spiritual authors are too far removed from my own experiences to be useful. Some have made me feel like I’m swimming through treacle, which sounds delightful but in practice is pretty hard work (and extremely messy).

So when I was sent Ian Morgan Cron’s book Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was described as a “memoir of sorts”, which didn’t fill me with hope as I’d never even heard of him. But right from the opening chapter I was drawn in. The writing style was modern, captivating and extremely evocative. In fact, the more I read the more I enjoyed it. 

One warning I’d give you is that this memoir should not be read anywhere you might encounter strangers. You will laugh out loud. The story about the “angel”, for example, perfectly captures his fearful, childish imagination. I laughed until my abs hurt.

That’s not to say it’s an entirely comfortable read. It’s likely your laughter will be blended with tears at times (unless you have a heart of stone). However, it’s the lightness of the amusing anecdotes juxtaposed with the painful memories that brings the book to life.

Ian shares tales from his childhood as though they happened yesterday and the descriptions are so vivid you feel as though you have lived through them with him, both the good and the bad; that you know him intimately despite having only met him in the world of print.

It’s his willingness to bring to life the sadness, rejection and humiliation with as much clarity as the more recent, delicious memories of time spent his own children that give the book a rounded, true-to-life feel.

“Every life contains episodes we’d rather not remember, no less commit to paper for others to read, but this is what the memoirist must do or their work will ring false,” explains Ian. “Besides, would you trust a memoir that didn’t include painful or embarrassing moments? Would it even be worth reading?” 

The book reveals deep flaws in the relationship between Ian and his father; however there were also some positives to be drawn. His father was a voracious reader who loved beautiful prose. He gave Ian a Merriam Webster dictionary as a going away gift when he left for college, writing in it: “Words—learn to love them”. Ian says: “It’s spooky that he wrote that not knowing I would one day become a writer; or did he know all along? (Play spooky music here!)”

This relationship also made him think seriously about his own role as a father. He has worked extremely hard to ensure his children are loved, encouraged and protected – the evidence of this leaps out of every sentence he writes about his three kids, as well as his ever-patient wife Anne.

“The relationship I have with my children couldn’t be more different than the one I had with my father,” he comments. “For example, I am not afraid to tell my children that I’m sorry when I’ve hurt them or wronged them somehow. My father never would have dreamt of apologising to his children.

“I’m also very physical with my children. I hug them as often as I can. I think that’s terribly important for dads to do.”

Ian became a Christian as a result of hanging out with a bunch of young believers who invested time, effort and money in him – probably developing a few grey hairs in the process. He wasn’t an easy nut to crack; like most of us before we met with God he had “issues”.

But the dedication of these young Christians who accepted him just as he was and were genuinely concerned about him really touched his heart. Having experienced this unconditional friendship, his advice is to treat all people as precious human beings, whatever their backgrounds and beliefs.

Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me is available across the UK and is worth every penny. His blog is also a great read.

Read more from Joy in the next issue of Sorted magazine.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The armed robber who’s giving something back

Photo credit: Darrell Tunningley

When I was in primary school, I was still playing shops with my plastic till. Slightly older than me, my brother Stephen was pretending he was He-Man. But if Darrell Tunningley had been there, I imagine he’d have been stealing my chewy hamburgers and coercing He-Man into a vicious battle disguised as his arch nemesis, Skeletor.

Because by the time he reached double-digits, Darrell was fast descending into a dangerous downward spiral. By the age of 11 he was boozing it up and dabbling with drugs. Before long he had graduated to stealing cars, selling narcotics and generally getting up to no good.

The arrests started during his teens and it was clearly only a matter of time before he’d be doing hard time. After committing an armed robbery and thinking he’d got away with it, the young criminal found himself in serious trouble. He was sentenced to a five-and-a-half year stint.

