If anyone had asked my parents what they thought I would be when I grew up, they would have said I would work in something to do with art or music. I would have said the same. I certainly didn't expect to be a Christian Minister, but a number of events I could only describe as supernatural changed my direction in life.
Just as my mother was giving birth to me John Lennon and Paul McCartney were making their first recordings. At the time, the world could not have realised that these two young guys from Liverpool would change the face of popular music forever. Mum became a big fan of the Beatles. My father was a jazz fan and my mother loved popular music groups and singers so our home was constantly filled with the sound of music. I guess there was no coincidence in the musical path much of my life would take. My parents named me after my father’s closest friend. Dad’s friend had become seriously ill at the age of just 21 and died within a couple of years. That’s all I knew until I was 21 myself. It was only then that I realised it was no coincidence that I, Ralph Burden, was named after Ralph Burnam. The rest of the story is uncanny. But as a child, I often resented not being called Dave or John because Ralph was an unusual name and other children would sometimes laugh at me saying things like, “Ralph? What kind of name is that?” or “Ralph, Ralph - sounds like a dog barking!” I’ve probably heard all of the Ralph jokes.
A childhood miracle
The first time my family experienced a miracle was when I became seriously ill at the age of six. I had been unwell for some months with recurring throat and ear infections when I quite suddenly became critically ill. Approaching my seventh birthday my condition became so serious that there was no doubt that I would die if something wasn’t done very quickly. I was vomiting blood and getting very weak. The doctors didn’t know exactly what was wrong and didn’t know how to treat it. They tried a number of things but the treatments were ineffective. People were praying for me. My grandmother was a keen musician and she loved church. She was always at St Aldhelms, the local Church of England. Even though my parents didn’t attend church I expect they too prayed at this time of crisis. Experienced doctors did not know what was wrong with me and everyone was getting seriously worried that I was going to die.
But just as things were looking very bleak, The senior GP at our local surgery sent her new recruit to see me. She had only just qualified and had very limited experience. However, the junior member of the team gave a possible diagnosis that shocked her colleagues. She just seemed to 'know' what was wrong. She said she believed that it was a rare kind of blood infection and suggested calling in a consultant, an expert in this field who knew how to treat the disease. The consultant came quickly and her suspicions were confirmed. The hospital began to treat me with a huge dose of antibiotics, keeping me in hospital for a month. Full recovery took three years, but against the odds I survived. It was something of a miracle.
How did she know? Who knows. She stunned the experts. She just seemed to know! It was supernatural. Just think about it, what are the chances of a junior doctor just out of training being able to spot a very rare disease just in time before it claimed the life of a child? There had only been a handful of cases in the UK. So few doctors had come across the condition that it was almost unknown. But this was no coincidence. In the bible, God says, “I knew you in your mother’s womb before you were born.” (Jeremiah 1:5). God has a plan for us and he makes sure that the right people are in the right place at the right time to prevent our premature death so that his plans can be accomplished. It wasn’t my time to go at seven years of age, and so, even though she was an inexperienced junior doctor, God made sure that she knew what she needed to know at just the right time in order to save a life. Don’t ever think that you are too inexperienced, not talented enough, too young or too old! God wants you on his team. God has an amazing plan for you and it is not dependent upon the same abilities or experience this world in general looks for.
The voice of God?
When I was sixteen something else supernatural happened which has remained engraved on my memory. I was on my bicycle in Poole (where I lived at the time) waiting to turn left at the end of Commercial Road into the centre of town. An articulated lorry pulled alongside me just a foot or so away and naturally I assumed he had seen me and was going to go straight on when the road was clear. As the traffic, including the lorry, began to move something or someone suddenly said to me, “move immediately onto the pavement!” It was so urgent that I obeyed and leaped from my bike onto the pavement (or sidewalk), grabbed my bike and pulled it out of the way just as the rear wheels of the lorry came right over to the place I had been just seconds before! The lorry cut the corner so badly that the wheels not only went over the place in the road where I had been, but they actually came right onto the pavement almost to where pedestrians were walking! What was it? The voice of an angel? The voice of God? To this day I don’t know, but I do know it was supernatural and I would have been killed if I had not instantly obeyed. Again, it was miraculous how I was saved. God was there.
Saved by an angel?
The next miracle happened to me just two years later. I bought my first beloved trials motorcycle when I was eighteen. I was heading home on my motorcycle on a very snowy day. The main roads had mainly been cleared by snow ploughs but the side roads were awful. As I turned into the side road where I lived with my parents, I lost grip. My trials bike with knobbly tires was better than a road bike in soft snow, but I was going too fast with youthful over confidence. I slid right across to the wrong side of the road, bounced off the kerb, and came to a stop right in the path of an oncoming bus. It was so close that I could see the look of horror on the driver’s face! He must have thought he was going to run right over me. There was a feeling of impending doom inside of me as the bus was almost upon me. To this day I don’t know how the bus avoided me, but the next thing I saw was the rear view of the bus heading down the road. I was alive and unharmed!
