A couple of months ago I saw a guy walking down the road holding hands with a couple of very chatty three year old girls. I figured that it was probably his daughter and her friend and they were on their way to nursery. As I passed, I tuned in for a couple of seconds, not long enough to hear what was being said but enough to enjoy the excitable childish babble. The two of them were clearly bright, articulate and had plenty to say. There’s something very cute about the ‘little people’ stage – tiny but with enough language to hold forth. At the same time utterly dependent but boldly pursuing independent thought. What was delightful was that they were developing confidence, they were secure, you sensed they’d come from families where they were cherished, listened to and encouraged. It’s not always the case. There’s nothing more heartbreaking when you’ve lost your child than seeing another parent ignore or demean theirs.
In a few years those children will be unrecognisable. They’ll become adults and probably have children of their own life. The 3 year old them was them but a very different version of them.
We all live one life, it’s a continuum but there can be so much change it can feel like a series of lives.
You may have heard of the idea of writing a letter to your younger self. Feels a tad pointless if I’m honest. The reverse is to look at letters from the younger self seeking a better future.
I dug my old scribblings out earlier. There’s nothing as ordered as a diary, there’s a plastic wallet full of mostly teenage musings. It’s pretty miserable stuff. I didn’t grow up in a happy home – there was no drama (that had all happened when I was too young to know) – instead there was a lot of silence and repression. I knew I was loved but I was desperately insecure. I lived in a house not a home. My insecurity made me a target at school and I retreated into self-pity.
There’s a lot of angst in my teenage writing, I’m very unsure of myself and still playing the sympathy card about the hand I’ve been dealt but there’s some hope too. There’s things I’m passionate about, some sense that I can be creative and turn the negatives into something positive and there’s a shaky but distinct faith. The most self-aware phrase from December 1991 when I’m putting off revising for a Sociology exam is: ‘I am beginning to realise the secure, untroubled, doubt free life may never come’. It might sound bleak but I was doing a lot better than a couple of years earlier.
So what do I take from looking back?
The first thing is that I think there are two ways of viewing life and they are both wrong. You can think that the things of the past have no impact on the future and that you can shed it like an old skin and become a new you. I think that’s naïve. Our past shapes us, it’s our frame of reference for what’s normal and who we are. The other extreme is to believe that who we are is completely fixed in place and that people can’t change. Another heartbreaker is to hear people say ‘that’s just what they’re like’, particularly about a child. People can change but it’s not easy. We carry our past but we don’t have to be defined by it.
The second observation is that God has changed my life. As I look back I can see his hand at work to give me the hope and future he promised.
When I was 13 I went away with my church for the weekend and a speaker simply explained that God loved me enough to die for me and wanted to know me. Did I want some of that? Too right. I knew his presence that night but my faith didn’t really develop and I went back to the hardest couple of years I faced.
When I was 15 a youth organisation in Bristol put on a summer camp. I had an amazing time. I made friends! I started to feel part of something.
When I was 19 I came to Sheffield and by providence rather than any planning on my part ending up round the corner from a fantastic church that believed God’s spirit was here to help us today and wasn’t just something you read about in the Bible. Faith became more real and God started to work through all of my baggage and get the chips off my shoulder. Louise had the same experience a few years later and then we met….
When we lost Ben our heads were wrecked but we couldn’t deny what God done throughout our lives. We didn’t just believe a set of ideas, we’d been set free by finding a new identity in God. That was why we held on to faith, realising over time that it was God holding on to us and not the other way round.
There is another version of life available. You won’t find it in a self-help book, you don’t get it by trying harder. This life is a gift.
Jesus offers an invitation – ‘Look! Here I stand at the door and knock, if you hear me calling and open the door I will come in’ (Revelation 3:20)
The other week at church a speaker asked if anyone wanted to respond to this invitation for the first time and then he did a great thing. He got the whole church to pray the prayer to say yes to Jesus. I loved that because we can never say yes to Jesus too many times. He always has more for us.
And he’s knocking today.