Prison life wasn’t too different form life on Knottingley’s Warwick Estate, where he’d grown up. Having built up a reputation for himself on the outside, no-one was going to mess with him on the inside. He was known for extreme violence, and anyone that crossed him was treated to a generous portion of it.

This is not the kind of guy you’d imagine going to an Alpha Course to learn about Christianity. But after dispatching one aggressive knockback to the guy that invited him, Darrell realised attending the course could actually be a handy skive. He dragged a few friends along and plonked himself in front of the two decrepit nuns in charge of the series.

Initially hostile, Darrell eventually realised there was something special about these women. Not only was he overwhelmed by their love and patience, he actually started to listen to what they were saying. He began to realise God wasn’t as irrelevant as he’d always thought and he suddenly felt he needed answers to the many questions he’d harboured over the years.

After pouring his heart out to this God he’d heard so much about one night in his cell, he expected some kind of lightning bolt revelation but nothing happened. He went to bed feeling rather disappointed.

But the next morning things were very different. Not only did he feel a strong aversion to the cigarettes he’d smoked and the drugs he’d taken for many years, he started to experience a feeling of intense euphoria. The prison chaplain explained to Darrell that Jesus had given him a completely clean slate; that his past had been dealt with and he had been forgiven. He instantly and openly renounced drugs and violence.

This opened him up to certain risks, but overcoming the dangers and difficulties with God’s help only strengthened the sense of peace and joy he was feeling. He rang his former accomplices and told them he was ‘out’. He and several inmates who had also become Christians knew they’d been handed a fresh start and weren’t about to waste it.

Darrell feels God instantly started intervening on his behalf. He was moved to another prison and downgraded from category A (maximum security) offender status to a category C, despite having two years left to serve. He was also asked to lead the prison’s Alpha Course.

The response was incredible and the chapel – which held 500 – was constantly packed. New drug units were opened to cater for the growing numbers of men that had given their lives to Jesus and decided to kick the habit.

Before he was released, Darrell was contacted by Mark Finch, a pastor at church and community centre Hope Corner in Runcorn. Against the better judgement of his Scouse friends, he felt Runcorn was where God wanted him to be. He now spends a good deal of time with the local youth; the next generation of potential drug dealers and armed robbers.

Convinced he would already be dead if his life hadn’t changed so dramatically, Darrell feels hugely privileged to have been given a second chance in life. Not only is he a husband and father, he is now able to show youngsters like himself what it really means to be a man.

Read more about Darrell’s incredible turnaround and work at Hope Corner in the next edition of Sorted magazine, and in Darrell’s book, Unreachable.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Cow-a-bunga bunga: Berlusconi bows out

I’m a big fan of comedy, even though it can be a bit close to the bone at times. People often criticise comics like Frankie Boyle, who is known for his foul language and politically incorrect humour. I don’t go to see him because I don’t think he’s funny, but if you’re easily offended, it’s best to give him and others like him a wide berth.

But what about jokes you can’t avoid hearing? Imagine turning on the telly and hearing David Cameron making offensive quips. Ok, so that would never happen… But if you were Italian you could (until now) have expected this on a regular basis from Silvio Berlusconi. If he’s not doing something illegal, he’s saying something that should be. He makes Wubya sound like a silver-tongued rhetorician, as these five ‘Berlusconisms’ show.
  1. “When asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30% of women said 'Yes', while the other 70% replied, 'What, again?’”
  2. “All of us have a homosexual part of 25%, which I also have. The only thing is that I, after a profound examination, have realised that my homosexual part is lesbian.”
  3. “Ah, Barack Obama. You won't believe it, but the two of them sunbathe together, because the wife is also tanned.”
  4. “I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone; I sacrifice myself for everyone.”
  5. “An Aids patient asks his doctor whether the sand treatment prescribed him would do any good. 'No,' the doctor replies, 'but you will get accustomed to living under the earth'."
And it’s not just his words that have got him in hot water; the now former Italian Premier has been constantly in the papers for his sexual endeavours. Allegations of “bunga bunga” parties (don’t ask) and sex with prostitutes have been rife.

