It’s sort of snowing outside but it’s warm in here. The table is slightly wobbly. They all are, it’s one of the quirks of the place and the reason we usually sit on the sofas in the corner. Savinni’s is my favourite. It has been since I first came to Dingwall all that time ago. It’s The Coffee Shop now but we never call it that.
All the same, that’s not why I’ve invited you here. Have a seat, take your coat off and I’ll get you a drink. The coffee in here is really good. If you sprinkle brown sugar over the top it makes the foam crunchy and sweet.
I know right? Sitting in a café sipping coffee, writing, and dreaming of maple pancakes! What would my younger self say? She’d probably grimace in disgust at the hipster she thinks I’ve become. I’m not a hipster, I’m just a different person from back then.
Which reminds me why I’ve invited you here for coffee. It’s time for the next part of the story. We left the little girl kneeling, blissfully ignorant of anything but the grace which had adopted her. That is half my life ago now.
So here we are, you and I, in my favourite coffee shop, admiring the snow outside as the light fades and sparkling decorations spring to life. It’s winter now, a season of hot drinks and happy stories. Take your time and nurse your coffee. Enjoy the atmosphere and the warmth and let me tell you what God did next.
* * *
I need to be baptised.
I had been reading Acts. I’d only got as far as chapter two and Peter had stood up and preached the message I’d newly come to love and now he was saying I needed to be baptised. According to Acts, it was the next step.
The minister of the church we were in at the time came round with the assistant pastor and interviewed me. In my excitement, I didn’t understand the pastor’s hesitation.
Looking back, I have to thank God because I was normally the sort of child that would rather hide under a duvet than speak to someone I didn’t know very well. Although I have a natural streak of determination running through me, the boldness in my conversations with that pastor can only have been from God though I didn’t know it at the time.
You see, when I gave him my testimony and told him what I’d read in Acts, he grimaced. He actually grimaced.
Then he tried to talk me out of it.
Most young people, he said, make a profession of faith but when they get to highschool they change their minds. They find new friends, new hobbies, they’re encouraged to drink and party and date and they find that they don’t actually want to be a Christian anymore. He told me to wait until I was sixteen because I’d probably change my mind by the time I got to highschool. When I was older I could be baptised because I’d be sure about it by then.
I couldn’t have been more sure. To this day, I sincerely hope that the pastor was only testing me. It says in Acts that when you believe you get baptised. There was no age limit. I believed. That unnatural boldness took him aback as I told him these things, doing my utmost to persuade him that I had to be obedient to what I had read.
It took a year and three baptismal courses to convince the church and the service had to be in the evening so that the other children wouldn’t see and copy me. It was Easter Sunday. I was eleven and too small to see over the pulpit to give my testimony and my knees were shaking.
So on Easter Sunday evening, 2006, I died, was buried, and was raised again together with my Lord, Jesus Christ.
* * *
By God’s grace I have believing, faithful parents but I also believe that it takes a church to raise a (spiritual) child. Instead, the church we were in left me in my crib wailing for food. Veggie Tales and stupid Sunday School team building games just didn’t cut it. But neither was I ready for sermons yet. None of us were really fed there. I guess God was just bringing us to a place where we could understand that.
At the same time, I was reading books, learning how to pray, and eating up everything I could from my Bible even though I didn’t know about ‘quiet time’ yet. Now I’m older and have come across professing believers who don’t believe in the infallibility, inerrancy, sufficiency, and absolute beauty of Scripture, I wonder at their ignorance.
That book is pure gold (Psalm 12.6). It’s God speaking to us!
Those words, given from God, combined with the weary perseverance of my parents are the two things that kept me from floundering completely. But my parents couldn’t do it alone. Dad was just out of the airforce and unemployed and not coping with the adjustment. My older brother and I were being bullied at school. My mum was struggling to hold everything together, with health problems of her own and no one to look after her.
So what did God do?
Sustained us of course. He didn’t take us out of the suffering and he didn’t end it for a long time. He just held us through it and taught us plenty we would never have learned had we been comfortable. This is not to say that there was no happiness or any good times. There were many but the majority of the days were hard.
Curiously, part of the grace shown to us at that time was neither expected nor sought by us.
One day mum decided to visit another church for a change, as we sometimes did. When we got there, the pastor had just started a series of sermons working through Hebrews. It was fascinating so we went back with dad. A month later, no one from the church we belonged to had missed us. No one phoned, no one emailed or texted. Hebrews was captivating (it still is). My parents and I were beginning to discover the wonder of expository preaching. Like a good man once said, we were ‘lapping it up like ice cream’.
Quite by accident, wholly by grace, we ended up in a new church. This is the church that raised us all. And I thank God.
* * *
Things at school only worsened. It became routine for the girls in my year to pick on me at every opportunity. After school, they’d follow my brother and I up the road, shouting and taunting. Anger and despair can lead to bitter words and I will not claim innocence. I struggled to see what God thought he was doing in it all.
I applied for music school in Edinburgh but though I was good for my age and the brief time I’d been playing, I was neither good enough nor privileged enough to be accepted. And as I strode, weeping, down Princes Street, I realised that I couldn’t care less about music school, I only wanted to escape. We applied for the school across the park from where we lived. We were turned down. I didn’t understand. I begged God each day that I wouldn’t have to go back to school the following morning.
