It began in eternity. But we will pick up the story much later than that, in the middle of the Gulf War, early in the 1990s. A young Christian nurse in Nottingham reluctantly gave in to her friend and wrote a letter to a soldier to encourage him while he was far from home. She did not know who would get it nor whether they would ever reply. She didn’t mind particularly.
A brash fella from Paisley received the letter, one of many he was collecting.
The letter was stolen and passed into the unknowing hands of a quiet, English man with an interest in eastern philosophy. He had recently wished on a star for a true friend but this is a story for another day. Suffice to say, he wrote back to the nurse and she wrote back to him.
When he returned to England, he visited the nurse to say thank you for the letters, an escape plan at the ready. He never used it. He never left. Even worse, he became a Christian soon after and hardly a year later they were married. Their friends warned against it. They said that it wouldn’t last twenty minutes and they were right. It has lasted twenty-three years.
Dad was still in the RAF when we were born. We did not know what an odd life it is until he came out. The discipline has paid off.
I was born in Hampshire because that was where dad was posted at the time. We moved to Lincolnshire soon after because that was where he was posted next. Then my younger brother turned up and completed the family. All throughout, my parents were still learning about their faith and trying to teach us. They did an incredible job considering the lack of support.
They didn’t know what ‘Family Worship’ was or how to do it and I don’t think they’d ever heard of the catechism either at this point. But they knew Jesus and they knew what he had done and they loved him and they did their utmost to share these things with the three of us.
A few years after we moved to Lincolnshire, I started primary school. This in itself has proved providential but that’s jumping too far ahead for now. Dad was supposed to be promoted that year but his commanding officer had taken a dislike to him and passed him by. The officer left, however, and dad was promoted after all and with it, he was posted to Scotland. At five years old, all I knew was that Scotland was very far away, Granny Mo lived there, and it must be horrible to be posted because where would they put the stamp? Would daddy have to travel in one of those red vans? Would we be posted too?
None of us liked Leuchars. Not even the cat. It was a good job that we were all still very young otherwise my two brothers and I would never have fitted into the bedroom. You could hardly fit a single bed in.
It is difficult to describe living on a base to anyone who has never stayed in Forces housing. It’s probably enough to say that the windows rattled whenever planes flew over (every half hour during the day) and there were a lot of fences and trucks. We spent all of the time we could at the beach and in the forest.
When we finally moved to Dundee, our new house felt like a mansion compared tot he 2.5 bed grey box we’d been allocated before. It was our own house and it was great. The first day there the boys were sword-fighting and Joel knocked Isaac’s tooth out.
It is only at this point that I can actually remember thinking much about God or paying attention in Sunday School. I guess I liked the idea but it was pretty irrelevant. The Bible was ranked alongside my favourite story books and Jesus was about as close a friend as the ones I’d left behind in Lincolnshire. There were more important things to do like learn to understand Scottish and try to find a school that would take both my older brother and I and wouldn’t make me do primary one all over again (they start younger own South).
The years slipped by and dad came out of the RAF. We were free from night shifts and the stress that ensued when he was sent away for months. Instead, depression descended and work could not be found. It took a long time to adjust to civvy life.
By now, I hated going to church. Sunday school was patronizing and I hated it. It was just babysitting. All we did was sing stupid songs and watch Veggie Tales and the children sat, glassy-eyed and dull like toys in a museum. On the other hand, sermons were long and boring and full of strange words I didn’t understand so I didn’t care for them either. My parents loved God but no one else seemed to think that he was very important. I looked at the people at school and I looked at the people at church and I could see no difference.
Besides, I’d been told that Jesus saves sinners and I was a good girl (mostly). He already liked me, didn’t he?
The only thing that made going to church worthwhile was when missionaries came. They were different somehow, more real. From time to time I’d even pray for them if I remembered.
Aside from that, every Sunday was a battle. The morning consisted of being dragged out of bed, often shouting and crying, and being made to get dressed and go to church. Looking back, I’m grateful that it was a battle that my parents thought was worth fighting, that in itself was a witness.
I did not know her at the time, but there was someone else pleading for my soul. I thank God often for Mattie, an old lady who was confined to a care home but who had adopted my Sunday School class an prayed faithfully for us every ay by name. Praise God that she lived to see at least the beginnings of the fruit of her effort. She is one of the faces I most look forward to seeing again on that final day.
And so it continued. I hated Sundays and going to church. I hated weekdays and the torment of being in school. God was out there, sure, but he was frustratingly distant and didn’t seem bothered about doing much to be helpful.
At ten years old, I went to my first SU camp because mum thought it would be a good idea. It was. We went kayaking. We went gorge-walking. We did tree-climbing and raft building and abseiling and archery.
And someone other than my parents sat me down and told me about Jesus. Not just the stories about how he was a nice guy, not just trite messages about a warm, woolly kind of love. No, they told me about Jesus. They told me about sin, that I was a sinner.They told me gently about the Hell that I deserved. Then they told me about Jesus. About his love. Not the warm fuzzy kind but the kind that was so strong that he didn’t think twice about dying so I could live. Even someone as hopeless as me.
I guess two things became real to me in the course of that week. The first was a realisation that being good just doesn’t cut it with God. I was playing games and it was dangerous.It was like waking up and finding you’ve been sleeping in a byre and you’re covered in muck.
The second thing that I became aware of was what God’s love actually is and means. Because it was no longer a warm, cheesy, let’s-just-hug-it-out-guys kind of love, it suddenly meant something. It had value and importance.It wasn’t just about God liking us when he felt like it, it was the kind of love that loves the unlovable. It was a wilful commitment to the good of another. True love, a more perfect kind of the self-sacrificial devotion which had kept my parents together all of these years.
Coming to Christ was not a lights in the sky, weird dreams, blaring revelation style thing. It was more like waking slowly from a deep sleep.
The journey home took and hour in the car. Mum drove. We talked the whole way. I don’t remember a word of what was said, I only know that there were a lot of questions which she answered patiently and always brought back to Christ.
That night, when everyone had gone to bed, I knelt and smoothed a patch on the sheet beside me for God to come sit so I could talk to him. Then I closed my eyes and whispered into the dark that I believed. I knew what I had done and was so sorry. If he could find it in him to forgive me, I’d be so happy. I knew he could do it if he wanted to and I knew I didn’t deserve it. After what he had done for me, I knew I couldn’t do much but please could I serve him for the rest of my life.
I was ten. I knew nothing about anything really, only that I was a sinner in need of forgiveness. I needed Christ and I wanted to serve him always and walk with him. I don’t think I even really knew what grace was, only that God had forgiven me though I didn’t deserve it and I just wanted to know him more. All I wanted was to be near him.
To this day he has never once left me but that is a story for another time.