So last week I told you that I would share the outline of the story I am going to try and write this year. It’s one of my goals for 2017, and putting out there is one way of me being brave and accountable and not procrastinating forever. So here it is: I first wrote this as a spoken word piece for a threads workshop at Creation Fest a couple of years back, but I think it might make a pretty good outline for the book. See what you think…
I was 18 years old and sitting on the floor of my room in my university halls, chatting with the girl who had the room next door. We hadn’t known each other long and we were just sharing about our lives, I was telling her about my family and where we were from.
At some point in the conversation she turned and looked at me square hard in the eyes and asked ‘Didn’t you ever think it was weird? You became a Christian and then your whole life just totally fell apart?’
I stopped and thought, long and hard. The honest truth was no, I never had thought it weird. In fact it’d never even crossed my mind before she asked the question.
Rewind 6 years, and in a little hut somewhere in deepest Sussex, I had just met Jesus – like properly, for the first time.
I didn’t grow up in a Christian house. My parents didn’t know anything of Jesus to teach me and my brother. But I had started going to church for church parade, when I joined the Brownies at 8 years old. A little post-war Anglican church on the edge of a housing estate in Essex. It was nothing special; a little choir and some dusty song books. But – I don’t even know how to explain it – I loved being there. A year later, I asked to be christened for my birthday. My brother, who is 3 years younger but whose birthday was a week after mine, got christened for his 6th birthday too, and we had a little party I remember. I’m sure he’d have been happier with a Tonka truck or something but there we go. I went as often as I could, and a few years later, my friend and I got confirmed. She went to the youth group there, and one night took me along. They were all signing up for this weekend away, and so I did too.
It was nothing like the hymns and patterns of my little Anglican church. The band, the music, the people – they talked about Jesus and not just about God. And I felt like I had come home, that’s the only way I could explain it. I met a girl from school there whose youth leaders were running the weekend. I gave my heart to Jesus and came home changed. I started going to their church and youth group, learning what it was to be a Christian, reading my Bible, drinking it all in.
And then. Then it happened. For the first time. I could tell you I should have seen it coming but the truth is, I did. I just didn’t want to. See, that is. Like most 12 year olds, all grown up and mature on the one hand, but all of us desperately trying to secretly hang on the security and safety of home on the other. I saw the evening I came home and found my Mum sitting there in the front room. Lights out, back pressed hard up against the sofa and knees hugged tight to her chest. I asked her if she was alright, she smiled yes and I didn’t want to hear any different.
I saw the day I opened his wallet and found a photo there. All blond hair and smiles, it wasn’t my Mum’s dark curls. I put it back in a different place and the next time I looked it had gone. We talked about it one morning as we walked to the bus stop, my mates and me, but we all agreed – it couldn’t. It wouldn’t.
But it had. And it did. He sat me on his bed, a couple of months after that first encounter with Jesus in the shed in Sussex, and wrung his hands, stared at his feet and asked no one in particular
‘How do you tell your little girl something you know will break her heart?’
A few weeks later and I came home from school and he was gone. The first of many times he’d up and leave us after promising that day that he never would.
My Dad was a powerlifter. Married to my Mum at 19, they were loving parents and seemingly happily married. Dad owned a successful building business and we had a lovely life. What I didn’t know was that a weightlifting injury had led to a dabble with steroids. The crew he mixed with at the gym had led to a bit of work as a nightclub bouncer; the money was good but the day job and the training and the nights on the door – a pick me up led to a habit, and before any of us could blink, everything had imploded.
My Dad walked out on us in November 1989. I was 12 years old and had been a Christian for literally months. The cocaine habit had racked up some debts, and so Dad had convinced Mum we needed to move, to downsize. What she didn’t know was that he’d forged her signature on the mortgage documents and so as we moved, alone, he was leaving the country with a holdall full of cash, new girlfriend in tow, leaving us to move to a smaller house on the other side of town with just as much debt as before.