The crusty Casanova has also been charged with some pretty serious offences including: false testimony, links to the Mafia, bribery, illegal financing of a political party, false accounting, embezzlement, tax fraud, corrupting a judge, abusing state flight benefits and child prostitution.

He’s avoided conviction for many of these, mainly on technicalities, but perhaps that says more about his Mafia connections than the accusations do. And then there are the times he has been found guilty and changed, or tried to change, the law to get himself off.

So how on earth did he stay in power for so long? Technically, he’s been sworn in four times! Well, Mafia connections aside, he was a wealthy businessman before coming to power. His company, Mediaset, dominates Italian print and television media and he also owns seven-time European Cup/Champions League winners AC Milan.

My theory is that Italians were initially seduced by his ‘charismatic’ approach, a stark contrast from that of his predecessor Romano Prodi, who was a much quieter (and less mental) leader. I think some admired his wealth, his ability to “get away” with things and his prowess with the ladies. I don’t want to suggest he and Hitler are similar in any way, but his hypnotic hold over people, like Hitler’s, is hard for me to comprehend.

At best, Berlusconi is an utter buffoon. At worst, he is a dangerous, narcissistic pervert who got away with it for far too long. Public opinion has finally turned sour, but it’s worrying that countries are still voting for people whose private lives are toxic and public lives are little better.

Thomas Jefferson famously said that “people get the government they deserve”. Whether this is true or not, we do have a responsibility to get involved with what’s going on in our country and beyond; to vote when we’re given the opportunity and to stand up and be counted when we feel our leaders are getting it wrong.

Most importantly we should pray for our current and future leaders; that God will spare us from ending up with the government we really deserve.
Read more from Joy in the upcoming issue of magazine Sorted and in its sister publication, Liberti.

Friday, 4 November 2011

All change

Photo credit: Coconut85/Wikipedia (Hernandez in his Mexico strip - couldn't bring myself to use a United shot)

I was watching the highlights of the Everton v Man United game on Match of the Day last Saturday when something commentator Guy Mowbray said caught me completely by surprise.

Evra had just supplied a superb ball into the box, providing an easy tap in for Javier Hernandez (Chicharito). It was practically unmissable (unless you’re Fernando Torres, that is).

Following the goal, the young Mexican ran away, slapping the hands of his teammates in celebration. And then he did something we quite often see foreign players do; he lifted his hands heavenwards and thanked God.

This was encouraging to see, but it isn’t what made me jump. It was Guy Mowbray’s comment on the striker’s simple act of thanksgiving that did.

The commentator simply said: “Prayers answered. Thank you for the cross.”

Now I’m not too na├»ve to realise that he was attempting to voice Hernandez’s feelings and that the “cross” he referred to was Evra’s and not the one on which Jesus died. But it was a great bit of unintentional evangelism none-the-less.

This reminded me of a time a few years ago on the London underground. I was nearly at my destination when I heard some equally startling words. The voice over the intercom blurted: “Kings Cross. All change at Kings Cross.”

These words had a similar effect on me. It was truer than the announcer could possibly have realised! When Jesus, the king of kings, died on the cross, everything – and I mean everything – changed. Forever.

But that’s not it. The “all change” was significant too. To me it reflected the fact that everyone who approaches the cross of Christ can be transformed; our lives can be turned upside down and inside out (in a good way). And the best news is that this change is not just long-lasting; it’s eternal.

Now I’m not suggesting God is using subliminal messages to speak to us through football commentary or tube announcements – although there’s no reason why he shouldn’t. But it’s interesting that even in the most secular of settings, God’s word is inadvertently filtering through.

Maybe it will eventually touch the hearts of some of London’s toughest commuters and even the most debaucherous footballers. I’m not holding my breath over some of the England squad, but everything is possible with God!

Read more football-related content in the next issue of Sorted magazine.