It was Christmas 1982. It seems a long time ago now, but I remember the events of that Christmas very clearly because they were so significant to the rest of my life.
On the 24th December, Christmas Eve, I was dumped by a girl I’d barely started dating and as I drove home, I thought to myself, ‘Well that’s a brilliant start to Christmas.’
Losing the girl wasn’t the biggest issue in my life, although it felt fairly big at the time, but it did feed into one the big things that had been bugging me for sometime.
I was working in the newspaper industry and doing quite well for a guy who left school at 16 with just 5 O levels (GCSEs for those of you born after 1972). I was told I had a promising career ahead of me in marketing; I was driving a company car and just months away from buying my first flat. But even though I was getting all the things I thought life was about (except the girl of course), I had a nagging feeling that there must be more. I didn’t think that finding love was that missing piece and not least of all because there were two other things that had caused me to ask big questions.
The first was an awareness of my mortality. Not in a morbid way. I didn’t keep thinking about death all the time and I wasn’t depressed – far from it, I loved life. I looked forward to work every day, at the evenings and weekends I played a lot of sport and I had an active social life. I enjoyed life to the full, but three years earlier I’d encountered death when my best friend, Lawrence, had committed suicide at 17. Although years had passed since then, having come face-to-face with the death of someone the same age as me, I still found the possibility of not existing any more utterly petrifying. The fragility of life was the second big thing that was nagging away at me.
And then there was one other thing. I was acutely aware that I wasn’t the person I thought I should be. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’d not been in trouble with the police. I wasn’t into drugs or anything illegal. I’d just come to realise that I didn’t live up to my own standards in life, let alone God’s. I believed in God. I always had. I’d been encouraged to go to church as a lad, and while I stopped going when I was in my early teenage years, God’s existence had never been an issue for me. I believed in a God who created everything and who was in control of all things, and I reckoned that when I met Him one day I’d have some serious explaining to do.
So being dumped by the girl on Christmas Eve wasn’t the biggest issue in my life.
Anyway, despite being ‘the jilted one’, I went to bed on Christmas Eve looking forward to Christmas day with my family. Christmas was always a great time in our house.
On Christmas morning, Mum, Dad and my brother David opened our Christmas stockings – of course I knew Father Christmas didn’t exist, but Mum and Dad still gave us a stocking (a tradition that lasted until I had children of my own) – and then we exchanged gifts. And after we’d opened all our presents to each other, my brother gave me one more. It was a Bible. It was a most unexpected gift, but I was really pleased to get it.
I say it was unexpected, but looking back, I should have seen it coming a mile off. Some months earlier, David had told me that he’d become a Christian. That was a bit odd, because Mum and Dad had brought us up to go to church, and even though I’d stopped going, I assumed I was a Christian and I assumed David was too – not least of all because he kept going to church through his teenage years. And in my mind you didn’t have to go to church to be a Christian.
So when David said he had become a Christian I asked him what he meant. I can’t remember everything he said, but I do recall him saying something about there being a difference between being a churchgoer and a Christian – not that I really understood what he meant at the time.
What I did realise is that my big brother was now taking his religion very seriously. So when he handed me a Bible on Christmas morning, I should have seen it coming.
I put the Bible on my bed with the pile of presents Father Christmas (aka Mum and Dad) had already given me that morning and didn’t think much more about it through the day. But the next day, Boxing Day, I started to read it. And I read a chapter a day for the next five days. A couple of days after that, David asked me how I was getting on with reading the Bible and I said to him, ‘Oh I started reading it, but I stopped at chapter five.’
‘Why did you stop there,’ he asked me.
‘Because everyone died’ I replied. If you’ve never read Genesis chapter 5, the constant refrain ‘and then he died’ isn’t the cheeriest thing you’ll ever read.
So, having asked me ‘Why did you stop there?’ my brother then asked me the opposite question, ‘Why did you start there?’ He asked me why I started reading Genesis. I thought it was a really dumb question. I started reading the Bible at Genesis because it was the beginning of the book.
My brother explained that the Bible was a collection of 66 books. It was as if I had a library of books in my hand. And he suggested I might start again and read Matthew’s gospel, one of four accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible. So I started again and I couldn’t put it down. As I read of Jesus’ life, all the ‘stories’ I had been told at Sunday school came alive to me. It was familiar and yet completely new. As I read about Jesus, it was as if I was actually meeting with Him. And in meeting Jesus I was encountering someone who answered the big questions I had about life.
Over the next few months I came to understand that despite not being the person I should be, Jesus’ death on the cross could bring me forgiveness and make me ready to meet God when I died. And Jesus’ resurrection was proof that there was life beyond the grave. I grasped that knowing Jesus was the missing piece. He was the one I was made for. He was what life was all about.
It all began at Christmas. For me it all began on Christmas Day 1982 when my brother handed me a Bible. But in a far more significant way, it really did all begin at Christmas. When Jesus, the Saviour of the world, was born. As the carol says, ‘Born that man no more may die’.