I had been attending a church youth group for a while and this incident, amongst other things, convinced me that there was a God and that really cared about me. Once again He had intervened and saved my life. Soon afterwards, I prayed and asked Jesus Christ to come into my life. I felt an incredible sense of peace flood through my whole being and it lasted for several days. I told my non-church friends what had happened. They thought I was a bit crazy, but listened politely. However, despite the fact God had miraculously saved my life twice now, I was still sitting on the fence to some extent. A keen musician, much of my life revolved around the secular music scene and I didn’t want to change my regime. I felt this was about to change considerably, so I backed off from the Christian stuff and settled back into my old life for a while.
God works through popular music
My mother’s love of rock and soul music in the 1960‘s and 70‘s must have put something into me. From an early age I was singing and learning to play instruments. As a teenager I played in a couple of rock groups. Over the Christmas period 1978-79 I went to the United States with my schoolfriend Mark and was inspired by my older cousin who had been a semi-professional musician there for many years. His first band recorded some seven inch vinyl singles which all did well in the local radio charts. I came back with some ideas which helped the band I was in to make considerable progress. We were playing a lot of gigs and because our blend of bluesy rock was quite flexible, we were offered a Sunday residency at a popular pub well known as a music venue. The same year we won a prize for the best new group at a music talent contest and placed second overall. I had dreamed of doing well as a musician and the band were excited about our progress. However, there was an uneasiness inside of me. I still wasn’t satisfied with life. It felt like there was something missing inside. Something was about to change that summer.
I had some good friends who were Christians and I had been attending a church youth group fairly often for a number of years. There was something special about these people. They had a contentment I lacked, a peace inside that I envied. In June 1979 I went to a special service where people were asked to walk to the front if they would like to commit their lives to Jesus Christ. I wanted to do it, but I was a cool musician! How could I just walk out the front like that and blow my cool image? I went home looking confident and self assured, but inside I was like jelly. I hadn’t realised that this is how it feels when the Holy Spirit is convicting you and inviting you to give your life over to Christ! I couldn’t sleep because I knew that I should have responded to the invitation, so I got down on my knees in the middle of the night. I prayed, asking God to forgive me for anything and everything I had done to offend him, and asking Jesus to come into my life. The change was instant! I was filled with peace and I easily fell asleep.
The very next day I the boss from one of the jobs I was doing. I told him what had happened. He laughed. He thought it didn’t fit my image to be a ‘bible basher’ and said he would give me a week before I changed my mind and became ‘normal’ again! When a week passed and I was still a Christian he said he would give me a month to change back to ‘normal.’ When the month passed he said I would not last six months, but when six months passed he gave up speculating.
When I reached 21 I had an experience that convinced me there is no such thing as a coincidence. I was still a fairly new Christian convert, but I sensed deep inside that God wanted me to start helping at church. I went to my pastor and told him. He immediately got me to help out with the youth and in particular I started to teach the bible to one of the classes of young teenagers. I was talking to my parents about it when they told me that my father’s friend Ralph, whom I had been named after, had also taught teenagers the Bible. But then it got weird. I further found out that it was at this age that my Dad's friend Ralph became very ill. It got even more weird when I then found out that Ralph had attended the very same church I was going to now, and his sister was still there! My parents hadn’t moved around the area very much, but they had remained Anglicans and I had been sent to St Aldhelms Church of England School and also attended the church Sunday School. My Grandmother was a church pianist and it was also the first youth group I attended. But somehow, God engineered it so that I would attend the Baptist church a couple of miles away instead, and it was at the Baptist Church where I finally responded to him.
Now it was all beginning to fall into place, and I was quite amazed. I had been named Ralph after my father’s friend, but certainly not for religious reasons, it was simply a way for my father (who was not a believer at the time) to honour the memory of his closest childhood friend. Even though I did my best to remain a ‘heathen’, I had become a Christian and was now starting to help with the youth, just as the previous Ralph had done, and I took on this role at age 21, the age that he was stopped from doing it through serious illness which sadly led to his very premature death. It was even at the same church, even though the obvious church for me to attend would have been St Aldhelms where I had gone to school and where my Grandmother attended. This was mind-blowing! The first Ralph was undoubtedly in heaven and had done a great job, but he had been prevented from completing it by illness. Now God had passed the same role on to me. I was taking on his role in the same church and at the same age. It was all part of God’s plan. I was just totally amazed.
Also when we were 21, school friend Mark Barnett and I formed a new wave rock group we called The Reaction. The band quickly became popular and there was always a good crowd wherever we performed. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves writing songs and playing both original material and cover versions, and it was also our first introduction to the Christian ministry. When playing in pubs and clubs, we would take the opportunity to make new friends. People asked us what our songs were about and this gave us the chance to share our faith. When playing at Christian events we were able to share more freely. A few years later both of us went to Mattersey Hall, the UK Assemblies of God Bible College, and we both ended up working in churches. I doubt that anyone who had known us as rebellious avant-garde 16 year-olds obsessed with the latest rock sounds and spending most of our money on electric guitars would have guessed where we would both end up!
People do say that God moves in mysterious ways.
[The full story is in the book No Coincidence]
There is a Reaction fan site: click here