I mentioned earlier that the great love of my life was football; football was the thing in my life that made me feel good about myself. There were not many things that that I felt confident doing but when I put my usually green goalkeepers Shirt on and my cherished gloves I was confident in my ability even though I only measured five feet five and a half inches tall.
Sometimes when we were walking out to the pitch I would overhear the opposing team comment on my size, it would usually be something like, “Look at all the size of their keeper”. Their comments would make me laugh because even though I was small I was able to jump and touch the bar without too much effort. They would become so pre occupied by trying to lob the ball over my head that they wasted good possession.
I was training twice a week at my local club Glenavon F.C. and another night with another team from my town. It was during this time that the main team I played for called Sunnyside won three trophies in the one season, the most prestigious being the I.F.A. youth cup for under eighteens. A club dinner and presentation night was held in Glenavon social club I was seventeen at the time.
The room that we were in was packed; everything had been laid on for us, free food and drink. I had not taken another drink after becoming a Christian and I had absolutely no intention of starting again. I would have got drunk whenever I could afford to or whenever one of my older friends would have brought me round to his house. My close friend had a part time job and the man he worked with would bring both of us to dart matches in a town called Rathriland, we got to know the men in the dart club and they would buy us beer.
The bar man in the social club came round the table I was sitting at in Glenavon Social club and asked us all what we wanted to drink. When he came to me I said I would have a diet coke, he suggested that I could not drink coke all night and before I knew it I had agreed with him and asked for a Bass Shandy with plenty of lemonade in it. When I took my first sip from the glass I knew immediately that there was very little lemonade in it but instead of asking for more lemonade I drank it.
That night was by far the Highlight of my football life but it would also become one that would cause me much sorrow. The pint classes of Bass Shandy kept coming and I felt obliged to empty them quite frequently. When all the medals had been handed out to all the players and all the speeches had been made I suddenly felt all alone even though I was surrounded by my team mates.
Then completely out of the blue a little voice in my head started asking me the same question over and over, “Jim what are you doing”? I knew God was speaking to me and I felt so ashamed and guilty. I felt that I had failed God, let myself down and compromised my faith in Jesus. I never said a word to anyone I just gathered my two medals and my little I.F.A. cup, left the social club and cried the whole way home thinking that I was just like my dad. The difference being that I was not going home to fight with anyone.
I had kept drinking until I was drunk and what had been a night of success eventually turned into a night of sorrow. I was unsure whether or not God would forgive me but God reminded me that he loved me unconditionally, even when I messed up and compromised my faith he was willing to forgive me if I was sincerely sorry and asked for forgiveness. This was a bad experience but worse would come soon after.
It is sadly very ironic for me to recall the morning that my mother sent for me to inform me that she could get me a job in a certain factory when I left school and I was so cruel in what I said to her. My first job was in the same factory; I cannot remember doing an interview, in those days it was sometimes the case that it was not what you knew that got you the job but who you knew. I knew nothing, I had dropped out of school with no qualifications so it is fair to assume my relative who was high up in the factory management probably had a big part to play with me getting the job. In the end he did me no favours; I hated the sight of the place.
My football manager asked me one Saturday if I was working, I told him that I was but that I was looking for another job; he said that he might be able to get me a job where he worked in the textile printing business and soon after that he did, again without any interview. This man was very good to me, he would often bring me to his home on match days and his wife would feed me. I met another man in this new place of employment and both he and his wife showed me much Christian kindness. I thank God for the many people who showed me kindness in those difficult days.
After the death of my mother my dad had stopped drinking for a while, when he was sober life at home was not too bad. My brother and sister were still living with my two aunts and on reflection the separation probably robbed us of that bond between siblings. I still saw them but to a much lesser extent now that I was working full time. They would usually have come round to our house at weekends.
The not honouring your father story.
During one of these visits one Saturday morning I had been working overtime and rushed home from Portadown to get my dinner and rush out to play football in the afternoon. When I got home my dad was there in the house with my brother and sister and he had been drinking, I was furious, one because he had started drinking again and two because he had not bothered to make any dinner. I think I made a couple of sandwiches and was literally throwing them into me when for no reason at all he started saying all sorts of terrible things about our dead mother. My brother and sister were becoming more and more upset and I was getting very angry, my trip switch was rapidly reaching its limit. I was playing a match in Lurgan Park that afternoon and I had pre packed my kit because I knew I would not have much time after working in the morning. As I got up out of the chair my dad jumped up out of his chair and came towards me, I thought he was going to hit me because I had told him to shut up and to stop bad mouthing our deceased mother.
At this point no words were being exchanged, it seemed as if this was a time for action and not words. Before I really knew what had happened I had hit my dad and knocked him out, my sister was crying and not knowing what to do next I lifted my kit bag and left the house with my dad still lying on the living room floor. I walked the short distance to my grandparent’s house in Union Street, tears streaming down my face. My grandmother asked me why I was crying and when I told her that I had knocked my dad out she said to me that if I had done that sooner perhaps her daughter and my mother would still be alive.
That was not what I wanted to hear, I was already carrying plenty of guilt and regrets, and I did not need any more “What ifs” to contend with. I did not stay very long and walked down to the swimming pool changing rooms and headed up to the top pitch with one of the other team members for some shooting practice before the match started. During the match I broke down and could not stop crying, I tried to hide it as best I could but one of our team asked me what was wrong and I told him that I had hurt myself diving for the ball. I was hurting but it had nothing to do with football.
Once again that feeling of failing God, letting him down again, only this time it was much worse. The Devil was reminding me that I had broken Gods commandment by not honouring my father and my mother, I believed at that moment that God had washed his hands off me once and for all. After the match I did not know where to go or who to turn to, I was ashamed to tell anyone at the church what I had done and who knows what else my grandmother might have said to make me feel worse if that was possible.
I just kept walking around and finally I headed back towards our house. As I approached the house I noticed a familiar car parked outside, it was my uncle who had led me to the Lord. He had come up from Belfast to visit us, I had not seen him for a while but his timing or the Lords timing was perfect. I wrapped the door because in my haste to leave I had not taken my key; he answered the door and asked me was I ok. I started to cry again and said no, before I could explain to him what had happened he said my dad had already told him.
I told him that I was truly sorry for what I had done but I felt that God wanted nothing more to do with me because I kept messing up. He then started to tell me about some of the people in the bible who messed up and how God had forgiven them when they repented and asked for forgiveness. That’s what I did, I asked my heavenly father to forgive me and then I apologised and asked my earthly father to forgive me. They both did.
Psalm 103:8 “The Lord is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love”. NLT.