I grew up in the south of England and went to my parents’ Baptist Church. I grew up, therefore, thinking that I was a miserable sinner destined for hell; that God was pretty angry with me, but thankfully Jesus had stepped in between me and God to sort things out. Don’t get me wrong here: the church was full of wonderful people who knew deep down that God was love, and I have a deep respect for my old friends and for the heritage from those years. I suppose the problem for me was that what I saw in the love and dedication of my early friends didn’t seem to correspond with the theology that was being preached.
In my childhood, therefore, I was anxious to please God — perhaps even to placate him. I often asked myself the question: ‘Can I do that?’ — a question which meant both am I able to do that, and do I have permission to do that. I always questioned my ability to do anything. After all, I was a miserable sinner incapable of doing anything right. And as for permission: clearly God had the veto on most decisions, and because British Standard Evangelicalism was pretty clear about behavioural norms, in most cases the answer was a firm ‘no’. In my early years I therefore developed a pretty negative view of life, and was inadvertently (to use a phrase coined by Francis Schaeffer’s son Frankie) ‘addicted to mediocrity’. I gave up on most big projects before I’d even started, was convinced I was fairly stupid, and avoided big challenges, assured as I was of certain failure.
I live now in an entirely different place — Ravenstonedale in the beautiful Upper Eden Valley near England’s Lake District. We are surrounded by fells, dales and becks (as we call the hills, valleys and streams in this part of the world). The nearest fell behind our house is called Green Bell: it rises to 605 metres (that’s just under 2,000 feet for you old fashioned people and Americans). In the five years we’ve lived in the area I’ve never climbed it. Until Monday, that is.
On Monday, I started work in my study as usual. For the last two weeks I’ve been writing a lot, pretty much non stop, so when I sat down on Monday morning my bum said to me (if you’ll excuse the image of a talking bum): ‘You’re not sitting on me again for another day! — you need to get out more!’ And as it was a nice day, the thought came into my head — why not walk up Green Bell?
So I asked myself the familiar question: Can I do that? Am I able? Do I have permission? In my childhood, the immediate answer to both latter questions might well have been ‘no’, but not now. Yes, it’s a steep climb and a long walk (I ended up walking eight miles or so), but I can do it — I’m not dead yet! In fact I’m reasonably fit. And yes, it is Monday and I’ve got work to do, but why not?
That walk up Green Bell on Monday, giving me exhilarating views of the Howgill Fells and a perspective on my village I had never before seen (a lesson in itself) was a strong metaphor for my changed attitude to life. I no longer ask ‘Can I do that?’. Now my question is: ‘Why should’t I do that?’