Sunday, 17 August 2014

The End of the Old Book (or How I Came to Have a Story to Tell)

I'm never particularly comfortable talking about myself, or what's going on in my life. I always feel as though I'm being far too self-indulgent. I'm much happier listening to the tales other people tell about their lives: their joys and sadnesses, trials and triumphs. I love hearing people's stories. Understanding where they've come from, and how they've got to where they are. "What's your story?" is one of my favourite questions.

Just please don't make me talk about me.

For a while, though, I've felt that it was time I did answer that question, publicly, for myself. One problem: I haven't been brave enough. There are a lot of chapters in that old book, and I'm still not bold enough to tell the stories contained in all of them. I'm not sure when – or if – that'll happen. But I think it's time for me to tell this one.

"Be strong and courageous". "You Make me Brave". These kind of words have seemingly been following me everywhere I've gone over the past few months. I know it's something God wants me to start living out, but often it's hard to know where to start. I've decided to start here.

So I'm taking a deep breath, and being brave. I'll see you on the other side.

* * * *

My old book turned over its last page on a bright, cold Thursday in late January 2013. The snow that had fallen so heavily the previous weekend was just beginning to melt; the fields still dusted with white, the air still heavy with the kind of silence that only snow can bring. Filthy, black slush lined the roads. Familiar roads – roads I'd driven dozens of times before – but never like this.

It was an odd mixture. A combination of old and new. Familiar and unfamiliar. Those familiar roads leading me to a place I'd never visited. Travelling back to a building I'd known all my life, one I'd virtually grown up in. Family and friends I'd only seen days before. Friends from miles away. Family I hadn't seen in years. Family I'd never met. People I'd known all my life, and people who were virtual strangers. So much effort had been made by so many people to get there, for one reason.

To say goodbye to my dad.

The previous month had been an empty, hollow blur of black-and-white, punctuated only by a fleeting few moments of colour: New Year's Eve spent by the sea; kind words from friends and colleagues; more hugs than I could count; so many cards, so full of compassion. Making plans over cups of tea. Just sitting and remembering. Mainly, though, there was simply nothingness. I didn't feel anything. I couldn't feel anything. I was completely and utterly spent.

I felt like the floor had disappeared from underneath me. The bottom had fallen out of my world. Suddenly, everything was uncertain. For 24 years, I'd taken for granted how much of the so-called security in my life was down to dad. The roof over my head. Enough money to pay the rent. Mum's car. Suddenly, now, not so secure.

I knew things had to move forward, but I just couldn't see how. I wasn't sure I even wanted to see how. I wanted everything to go back to how it was. Safe. Familiar. Predictable. A world where I knew how things worked. I knew it was far from ideal, far from perfect, but it was my world.

Thinking back on it now, I can understand how the people of Israel must have felt, wandering in the desert and wondering whether it might not be better to go back to Egypt after all. They were slaves, yes, but at least they knew where they stood. Looking back with rose-tinted glasses, surely it couldn't have been as bad as they remembered. Could it?

Thankfully, like He did with them all those years ago, God had other plans to bring me out of my despair, and into hope. To take me out of my Egypt, through the desert and into the land flowing with milk and honey.

* * * *

Rewind a little bit, to the beginning of 2012. The first year for a long time where I remember having made new year's resolutions. One resolution. I'd spent a long time feeling distant from God, and I wanted that to change. With the prospect of the Olympics coming to London, 2012 began with a feeling of anticipation, expectation, even hope. I'd clearly caught the bug, and resolved that this year was the year that I'd do something about it. I wanted that relationship back, and this time I was going to make an effort.

The problem was, I'd forgotten how. I'd spent so long coasting along – turning up on Sunday morning, singing the songs, half-listening to the sermon and gossiping with my friends over coffee afterwards – that I'd got comfortable. Complacent. If I'm honest, I hadn't been praying all that much, I hadn't been making time to read my Bible, and I couldn't even begin to remember what hearing God felt like. Everything else seemed to get in the way. I'd got so settled into this routine of Sunday Christianity that I'd forgotten how to do anything else.

That was the point I started from. During one of the few times in my life where I kept a prayer journal, I remember desperately praying something along these lines. I want to feel close to you again, Lord, but I've forgotten how. I don't even know where to start. Please help me. I wrote a few very similar prayers in the months following, but nothing much seemed to change – or at least that's how it seemed to my impatient heart.

A few months later, I was sitting in a meeting at church. I hadn't expected to get much out of it, if I'm honest. My heart wasn't really in it. But suddenly, during the worship, it was like something clicked. There, for the first time in a long time, I finally felt myself drawing closer to my Creator. It was then that I heard God whisper to me. I can't really describe it – I just knew it was Him. I'm about to turn your world upside down. Don't worry, though – stay close to Me and trust Me. There are great things in store for you yet.

I didn't really think much of it at the time. I assumed I knew what it was about, and filed it away in my memory for some time in the future when it might come in handy. I suppose I never really believed that my whole world could be turned upside down. I promptly forgot all about it.

Nine months later, as I sat in a hospital ward, holding dad's hand, silently praying and keeping an obsessively close watch over the monitor screens (as if that would stop anything bad from happening), I remembered that promise. I still wasn't sure what it meant. But I knew that God was on my case, looking out for me. I couldn't imagine how, but I knew I'd be OK.

The moment finally came, two days after Christmas, when my world came crashing down around my ears. So many emotions. Shock, guilt, anger, regret. Deep, deep sadness. Relief that two weeks of hell had finally come to an end, that the uncertainty was over. The worst had happened. But underneath it all, there was a feeling of hope that just wouldn't go away.

It didn't take away the anxiety, or stop the tears falling. But I knew I had something – someone – to cling to, who was far greater than me. It didn't make it easier. But I knew that my life wouldn't end there.

* * * *

Since that chilly January, so much has changed. Looking back now, I can see my Heavenly Father's fingerprints all over it. My incredible new job, which came along at the perfect time; a dream holiday; new friends to journey with through the next chapters of our lives; reconnecting with old friends who'd lost touch; new passion for God and His people; new confidence. Joy in ways, and in situations, where I never would have thought it was possible.

Of course, it hasn't all been perfect. Life's still had its downs as well as the ups. Life's like that. But I know that God's been right beside me through it all. I know He hasn't left me or forsaken me. I know He never will. And I now know – more certainly than I ever have before – that He keeps all of His promises. He just does it His way, rather than mine. And as much as I sometimes hate to admit it, I prefer it that way.

As that old book turned its last page and closed its well-worn cover, a new book was being taken off the shelf and opened for the first time, its pages still white, untouched. That book is where I am now. Just over a year and a half into those crisp new pages. It's been scary, it's been exciting, it's certainly been different. One thing I know for certain: God's been with me every step of the way, just like He was in the old book. Just like He will be through the whole of this new, exciting, unfamiliar book.

I know that promise isn't finished with yet.

I have no idea what new stories will unfold as the pages turn, and the chapters begin to fill up.

But I can't wait to find out!

* * * *

So. This was me trying to be courageous. This was one answer I could give to the question "What's your story?". This was the last, long story told in the old, now-closed book and the start of the first chapter of the new book.

My hope is that someone, somewhere finds it helpful.


  1. I read this quickly a while ago and have just come back for a proper good read. Well-written, Steph. Moving but also hopeful.

  2. Thank you so much, Fran! Really appreciate that.