The Testimony of James Spence
Putting together the pieces of my testimony, I now realize that there were several time periods during which God stood at the door of my heart and knocked.
Firstly, there were my early years, when I was aged around seven or eight. I can remember quite clearly telling my dad that by the age of thirty, I wanted to be a vicar (Pastor). It seemed that Vicars had it “all together” as I watched and listened to them on Songs of Praise (a British TV show on Sunday evenings), and I was convinced that such godly looking and sounding men must be going to heaven! Further, even in my young mind, I reasoned that there had to be more on offer to a person than simply growing up, going to school and college, graduating, going to work, marrying, raising a family, retiring and eventually dying, NEVER EVER to exist again. I struggled with this concept a great deal but concluded that it wasn’t my place to worry about such a thing. This was a concern for grownups, and I fully expected to have the answer to the burning question of “what happens to you when you die?” by the time I was my mom and dad’s age! With this security, I filled my life with “being good”; being a good boy at home, being a good boy at school, being good at sports, being good to my friends and so on. Success academically, sportingly and socially characterized my young and early adult life.
When I was 16 years old, my world was rocked as I experienced the loss of a close friend who was pegged to become a top class, professional cricketer. I was studying for my “A Levels” when my grandad came into the room, telling me that he’d just heard on the radio that Yorkshire cricket star, Gregg Duggan had passed away. Like me, he was only 16 years old. Died of a heart attack in hospital after collapsing on the field earlier that day. Surely my grandad had miss-heard. After all, it was Gregg’s dad who suffered from heart disease. But as the reality of my friend’s death hit home, I remember feeling numb at the thought of not seeing him again.
But perhaps most significantly, I’ll never forget the thought that haunted me as I watched his coffin lowered into the ground. That thought was, “So Gregg now knows what it feels like to be dead.” What a strange concept to cross my mind. It’s as though I knew intuitively that his burial was not the end; that Gregg had simply passed from one life to the next. But…where had he gone? What did afterlife look for him? Was he in heaven? Was there even a heaven for him to go? That question remained unanswered as the busyness of life shielded me from having to draw any conclusions…
The third time period revolves around my college days. For two years I lived with Rob Burns. For two years we graced the dance floors and bars of local night clubs, reveling in the sights and sounds on offer. We enjoyed the excitement and freedom of the student life style, and were keen to discuss our “conquests” with each other. But then something happened. Rob turned into a “weirdo!” He started going to church, he made copious notes inside his Bible and he insisted in telling me about someone called Jesus – how He loved me so much that He died for me and how He promised to forgive all my sins, past, present and future. This would just be a phase he was going through I thought, or some scam to keep the attention of his new church going, bible thumping, God-fearing, saintly, Christian girlfriend! However, his insistence that he had been “born again” both worried and intrigued me at the same time, and yet it was all so new, and “un-Rob like” that I couldn’t accept it as real. After all, everyone knew that Jesus was just for kids and that the Bible was just a collection of fairy stories. I begin to notice changes in him though, especially in his attitude to worrying, and when quizzed why, he give Philippians 4:4-7 as his God given verse of reassurance.
College came and went and Rob and I went our separate ways; me to New Zealand to play cricket and then into a sports development job in Wakefield, England, and Rob into lecturing and eventually to soccer training in Houston, Texas. It was during the time of my employment in Wakefield that I decided to move in and live with Julie, my girlfriend at that time, and this to me represented all a man could wish for! I could come and go as I pleased, I could be in a relationship that didn’t have the responsibility of marriage or of kids, I could play as much sport as I wanted, and I could still have someone waiting for me at home.
