Bertie Johnston – Teaching Elder

A Modern Prodigal

One winter’s day in the city of Manchester with no money in my pocket, one of my shoes leaking and feeling hungry and cold, I took my watch, which had been a treasured gift, and pawned it to buy food. This was not the plight of a city slum fellow, but the eventual fate of a respectable youth from County Fermanagh.

The youngest boy in a family of three boys and two girls, I was to inherit the family farm near Derrygonnelly, County Fermanagh, and, as one can imagine, all the dreams and ideals any parents had for a son, my parents had for me.  My mother was a religious person and sent me to the local Methodist Church Sunday School.

“LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON”

My father was a farmer and a milk haulier in the area where we lived, so leaving school at the age of fourteen, I too commenced work on the farm and when eligible for a driving licence took over the milk haulage run from my father.

Dad was fond of drinking and gambling.  The inevitable happened!  As soon as I started work with him, I too became addicted to drink and cigarettes.

For some seven years I threw restraint to the wind and ended up a hopeless wreck of humanity at twenty one years of age.  My father and I through our neglect and foolishness plunged our farm and business into ruin.

Ashamedly, I recall many nights when I lay out drunk – on occasions to return home next day.  I got involved in fights on the streets and in dance halls and occasionally ended up in hospital.  Many times I cursed and abused my mother when I came home and found her waiting for me in the early hours of the morning.

Things got worse until eventually the farm had to be sold to pay off the debt.  We were disgraced!  I was filled with bitterness and blamed my father.  I remember saying “If you were to die tomorrow I would not come to see you”.. Harsh words to be spoken from a son to his father!

What could I do? there was no way I could face up to the problems so I decided to get away from it all and went to England.  In January 1967, I arrived in the city of Manchester, with few clothes and little money and, albove all, alone.  This was my first time away from home, so you can imagine my fears and lonelieness.

I WAS A MODERN PRODIGAL!

There were many devilish devices in that city that attracted me, and soon I found myself caught up with all the sins and pleasures of godless living.  For thirteen months I battled with the pull of home, the lure of a sinful city and the agony of a guilty conscience.  Eventually, I reached the place where I had to do something.  To stay in this vile city would certainly mean my death and yet how could I return home to my parents?  I was so full of pride and stubbornness!

At last I wandered home – much worse than when I had left.  I was almost in rags, penniless, hungry and with no friends.  I arrived at the house and knocked the front door.  No reply! I went to the back door; still no reply! I peeped in through the window and found no sign of life.  I later learned that my father lay in Musgrave Park Hospital suffering from a stroke while mother was a patient in Enniskillen Hospital with jaundice.

When I discovered their plight, I wondered what I should do: should I stay and lend a helping hand to my parents when they came home from hospital or should I return to my wayward life again.  ‘Nobody cared whether I lived or died’ was the thought uppermost in my mind, but as I pondered on the loneliness of life in Manchester, I decided to stay – at least staying at home meant a place of refuge and someone to care.

For some months I didn’t go out because of the fear of being questioned by friends about my previous months away, but eventually I swallowed my pride and began to follow the same pattern as before.

The next year of my life saw me once again in England and again returning home a failure.

Then, early in 1969 I met a girl in the local supermarket.

I knew that this girl was a practising Roman Catholic from a very religious home.  We got into conversation and it ended up with a date! I arranged to take her out.  This was contrary to my teaching as a child – but that didn’t worry me.  I didn’t care what my family, neighbours or anybody thought.

A courthsip developed and amidst many family quarrels on both sides, we continued to see each other.  Being a fervent Roman Catholic, this girl never missed any of her church commitments because of me.  Many times I waited while she returned from mass.  Once I accompanied her to mass and benediction in a large chapel in Bundoran, County Donegal.  When everyone was praying, I looked around in the vast crowded building and saw an old man heavily under the influence of alcohol, clutching his rosary beads.  As I gazed at him, I couldn’t understand how any person could come into God’s house drunk.  Something in my heart told me this wasn’t right.  As I pushed my way to the door of the chapel in disgust, I said to my friend, “I will never be in a place like that again!”

Afterwards we went to the hotel for our drinks and on to the dance.  The chapel or this event was not discussed by us again.

