School teacher Mike Bryan tried to be a Buddhist, Taoist, pagan and Catholic before declaring himself an atheist. So when God met him one day, ‘it was really embarrassing’.
Mike Bryan is a thinking man. A scientist educated at Cambridge University. In talking about ‘the many twists and turns’ he took in his journey of faith, Mike recalls dipping into the Chinese religion of Taoism, and practising the rituals of equinox. ‘I haven’t danced naked around a fire, but probably only because I wasn’t invited,’ he jokes.
Yet, today, Mike is possibly in the last place he ever imagined, studying to become a Salvation Army officer at Booth College of Mission. So what went wrong? I ask (jokingly, of course).
A UK native, Mike grew up in Lancashire, in a liberal Catholic family with a strong sense of social justice. His dad was an academic and scientist who taught Mike to question. ‘He always said, “Believe half of what you see and nothing of what you hear.” But when I applied that to my faith as a young person, I found that to be very shaky, so I lost interest,’ explains Mike.
Mike’s rite of passage after leaving school was studying science at Cambridge University. That’s when ‘science became my faith; it was my religion.’ He admired the works of Richard Dawkins, now a famous atheist, who had just published The Selfish Gene.
It was Dawkins who coined the word ‘meme’—now co-opted by the internet—to mean a social ‘gene’ that spreads and becomes an identity in itself. He explained religion as simply a meme that spread because it helped people to make sense of the world.
But despite Mike’s rejection of religion, there was still a yearning for spirituality. He attended the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order at university, which taught him to meditate. He also ‘dipped’ into other religions. ‘I used to describe it as a smorgasbord of religions—a bit of this, a bit of that,’ he says.
His first foray back into Christianity was accidental, and somewhat irreverent. By this time, Mike had married Chonny and they had begun a family. He worked at a care home for people with intellectual disabilities, where he often had to endure 24-hour shifts. Chonny—who was home looking after three pre-school boys—started going to the local Catholic church for some adult interaction.
‘I kind of got sucked back in,’ says Mike. He enjoyed the familiarity of Catholic mass, and it was a great place to meet people. Even though he called himself a ‘Pago-Buddhist’, Mike began teaching Sunday school. ‘I don’t know what I was doing there; the priest should really have interviewed me,’ Mike laughs. ‘But I could see the value of children knowing Bible stories, even if it was just as part of their heritage.’
It was when Mike began working as a science teacher that he first considered the need for God in society. He worked at what is known in the UK as a ‘sink school’—for students who fail entrance exams or are expelled from other schools. It’s the toughest of the tough.
‘It was a very, very difficult, disturbing place to be. I remember covering a class, and walking in and all the boys had their backs against the wall because they didn’t trust each other. They literally had to watch their backs. Among both the students and the teachers it was every man for himself. I had a huge realisation of what life is like when you take God out of the picture,’ he reflects.
If this was the nightmare, Mike and his family decided to escape and follow their dream of living in New Zealand. Mike’s utopia was having some land and living self-sufficiently. Within four months of arriving in Kaitaia, the family had a three-acre block with chickens and a garden and Mike had secured a good job at Kaitaia College.
Mike says he related to the ‘teachers who were atheists and who seemed to have progressive ideas’. After reading The God Delusion by Dawkins, Mike decided he was going to become an atheist. ‘I thought, “Actually, I’m going to come out as an atheist.” Spirituality was just something I stuffed into a cupboard and shut.’
Meanwhile, Chonny was taking the boys to the local Salvation Army and found an authentic faith of her own. Mike went along to church sporadically, but was happy to give it up now that he was an ‘official’ atheist.
One time, after Chonny had been away for the weekend at a Salvation Army Brengle Institute, she told Mike that God had called her to be a Salvation Army officer (minister). But, she added, ‘It will never happen because you don’t believe in God.’
Yet, some of the people who entered their lives made an indelible impression on Mike. Rissy Price, the corps sergeant major at Kaitaia Salvation Army, became firm friends with Chonny. Mike would often listen in on their conversations, in which they talked about a personal relationship with Jesus.
‘I found it fascinating,’ he recalls. ‘Rissy had an open home and the sort of place where you always felt welcome. She invited us there for Christmas—and every Christmas after that.’
Mike was also befriended by the corps officer (pastor) Phil Mellsop. To Mike’s frustration, Phil seemed to accept Mike without an agenda. ‘I was always waiting for him to “pitch” to me. We’d be at the beach with the sun going down and our fishing lines out, and I was waiting for him to try to convert me so I could smack him down with my answer. But he never brought it up. It was so infuriating!’
Mike officially ‘came out as an atheist’ at a marae-based training day at school, where he announced that he couldn’t do karakia as he didn’t believe in God. However, the big announcement had the opposite effect to what he was hoping for. Despite his stance—or perhaps because of it—the principal asked Mike to karakia (prayer) at the end of the day. ‘It made me think, “What is the logical end point of taking God out of school? How can you teach values without God?” ’
He couldn’t help but notice the contrast with the school system he had left behind in the UK: ‘There was always this underlying Māori spirituality. They always respected karakia and had a sense that they were part of something bigger than themselves,’ explains Mike. ‘In the end, I realised that atheism is a dead end because it leads to desperation and hopelessness. If morality is relative, then anything goes and we end up with a society we don’t want.’
One day, out strolling in the sun, Mike finally admitted he was fighting a losing battle with God. ‘I was wrestling with this dissatisfaction. I was ill and mentally exhausted. And I thought, “I have everything I want—my garden, selfsufficiency, fishing, a good income, a good family—how come I am sick within myself?” ’ At that moment, a single thought came into his head: ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ ‘I can still picture it,’ recalls Mike. ‘I sat down on a bench and thought, “Okay, I give up. You win, God.’ And then I thought, ‘Oh that’s embarrassing! I’ve told everyone that I’m an atheist.” ’
After ‘the day I cracked’—as Mike calls it—he admitted to himself that there was a God and that Jesus was real. He discovered that the personal relationship Chonny enjoyed with Jesus could be his as well. Mike was mentored by men at his corps (Salvation Army church), and ‘did a complete 180 turn in direction’, he says.
Once he surrendered himself to God, Mike accepted this meant surrendering to Salvation Army officership as well. He reflects on everything that has brought him to this place: how he has always been attracted to the marginalised in society, how he couldn’t shut the door on spirituality, Chonny’s calling and prayer, the people that challenged his defences. It seems God had a plan all along.
While Mike once thought being a scientist meant discounting religion, he now realises the two make easy companions. ‘I don’t see that science and God don’t work together. You look at DNA, it is incredibly complex, but you can’t make it any simpler and still have a living cell. That to me is evidence of creation.’
After all the twists and turns, Mike found that God had been hiding in plain sight all along. ‘I found freedom when I surrendered. There is huge freedom in knowing you don’t have to worry, because God is God and he is leading us each day
as told to Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 25 February 2017 2016, pp6-9
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