Everything changed. My Mum, struggling to make ends meet, went back to work full time. We became latch key kids, letting ourselves in after school and getting dinner ready, laying the table. Except as often as I could, I didn’t go right home – you see school was OK. At school I could mostly cope; forget Dad was gone. But coming home… coming home and laying the table for 3 people instead of 4, there was no escaping that. So I didn’t. I walked straight up the road and straight past our house and through the little alley way at the top of the street and round the corner – to the little flat where the youth leaders of my new church lived. You see, when my Dad was lying to my Mum and convincing her we needed to move because of his debts and his drug addictions, when he was manoeuvring us into this little house so he could run off and try to start over with our money and some other woman – what he didn’t – couldn’t – know, was that God was already one step ahead of him. Ahead of all of us. God was years ahead in fact, sowing a seed into an eight year old’s heart that would hold her tight and stop her from falling and stop all of their threads from unravelling.
And so I’d go, not home, but to my new youth leaders house, now conveniently just round the corner from where I lived, and I’d sit on their couch and we’d eat custard creams and drink tea and pray that God would make everything OK. I was just a kid, and a baby Christian – and if I’m honest, I had no idea whether I really thought God could or would make everything alright. I just had no other place to be and no other idea what to do.
Those people prayed faithfully over me and my family. That church held us up over the next 4 years as my Dad came and went and turned up and begged my Mum to take him back, dry him out. And then he’d go again and I’d be angry and hate him and know that I shouldn’t. I’d read my Bible and write prayers, learn the truth and wrestle with it, letting God slowly teach me how to do this stuff called life, with all its complications and hurts and pains.
There were times when I hated him with an energy I never even knew I had. Times when I stood in a field and screamed angry words at him, promising him he’d never come to my graduation, my wedding, never see his grandkids if he left us. Hot words pouring out as though they’d never stop.
When my Mum took him back time and time again and I would cry and shout and beg her not to, and she’d cradle me in her arms and whisper
‘It’s not him Emma, he’s not the man I married.’
But through it all, those threads of faith that God had started to weave held fast. First me, and then eventually all of us. Mum, getting tired of driving me to church each week and sitting waiting, wondering what sort of cult I got myself mixed up in, eventually came in with me. Walked through the doors and as she dropped the pretense she had been carrying, the burden of being strong and holding us all together, as it crashed down, she found Jesus held her up, and so did a bunch of lovely ladies at that church who dried her tears and told her stories of their imperfect lives and of God’s great love and grace. And so that love and grace became the thread that held her firm too.
One night, I went on a journey with my Dad. He was working at Spitalfields fruit and veg market in London, fighting for money and living in a bedsit in the East End. I didn’t know even a fraction of the violence and madness that his life had descended into by then, and we hadn’t seen him for months. But as we drove, he told me he’d been to see a man who had told him he had a choice to make.
‘I’m not going to become one of those Christians’ he told me ‘I don’t need a label’
But he later stood in the car park of the market in the small hours of one freezing night, and asked Jesus to come into his heart. He threw the knife he had strapped to the inside of his arm into a skip, and moved back home to my Nan’s, presenting her with a holdall of coke and drug taking paraphernalia to get rid of, and going cold turkey for the last time.
And then one day, in the summer of 1993, I stood in that church and watched my Mum and Dad renew their wedding vows. And after months of living round the corner at my Nan’s house, being allowed round to visit us after school and taking my Mum out on dates, my Dad moved home.
24 years later and he spends his days travelling to prisons, army barracks, churches – anywhere that people will let him tell the story of how God rescued his soul. He came to my graduation, my wedding, he was there when my children were born. And so no, in answer to that question first asked in my room at uni, no I didn’t think it weird at all that I became a Christian and then all that happened. I think God knew what was going to happen and put into place a rescue plan – much like he does for all of us,
It isn’t everyone’s story, life doesn’t always have a happy ending – but it is ours. God weaving a thread into our lives before we even knew we’d need it, ready to pull it tight, and hold us fast.
I’d love your feedback on the outline of the book I am dedicating this year to write: the story of what happened to our family and how God rescued a teenage girl and held her fast through it all. I also need to think of a title, so if you have any bright ideas, I’d love to hear! And if you like it, please share..