He said nothing. Sometimes he does that.
I won’t deny that suicide crossed my mind but I don’t know how serious I was. I didn’t want to hurt my parents and worse, I didn’t want to disappoint God. It occurred to me that I was too weak and cowardly to take my own life but now I am older, I have come to realise that it is braver not to give up but to face the day, knowing the pain that lies ahead.
In many ways, highschool broke me. In recent months I’ve been realising that although what has happened has been forgiven, the damage remains and needs to be dealt with. Having suffered such harshness and rejection as a child has had a beautifully positive effect on personal evangelism. Nothing anyone can say to me when I knock on their door or speak to them in the street has much impact. I no longer take it to heart. And on the positive side of that, kind words now move me more than I can say.
So that’s what God was up to. It was training for later but at the time I couldn’t see through the tears.
The Sunday services were a sanctuary. The homeschooled kids were strange and the organ painful but God was teaching us so much. We are saved into community and it is for a good reason. Had that church not taken us in and discipled my parents and I, I doubt we would have made it through.
Then the head teacher of the Academy in Broughty Ferry saw my brother’s notes and mine and somehow had compassion on us and offered us each a place at the school.
I didn’t want to go to such a posh school. But I couldn’t face another day where we were. Never turn your nose up at grace, even if it doesn’t come in the way you might have liked.
* * *
Although some of my classmates made sure to remind me, like most of the others I soon forgot that I had come from a rough school and had gaps in my education. I just assumed that I wasn’t as clever as I had been told. I guess it was God teaching me humility but it still stung when I failed my maths prelim and did poorly in chemistry.
Looking back, God was shaping me and school was squeezing me and the two conflicted. You see, shaping builds someone up but squeezing mangles them all out of shape until they fit whatever you’re trying to put them in. I lost count of the number of conversations my teachers tried to have about the fact I was wasting my potential. I was horrible at sixteen, I’m not kidding. No one could tell me anything.
Nevertheless, two weeks after my fifteenth birthday I sat my standard grades. By a week after my sixteenth birthday I had an unconditional offer to do photography and journalism at Chester and conditionals for Photography at Carlisle and Photographic Art at Newport. About a month later I sat five highers and passed every one.
* * *
To backtrack a little, there was a lot going on in the years I was at the Academy but two were of particular importance.
The first, in 2008, was very painful. My grandmother had a fall and was taken into hospital I have never been so far from God in all my life and nothing has ever brought me closer again to him.
I couldn’t talk to him. He wasn’t listening. He didn’t care, he’d turned his back. I was so angry and hurt so bad and he did nothing.
At least, that was how it seemed. When I say she was ill, the doctors had given up hope. Even she, with her core of steel, had turned her face to the wall. Worst of all, mum could not promise that gran would be ok and that scared us all.
We soldiered on. We had to. But a cold, thick, mist of bitterness and distrust settled between God and I. I couldn’t speak to him. There was nothing to say even if I’d wanted to.
Through the gentle love and support of the church, the anger was broken down into repentance and slowly, slowly, I began to trust God again, clinging to him like a hurt child. By his grace this was only the first of many of these situations and so far gran has survived every one and every time it is easier because I know that God is unfailing in his faithfulness.
* * *
The second thing is not so much an event as a family — although things are always eventful around them.
I met the Macs when I was fifteen. Well, Ali and Jonah anyway. Goodness only knows what they thought of us, I’ve never asked. But I knew I liked them right away.
All I can say is that sometimes God puts people in your life. And the Mclachlan family are one of the best gifts he’s ever given. They took me under their wing so gently and subtly that I didn’t realise until it was too late and taught me how to live a life in which the previously compartmentalised elements of faith and everything else blended into one beautiful opportunity to share Christ. I can only (inadequately) say I’m profoundly thankful to God for their friendship and guidance.
Aside over, back to the horrible child I was at sixteen.
* * *
Looking back, I was arrogant and really rather unlikable. But at the same time I had little confidence either and too much emotion that I didn’t know how to express.
My guidance teacher was already annoyed with me for refusing to sit through the lessons on safe sex and safe drinking and safe drug use. Now I was telling her that I wanted to leave school at sixteen.
She made me pick my subjects for sixth year. God had opened my eyes to something she had not seen, what Spurgeon calls the scarlet thread of grace, running through my life. Remember what I said about my dad getting passed by for promotion then getting posted?
If he hadn’t been passed by, we would have been posted earlier and I would have been a year older when I left school meaning I could never have walked out with five highers at a mere sixteen. Now that’s divine planning for you. I thank God often for that little quirk.
I’ve never once missed school. Of course I’m grateful for all it taught me but there was nothing more that they could teach that would be of help to me. There was still time to learn, there always is, but God would teach the things I still needed to learn using other means. For now I was too proud and some of those edges needed knocking off.
Ah, but look, you’re at the bottom of your coffee cup and the blonde haired lassie with the scars is mopping the floor. I know right? It’s good coffee. But we’d better go, the café is closing.
No, that’s not the end but it’s a happy place to leave her, grinning as she walks out of the school gates without a backwards glance. Contrary to popular opinion, those are not the best days of your life. The best days were still to come.