…last week marks the fiftieth anniversary of two events in my life.
The first was that I launched a message in a bottle from an International 14 dinghy in the Afon Dwyryd estuary in North Wales, expecting that… well, realistically, even at the optimistic age of thirteen, I expected that would be the last I heard of it. But what I hoped was that the river would sweep my pop-bottle out into Cardigan Bay and then the Irish Sea, and that the ocean currents would carry it hither and yon until many years later, I’d receive tidings back from some exotic shore.
Many years later – or rather, about three years later – I was surprised to get a letter containing my salt-stained and faded message with an enquiry from the finder as to when and where I’d launched it. He no doubt dreamed of exotic locations as well. But in fact the bottle had turned up just below Boston Lodge, the narrow-gauge railway engineering works about two or three miles upstream of where I had launched it so long before. That is, I suppose, a small contribution to the understanding of the world’s ocean currents.
The second was the launch, a few days later, of a more metaphorical message-in-a-bottle. Still in North Wales, at Morfa Bychan, I made the decision to become a Christian, after a long period of prevarication despite my growing sense of need. In that case, I think, having asked Jesus Christ into my life, I kind of expected a reply from a distant land more or less immediately, but nothing so of that sort seemed to happen, except that I knew I’d decided that I’d cast my life on Christ.
It probably would have helped seal things if I’d taken the advice of the preacher to tell someone about my decision, which is obvious good sense, really: if you join the party, you wear the badge. As it was I showed my cards rather more cautiously, somewhat afraid that I’d find “nothing had happened”. Unlike my message-in-a-bottle, though, the response was more of a trickle of news that began gradually and never stopped until – well, here I am half a century later. What a surprise!
The first change was that, on returning home, I found I was now somewhat at odds with my family, who took a more secular view on life. And of course, returning to school and throwing in my lot with the small band of much-despised “God Squadders” in the Christian Union didn’t greatly increase my street cred. Strangely enough, though, one or two friends responded to my invitations to events, and unaccountably found the same Gospel persuasive enough to be disciples to this day. I’m still supporting the daughter of one of them as a missionary in the Middle East.
Well, running a grammar school Christian group is one thing, but the wise (secular) heads told me it would be a more difficult matter at university, where diverse, rational and well-argued ideologies would put that simple biblical faith into the shade. Actually it turned out to be the reverse, because at Cambridge something like 10% of the undergrad population was associated with the Christian Union, not to mention the various non-evangelical Christian groupings that took the faith seriously. Accordingly, the best minds I found there had cogent responses to the prevalent anti-Christian ideas – at that time in the early seventies mostly the New Left, but Christians were also thinking through what was going on in their fields of study in philosophy, science, theology and so on.
There were still wise heads to remind me that it was all very well having faith in the protected environment of ivory tower academia, but life would be tougher in the Real World. Particular attention was drawn to the unlikelihood of my faith surviving all the sufferings and tragedies in my chosen field of medicine. I’m still waiting for that “real world” to appear – all the worlds I’ve been in have seemed genuine enough at the time, and dealing with them greatly helped by knowing God.
As a matter of fact, the real wounds to faith – and in fifty years there were always going to be some of those – came not from that world outside, but from the inner weaknesses that demonstrate the shallowness of ones faith: personal disappointments, unreliable friends, and plain old temptations. They show that faith is more opposed to pride than to knowledge, as is popularly supposed. The wonder is (and that’s my reason for sharing it) is that somehow the small-scale replies to that original somewhat desperate message-in-a-bottle have kept arriving.
That’s not everyone’s experience, I suppose. Sting’s plea for help attracted no responses – just the finding after a year of a hundred million other bottles with similar cries for help on his island shore. Totting up the tokens of God’s love and blessing to me over fifty years would be nigh on impossible. But if they had come in bottles I’d have little room to move now on my little island.