Having reached the age of 40 yesterday, I have decided to write some reflections both as a cathartic journalling exercise for myself and because I retain enough arrogance to believe some people might read it. I post this probably for the same reason that most people post things on Facebook. We want a verdict of affirmation on our lives. However, I want to try to resist that motivation as many opinions and lifestyle choices I have made over the last 20 years, especially, are now extremely counter cultural.
My first reflection on being 40 is that I am past my physical peak, whenever that fleeting peak was, even though I cycled 3 hours this morning to try and prove otherwise. Even the lycra does not totally disguise the onset of sagging boobs and furrowed face.
People say that life begins at 40 when the brain cells die at a faster rate and forgetfulness, poor concentration and focus take hold. I regard that adage with scepticism. People say that you are wiser in your 40s which is a good job for me since wisdom (the art of making savvy choices) is something I am definitely not blessed with as a natural possession.
However, the big choices that I have made in these first 40 years have been good ones. I chose a great woman to be my wife and a wise and generous family to marry into. Before that, I am glad to have chosen to study History at Leicester University and to have gone on to do a PGCE and then be a history teacher. My decision to leave teaching after a couple of years, was ostensibly, a strange one, and in some ways regretful. But I met some incredible people while working for Friends International at Surrey University including my wife. I also had the opportunity, among other things, to travel to China and conduct a wedding in Penang because of this choice.
Leaving Friends International after seven years was the right thing to do. Being a Pastor was the greatest challenge of my life and exposed weaknesses in me that I wish had not been exposed. The decision to come to Chiang Mai, was made quite suddenly and with plenty of risks attached. Yet I am sure it was the right one.
But it was my decision to become a Christian in the first place, in my first year of university, that was the most significant decision of my life. Like many 19 year olds, attracted to a new philosophy, I was arrogant, ignorant, legalistic and insecure. This is not British self deprecating piety speaking, but the objective truth. While the Bible instructs us to ‘. . .make the teaching of Jesus attractive.’ (Titus 2:10) I did not. I am quite sure that I repelled friends and family with my new found faith. If that was you, I am deeply sorry.
Nevertheless, God met me at University and began a process of change and salvation in my life. The verdict that matters in life and death is God’s verdict on us. On account of my faith in him (which is a gift), I have been credited a free righteousness which I could not earn. This is because Jesus came to save sinners. Sin is defined in the bible not only as breaking the law of God but also as serving other gods: normally good things God has created but which make poor saviours e.g.: people’s approval, sex, money, pleasure, leisure, food, sport, family, success.
I have turned to these false saviours from time to time but have never found ultimate satisfaction in them. That is because God has designed the world so that ultimate satisfaction is found only in relationship with our creator.
A trend on Facebook recently has been to nominate the books that have been most influential in one’s life. I am sure people post with mixed motives. Often, in order to advertise and proclaim their knowledge of literature as well as to edify others.
The books that have had greatest impact on me (as much as my failing memory allows me to remember) are:
Mojo Swaptops: (My childhood favourite: A story about the deliciousness of ice- cream and the wonder of ice cream vans)
Les Miserables (A story of the triumph of grace over law)
The Counte Of Monte Christo ( A story of the need for debt to be paid and justice to be visited)
Resurrection- (Tolstoys last book: The story of a man whose quest for redemption dominates his life.)
Lord of the Rings trilogy ( The story of an epic quest to destroy darkness and ‘make everything sad become untrue.’)
David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years, 1899-1939 v. 1 ( The biography of a Welsh Harley Street doctor who gave up a glittering career to become pastor of Sand fields Church, Aberavon)
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. ( The biography of a German pastor who became one of the first to speak up against Hitler. He became a double agent and was executed on the last day of World War II)
Pilgrims Progress: (The second best seller of all time. An allegory of the Christian life)
The Bible: The bible is the great narrative to which all other stories point. All weddings and marriages point forward to the ultimate marriage between God and His people. Every great experience of food and wine anticipates the great banquet of the lamb to which history is headed. All great friendships point forward towards the ultimate friendship between God and his people. All sacrificial parental love points forward to the ultimate parental love displayed in The Father’s sacrificial and unconditional love for his people.
In my experience as a Pastor, I have noticed that often those who struggle most to embrace the Father’s offer of adoption and redemption have been those whose experience of parenthood was negative. Those who experienced an angry or an absent Father often struggle to trust their lives to an eternal heavenly Father.
Yet, in my experience of being a Father, I find being a parent the most trying, humbling and humiliating challenge in life. It is a challenge that almost nobody can live up to. I have only been a parent for eleven years but my greatest failings have been as a Dad. I have been uncontrollably and disproportionately angry and at times I have been absent. And generally speaking I have great kids. My idols have been exposed through parenthood. I want to have kids I can show off, I want to have kids I can control and who respect me and affirm me.
My only hope is to cry out to God who has been so patient with me, so forgiving, so long-suffering in his teaching and guiding of me. Only when that truth grips me and gets deep down into the core of my being can I have the necessary patience to be the Dad I should be. Sure, God is angry sometimes too. You can’t avoid seeing that in the old testament particularly. Yet his anger is unlike mine. His anger is his settled, consistent hostility to all that is evil. Our anger is at core basically good. It is given to make a surgical strike against that which gets between us and that which we love. The problem is that our loves are disordered. Ultimately the gospel proclaims that God’s anger fell on his own Son, who willingly absorbed it, instead of on us. The only way to face the Father’s anger is to trample on that gospel and disregard it.
Whatever the next years may herald, nothing will sustain my family and I like the anchor we have for our souls in the one who is our saviour, friend, Father and lover.