In hindsight, I can now see the Lord’s hand at work during my time as a “Community Sports Leader” in Wakefield, even while living in sin with Julie, and being very distant from the Lord. My role was to promote sports and recreation amongst those members of the community considered to be “disadvantaged”: the unemployed, the elderly, those with special needs, at risk kids. People often overlooked and un-provided for. Every day was different, and every day was a battle. I was uncomfortable, often embarrassed by the things I had to do. At times, I’d be sitting in a public swimming pool with an elderly gentleman. Other times I’d be playing Santa Claus in the rough and tough clubs of working class England. One time I was dressed as a clown, and had to drive 25 miles to work…in my clown outfit. I found myself potholing, hill-climbing, driving the council mini-bus, organizing and refereeing sports events. And perhaps my worst moments came in front of 30 or so ladies aged 60-75 years, trying to teach them keep fit to music. All I knew was pushups, squats, sprints and sit ups. So that’s what they did…to music! How any of us survived, I’ll never know. For sure, God was preparing me, and He was putting me through the fire…
My live-in relationship with Julie quickly deteriorated after a “honeymoon” period of a few months. No longer was it the blissful, “happily ever after” experience I had originally anticipated. Through personality conflicts and trying circumstances, we found it difficult to get along, or even be around each other. We had redecorated the house from top to bottom, and eventually, it looked great. The only problem was, that we couldn’t agree on anything. We clashed. We fought and we argued. Both too stubborn to give in and say sorry. If only we’d known then that, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). I knew we were in trouble when, after yet another fight, my beloved cricket bat was hurled into the bath tub, rendering it useless from that point forward. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the bat barely missed my head as I sat bathing in the tub! Eventually we decided to “get away from it all” and leave our problems behind when we took a three weeks’ vacation to Houston in October 1991, where we were hosted by Rob Burns (my old college buddy, and later my Best Man) and his wife, Jenny. Sadly, Julie and I quickly realized that rather than ridding ourselves of our problems, we merely brought them with us to Texas, and we were left feeling disappointed and disillusioned. Nothing seemed to make sense. Here I was in a wonderful environment, supposedly on a vacation of a life time, and I was as miserable as I could ever remember.
It was during this period however, that I was not only re-introduced to Jesus through the words of Rob, but also by his life style. I saw in front of my eyes truly a new creation: the old Rob had gone, and a new compassionate, caring and sensitive Rob had emerged. He was at peace with himself and with God, and he shared at length about a Jesus whom I’d never known. I knew Rob well enough to know that this was real for him and yet still, I needed more convincing.
October 13th, 1991 saw Julie and I in North Oaks Baptist Church in Spring, Texas. Each word that night seemed to speak to me directly and to my lost condition without Jesus, and I knew that there was a real battle going on inside me. Part of me wanted to leap forward at the invitation to publicly profess Jesus as my Lord and Savior, but another part wanted to keep my feet firmly placed behind the safety of the pews. That night, the latter won, and I remember Julie asking why I was crying during the service, and almost mocking me for doing so. In my heart I knew that God was getting my attention but not wanting to make a rash decision I resisted the pull of the Holy Spirit. I had to be SURE that Jesus was real, and besides, I had to weigh-up the consequences of becoming a Christian: what would my family and friends think? Would I have to make changes in my life? And would I be willing to give my life to Christ rather than live my life for myself?
Over the course of the week, through much soul searching and questioning I finally realized the need for Jesus in my life. I wasn’t content, I wasn’t certain of where I would spend eternity, and I knew God had spoken to me on the 13th and over the following week. As a result, although many questions remained unanswered, I finally came to the point of abandoning my own fears and the very real fear of “public opinion”. They now became unimportant. At the end of the evening service of October 20th, 1991, I walked the aisle of North Oaks Baptist Church and through tears and much relief I invited Jesus Christ into my heart. The same evening I was baptized, and while I didn’t fully understand its significance at the time, it was my way of putting a seal on my commitment. I wanted to make myself accountable to the body of believers, and though it took the Pastor two attempts to keep me under the baptismal water, I knew that night that I had truly given my life to Christ, that it was real, and that I was beginning a new life with Him as my Lord and Savior.
