In our loft upstairs, we have a huge box of almost every email, letter and card that Annie and I ever sent to one another before we were married and I am fairly sure, if I rummaged long enough I would find one particular email.
Sometime in February 1998 I got an email from Annie. I don’t remember the day, but I remember exactly where I was. I was sat in the Chamber of Commerce office in the city, at my desk where I worked as an analyst. I don’t recall every detail in that email but the one significant thing I do remember is the invitation Annie gave me to an upcoming ‘Banner of Truth’ Christian Youth Conference in April of that year. It was there that I first met Annie in person. Before that, we were nothing more than accidental pen pals – another story for another blog entry perhaps!
Up until that point I had never heard of ‘The Banner of Truth’ which is hard to imagine because it has since become woven into the tapestry of my Christian experience as a young(er) person. Banner of Truth youth conferences or ‘Banner’ as they were more commonly referred to, did exactly what they said on the tin: they brought together young people from all over the UK into one place, for one weekend, to listen to the truth of God’s Word preached and taught and to enjoy the great blessings of fellowship in the process. They also did great discounts on Christian literature which for me, as a part-time bible college student at the time, was another good reason to go!
I remember the first time laid eyes on Annie. I was lining up for the Friday evening meal at the conference canteen, scanning the crowds of young people for the person that looked most like the photo Annie had sent me a few months before. That first glimpse would honestly summarise most of the significant things I have known and loved about Annie since. She was very animated, bubbling with laughter and had a contagious smile that could not be contained to her lips. Annie was a veteran of that conference and when I finally fixed my gaze, I watched as she bounced from table to table chatting and giggling and infecting others with that whole-face smile. As a painfully shy 23 year old and a newbie to that conference, I was a lot like the archetypal geeky kid in those American high school movies who sits in the corner trying not to draw any attention. Annie reminds me to this day that as I nervously put my tray down on the table, she saw my plate fall off scattering peas everywhere. So much for not making a scene!
Why the reminiscing? Well, yesterday we were joined by two friends, Ana and Holly who were a big part of the Banner era of our lives. Holly arrived first, bearing food, our first Christmas card, what looked like a mobile nail salon and the most fantastic Christmas cardigan I have ever seen (granted, it might be the only one I’ve ever seen). Then Annie got a phone-call from Ana and I don’t know exactly what they talked about but within the hour Ana and her lovely 2-and-a-bit-year-old daughter, Mimi, were on the road from Bristol headed in our direction. Holly arrived literally minutes after Annie had started to throw-up in the morning and she patiently endured another couple of episodes which quickly came and passed and then left Annie free of vomiting for the rest of the day! The distraction of good company is good medicine!
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them” – Ecclesiastes 12:1
Annie and I are so thankful that the Lord and His people helped us to spiritually invest in the days of our youth. I say ‘invest’ but I have to be honest, it did not feel like an investment at the time. Aren’t investments usually difficult to make? Take financial investments for example. The research you have to do. The risks you have to weigh up and take. The fact that the money you will invest you won’t even get to see for some years (or ever again!). And on a day when the Public Sector is on strike because of concerns over pensions it’s fitting not to omit mention of the ongoing worry and anxiety financial investments will create over the course of our future! Investments are often difficult and painful.
But the spiritual investment that Annie and I made in the days of our youth was not like that at all! We loved every minute of it and it is still paying out to this day! It wasn’t painful or difficult at all! Most, if not all, of our fondest, funniest, greatest and happiest memories of our youth took place in the context and surrounding of our Christian friends.
I see many teenage Christians today struggling with the issue of how far they should enter the world of their non-Christian friends. British youth culture dictates that if you haven’t been drinking, drunk, clubbing or sexually active by the time you are 18 then you ought to get a move on before people start to conclude that there’s something very wrong and very weird about you. In fact, 18 is probably a generous interpretation as local clubs here have been known to start prepping young people into the clubbing scene with special ‘nappy nights’ designed for 16 year olds.
Before this descends into a woeful lamentation over the state of our youth today, you know, it was no different when Annie and I were teenagers. But what I can say is that this was one area of our lives that we didn’t struggle with. It wasn’t because we were uber-mature Christians with a strict biblical view against alcohol and clubbing – we were not. It wasn’t because we had no non-Christian friends; one of my really good friends to this day is an unbeliever who stems back from my college days and while we don’t share the same spiritual views, we can chat forever and a day about movies and music – and I can continue to pray for him and ask that God would make my life a witness of His love and power!
The reason I believe Annie and I never had that struggle was because for us, there was nothing to struggle with. The fellowship of Christian friends we had back then was simply a much better alternative! Four of my closest buddies back then were Matt, Dan, Rhys and (another) Matt. They were men of God and they were sometimes mental! They were wholesome and they were hilarious. Neither of them were teetotal but none of them needed alcohol to make up for a lacking in their personality and character or to get a party started! Annie could tell you the same about many of her friends. And hanging out with Ana and Holly yesterday reminded me how true that was and still is.
The days of trouble are upon Annie and I, but that spiritual investment in our youth keeps paying out and blessing by the goodness of God and to His glory!
Later on in the evening Annie was joined by a former work colleague who came to have supper with us and to chat which was really nice and naturally opened up a lot of opportunity to talk about God and His love. Ana stayed with us for that time while I spent time with her little one, Mimi. It’s hard to say which of us were the others number one fan. Mimi took quite a shine to me (my watch, my baseball cap, my guitar and my slippers) during the day and with the overwhelming amount of cuteness she radiated, the sentiment was mutual!
The testimony of God’s goodness and faithfulness to us that arose out of yesterday was to joyfully urge any Christian young person reading this to spiritually invest in Christian fellowship while you are in the days of your youth. This is a great way of obeying the wonderful command to remember your Creator. It doesn’t mean that you should have no non-Christian friends, it means making best friends with your Christian friends first. If you are struggling with how far to enter the world of your non-Christian friends then that’s okay – if you are truly following Jesus you will often encounter struggles in one area of life or another…it’s proof of spiritual life. But if you are struggling because you have not invested first in your Christian fellowship then there’s one of two ways in which that struggle will end. Either you will let the world swallow you whole or you will find that Christian fellowship and through it let God make you whole. Not only Christian fellowship bless you but it will give you the wisdom, strength, courage and love to be eternally effective in the lives of your non-Christian friends and family.
Once again, God promises His commands are not meant to burden us. We really hope that you will be liberated from that struggle by spiritually investing in Christian fellowship and start making the best and happiest memories of your youth. We assure you, it’s an investment that will never stop paying out through the years, through sickness and through health.