Some months later, back in the same town, we were waiting for the hotel to open for its usual ‘Sing-song’.  My girlfriend suddenly said, “Do you remember the night I took you to chapel? What about you taking me to a Protestant Church tonight?” I thought she must be joking! She knew all my past, knew I hadn’t put my foot inside a Church for years.

But she wasn’t joking.  I tried to put her off with many excuses but like most women she won the argument!  We went in search of a church.  This was the town where I drank and enjoyed myself and I didn’t know where to look for a church so we started up the main street.  We hadn’t gone very far when we spied a small church on the left hand side of the street.

There was a large poster on the railings of the church announcing the Irish Evangelistic Band Annual Convention.

Speaker, Rev Sidney Martin, dates and times of the meetings were listed.  As I read the sign and was about to enter the church, I remember glancing across the street to the hotel hoping nobody would recognise me; then, without delay I entered.  It is difficlut to remember everything.  Most of the congregation were seated towards the front of the church, then there was quite a space and we sat down at the back.  Someone gave his testimony and a lady sang, after which Rev Sidney Martn gave the address.  He spoke for half-an-hour but nothing registered in my mind.  The service ended and we left quickly.  The first words my girlfriend said on leaving were, “I have never been so near God in my life”.  I couldn’t understand what she was talking about, but she reminded me that the preacher had said that the previous day before coming to Ireland he had met a Roman Catholic girl who was disillusioned with her faith and was searching for peace.

He had told her of the love of God in sending His only Son to die for our sins, so that we might have eternal life.  He related how before leaving Scotland he had led her to the Lord.

My girlfriend’s only desire that night was to go home; the pub and the dance had lost its attraction.  What had happened? The more I think of that evening the more convinced I am that this was the Holy Spirit who took hold of this man of God and all of life’s disappointments and failures and tragedies suddenly flooded into my mind.  Then I thought of an uncle of mine who had often spoken to me of my soul and of my need to prepare for eternity.  He was a God-fearing man and previously I had little or no time for him or his religion.

He had often spoken to me of his ‘Precious Saviour‘ and I had classed him, as I did many others – ‘A Religious Fool’.  But why did I think of this man as I lay in turmoil?  Unable to bear it any longer, I got up and searched the telephone directory for his telephone number.  My uncle answered the phone and after I told him who I was and where I had been the night before, he arranged to see me in the morning.  Faithfully, he arrived next morning and took me to his home.  As I sat in the kitchen, he opened the Bible and read the following words to me from 1 John, Chapter 1, verse 7.  “But if we walk in the light as he is in the light we have fellowship one with another and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleasneth us form all sin”.

As he read these words I failed to understand how someone like me could have fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ.  Then as I watched this man kneel down and pray to God to deliver me, I realised that it was I who was the fool.  With my head humbly bowed I walked out into the farmyard, closed my eyes and said something like this, “Lord God, if there is such a thing as God or Heaven, I want to know something about it”.  Without any doubt I can say that at that moment I passed from Darkness into Light.  As I stood there and trusted the Saviour, I was really ‘BORN AGAIN’.  Then suddenly the devil whom I had served for so many years spoke  “What about the drink and the cigarettes and the other devilish devices which hold you captive and especially those friends – how unpopular you will be now!”  At that moment God gave me strength to look up and say, “Lord Jesus, help me, I am Yours now, I need strength to overcome these attacks and You know all about my life so You know what has to be overcome”.

God took possession of my life and the desire for worldly things disappeared.  I understood that these things were only temporal.  He had given me EVERLASTING LIFE.

My girlfriend who was twenty-four years steeped in the Roman Catholic belief and heard the Gospel for the first time at the IEB Convention, also put her trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and through simple faith in His atonement, experienced PEACE WITH GOD.

A short time later Pat and I were married.  God has blessed us beyond anything we could have imagined.  Daily we commit our lives to the Master and he has guided and provided for our every need.

In our experiences of Christian living we have had many trials and temptations.  Jesus has not promised us a life without them but He has promised to be with us through them.  ” I will never leave you, nor forsake you”.  Hebrews Chapter 12, verse 5.

The simplicity of God’s salvation will never cease to amaze me.

How tragic that so many fail to see it! May you, dear reader, stop and think.  Perhaps your sin is not as great as mine was, but the Bible says: “We all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”. Romans Chapter 3, verse 23.  Why not cast your burden of sin on Christ today?  He is patiently waiting to receive you into His family.

“Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise case out”. John Chapter 6, verse 37.