On my return to England, I told my parents that I needed to share something that had happened that would change my life forever. As we sat in the living room, TV still on in the background, I’ll never forget their response when I told them I’d become a Christian…”Oh is that all?” came the reply. “We thought you were gonna tell us something serious, like Julie had gotten pregnant.” And with that, the conversation ended. Relief for my parents, but sadness for me as my life transformation had gone unrecognized, and dismissed as an unimportant, unnecessary topic of conversation.
Well, Julie wasn’t pregnant. We never married. Instead, I moved out of the house we’d built, and returned home to live as the Prodigal Son with mum and dad.
Six months later I was heading to the US…No doubt that God had called me to share my faith through soccer. It would mean stepping out of my comfort zone into a world, a lifestyle and a life perspective I could never have imagined. Far from my “perfect” job of going to work in a suit, carrying a brief case and sitting behind a desk in an isolated office as a bank manager, I would be wearing a track-suit, carrying soccer balls and stepping onto the mission field every day; sharing Jesus with kids and parents, and rejoicing over every one who came to know Him.
In 1996, Sports Quest was founded, as my wife and I made the decision to remain in the US when the logical course would’ve been to return to England. I knew God had not finished with us yet. I still felt a strong sense of gratitude for Jesus saving “a wretch like me”. There was simply no other choice than to use soccer as a platform to share my faith. As I prayed, sought counsel and studied the Word, Matthew 13:16 jumped out as a defining Scripture. It was confirmation that I did not need to send the crowds away (kids, teams, parents); that I (yes “I”, unconfident, insecure, untrained “I”)…I could give them something to eat. I could share my hope in Christ. I could feed their spiritual hunger. I could bring what morsels I had to Jesus, and He would multiply. The Word could still go out and God would get the glory. It must all go to Him, because I am unqualified and ineffective. But He…Jesus Christ – He is the Great Enabler. He’s the One who equips the messenger and draws men to Himself. As I’m available and obedient, Jesus convicts and saves.
In 2016, Sports Quest celebrated 20 years of soccer ministry. It’s been a journey of excitement and disappointment. Highs and lows. A test of faith and a testimony of how God can take an ordinary, sin filled life, and give it purpose and passion, fulfillment and joy.
Today, I’m praising God for his grace, power and provision. And tomorrow…I’ll be doing the same. He alone is worthy!
Journey since then to follow….
The Testimony of Debra Spence
I was born in England in 1964 in a small village called Shelf. It had 1 school, 1 church and all the small local stores. I was Christened (sprinkled) when I was 6 months old in the Church were my parents got married.
I went to a Church of England School and if anyone asked what religion I was, I told them that I was a Christian. I have 5 sisters and we had a good upbringing, with good moral values. We did not attend the village church. The only time I went to church was at Easter and Christmas with school. At school we had assembly each morning where we sang a couple of hymns and the Headmaster read a short Bible passage then we prayed and were dismissed to class. This was my understanding of been a Christian!
As a teenager I remember praying many times to God with requests and always felt that He was close by. I went off to college and then got a job and met a young man whom I married 2 years later in 1984 at the age of 20. Unfortunately that marriage only lasted 6 years. I was left angry and bitter.
I moved back home with my parents and 2 years later (1992) God brought a wonderful man called Jim into my life. Jim had given his heart to the Lord in October of 1991 when he was on vacation in Texas. When we met he told me all about his life changing experience and how God was calling him to move to Houston and work with kids, teaching them soccer and sharing the gospel. One question that Jim asked me and that I will never forget was “what does that cross you are wearing around your neck mean to you.” I didn’t really have an answer, I just knew that there was a God. 6 weeks after our meeting Jim left England bound for Houston, TX.
I started attending a Bible teaching church close to where I lived in England and then in September of 1992 I came to Houston to visit Jim. While I was here I heard the Pastor of the Church give an invitation to accept Jesus into your heart. This was so new to me and for the few times I heard this I did not respond. I fought with this in the last few days of my visit here and cried out to God to help me. On September 21st 1992 (20 years ago this year), I got on my knees in the living room of the house where Jim was staying and prayed the sinner’s prayer, I asked forgiveness of my sins, invited Jesus into my heart and to asked Him to become my Lord and Savior. That moment was so wonderful and the weight I had been carrying on my shoulders was suddenly lifted. I was now a child of God. Amen.
A few hours later I was flying back to England, determined to let everyone know the decision I had made and to get baptized as soon as possible. Of course family and friends thought I was going through a phase and that it would wear off soon. The Church I had been attending got me into a new believers Bible study straight away and I sat with the pastor to talk about getting baptized, only to learn that the Church of England does not baptize (sprinkle) a second time but that I could renew the vows that my parents had said for me as a baby. This was just not acceptable to me so I prayed and asked God what I should do. I revisited the pastor and asked him if we could get special permission for me to get baptized as I really wanted this to be a witness to family and friends. So he wrote to the Bishop and several weeks later a letter came back granting permission. On November 29th, 1992 I was baptized in a 6 foot paddling pool in the isle of St. John’s Church in front of all Jim and I’s family and many friends. 2 years later Jim and I were married in this same church by my pastor and friend.
In June of 1994 Jim and I were married and he brought me back to Houston to be with him. In October of 1995 the Lord blessed us with our first child who we named Joshua. Then 6 months later the man Jim worked for felt God calling him to go to seminary and so we were left with the decision as to whether we should go back to England or stay in the US. Only problem was that Jim needed a new sponsor for his work visa. Jim had work through the summer of 1996 and then we would make our decision.
In April of 1996 Jim and I and our 6 month old moved in with a family from our Church as Jim had gone on to half salary and we could no longer afford to live in our 1 bedroom apartment. Jim worked that summer conducting soccer camps and sharing the Gospel with kids at camp. It was during this time that God brought a special family to Jim and I who felt led by the Lord to start a new corporation for us called Sports Quest. God was at work in our lives and everywhere we turned we felt like God was saying “if you stay, I will provide”. So through many many weeks of prayer and searching for Gods will in our lives we took a step of faith and decided to stay in Houston even though we had no home and no money and was about to start a new business. We made the decision that Sports Quest would be bold about its mission to reach children for Christ through the avenue of soccer. The corporation was made official in December of 1996.
Back in October of 1996, the family that we had been living with announced they were moving to Venezuela so Jim and I were on the hunt for a new place to live. We had no savings and very little income still, so on our knees once more we asked God what His will was for our family. We also asked our church to be praying for us and a man that was a member there was moving to Dallas but wanted to keep his house in Houston. He requested to meet with us and told us that the Lord had laid it on his heart to allow us to live in his home rent free. We were in awe of how God had once again provided for us and would continue to do so for the next 3 years as we lived in this beautiful 4 bedroom home with a pool.
During these 3 years, when Joshua was 2 years old, God allowed us to conceive our second child but He would also take this precious gift home to be with Him during my second trimester. This was also a time of great faith. We knew God had our best at heart and trusted in Him to see us through. But, God also knew that He would bless us once again with our third child, Megan. Megan was born 2 weeks after moving out of this wonderful house and into our second apartment. It was here where God would grow Sports Quest from seeing 300 kids per summer to over 1000 kids who got to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
Again, God continued to bless us as we were faithful to Him. We lived in a 3 bedroom (1 been the office for Sports Quest) apartment for 3 years. My parents came to visit us and told us that they wanted to help us move into a house and that they were going to give us the down payment to be able to do this. What a huge blessing. So once again we went on our knees before the Lord and asked Him to show us the house that He would provide and we committed to the Lord that we would open our home to others who need a place to stay.
In May 2002, we moved into our very first house in Cypress. We have lived there for 14 years now and we are in our 20th year of heading up God’s ministry “Sports Quest”.
There are so many other things I could share with you all if I had about a week to do so, but I want you to know that God is very much alive today and working in the lives of those who seek Him. My favorite verse, one given to me by a wonderful Christian lady is Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His Purpose.”
If you have never committed your life to Jesus, it is not too late; no sin is too great for God to forgive. He is a God of Love, mercy and grace and wants each one of us to have a loving relationship with Him.