There are lots of different ways to answer the question: ‘Who am I?’
It’s an important question, perhaps even more so to me than to whoever is asking me about who I am. For me there may be many complex facets to my identity which influence what I believe, how I think and feel about myself; for you, the answer may well frame how interested (or not) you may be in getting to know me, whether you will read on further, indeed how much weight you give my words…
My identity is variously about who my parents are, what they do and where they come from (I’m having flashbacks now to Cilla Black on Blind Date now!)…my Mum is an incredibly dedicated and hard-working Anglo-Indian ICT teacher, with a more than hint of Portuguese thrown in; my Dad is a Chartered Accountant and spreadsheet genius, who is English through and through – with family from the Midlands and Yorkshire. Perhaps it’s about where I was born (in a London hospital, but residing in a leafy suburb in Essex), or what I do (Learning & Development professional), even how old I am (you should know better than to ask a lady her age!). Maybe it’s about where I call home (Cheltenham, in the West of England), what I believe, and then once finding out that I am a believer in Jesus, what kind of church I go to (you’ll have to have a look at this post!), what my interests are (see here), and so on, and so on…
The thing is, when I answer all those individual questions, I’m consciously or unconsciously selecting the things I think you’re most likely to want to hear. It’s all true, but it’s like striking up a conversation at a party, trying to find the Goldilocks answer (the one that is just right, not too arrogant and overblown, and not too modest and dull – we all do it in one way or another, even if we don’t like to admit it!
So instead of trite dinner party answers, how about I tell you about the raw, unadulterated and messy story of how Jesus came into my life, not once but twice! Grab a cuppa and sit awhile with me.
Way back when I got Christened as a baby, I got the obligatory small white, unintelligible King James New Testament and got a couple of Godparents, neither of whom I think had much knowledge of or relationship with God – but still the thought was there, and I hugely appreciate that brilliant start in life of being committed to God. It surely paved the way for other things in my life to come, even if it was simply the done thing at the time, these things really do have significance in the spiritual realm.
Skip a few years and I went to Sunday School regularly, at Church of England (Anglican) church, All Saints in Woodford Green. I have memories of groups called Explorers, Ramblers and Climbers, not necessarily in that order! Now all this sounds fairly average and perhaps quite middle class for many, what I suppose I found interesting looking back on it was that my Mum being a Roman Catholic by upbringing, and my Dad professing no faith, except perhaps faith in science and knowledge both of which are pretty important in my house (then, and now too, I suppose). I consider myself very blessed to have had these Christian influences around me in those all too important years. That time when children are as malleable as soft clay, and imprints may last for a lifetime. I went on a couple of Explorer holidays, one to a boarding school in Felixstowe and another to Swanage in Dorset. These were, if I remember rightly, mostly characterised by me being in tears at the start, as the fears of going off on my own for a week and not knowing anyone had set in, and then tears at the end as I couldn’t believe the holiday was already over, and I couldn’t bear to be parted from my new friends! It was at the latter of these trips where I met a lovely lady called Judy who looked after our dorm (sadly I don’t recall her surname). I don’t remember the details, but I know it was her who talked to me about Jesus, the sacrifice he had made for us all on the cross, and who led me in a prayer to say sorry for the things I’d done wrong, to turn away from my old life of living for myself, and to welcome Jesus into my life, choosing Him by my own free will. I was about 10 years old, and I treasured for many, many years the Footprints bookmark Judy gave me with a message of encouragement and her name on the back.
So far, so good. However, I wouldn’t really do this story justice if I didn’t tell you that there was a big chunk of my childhood that was very tough indeed, and which has involved much untangling with the Lord in the last 12 years or so. I’m not sure if it will ever be right to share the details of that stuff on here, but definitely not today. All the unravelling of those complicated knots, through various stints of counselling and so much healing prayer and ministry, has meant that I can now look back on those years and be grateful that all of that has made me who I am today. I can see too how blessed I am to have a loving family and that amongst the painful memories which used to overshadow everything else, there was also so very much that was good, and that God never departed from my side.
The teenage years
All of that childhood complicatedness played into the next stage of my life, a big house move 100 miles from all my close primary school friends, a new school, a new town, new everything, and the ‘joy’ of the pre-teen years (I am so looking forward those years with our son, ahem!!).
We found a new Anglican Church nearby, but it was very different; it was, as I would later learn, ‘high church’ – incense, bells, church aerobics…, and there was just one group of children, the Junior Church, made up of, ooh, about 5 of us, of a few different ages.
Most of the kids were there, partly because their parents had were part of that church community, but a big part of them being there was about getting into a local former Grammar school which was now a very good Church of England comprehensive…so you can guess what happened about a year or so after I arrived…yep, the other kids pretty much stopped coming. I was already only coming to church with my friends: two sisters and their parents, so it didn’t make any sense for me to come to the family service as I wasn’t there with my family, although I did try for a while – I just felt that I didn’t fit. So, I’m sorry to say I gave up on church. It was at such a difficult time in my life (my Grandad died very suddenly around that time and that knocked me hard) and I just felt the church wasn’t there for me. I didn’t give up on God, I suppose at that time when I was only about 12 or 13, I just didn’t really realise that God and church weren’t the same.
All the same, although I felt so alone, I can look back and see that God was with me, and that He gave me the strength to do what I needed to do. Not only that but I know now that he protected me from all kinds of trauma and disaster in my life that could so easily have befallen me. Over the next few years I trundled through school, doing academically very well, filled with the kind of inner emotional turmoil that seemed little different to that of most of my peers at school (will I ever get a boyfriend, am I loveable, am I ok; what should I do with my life, what do I want; am I pretty, am I ugly; am I funny, am I boring? And so on…). It wasn’t until I got to about 17 that the depression really kicked in. I struggled on, with a bit of counselling, but I was utterly miserable through my sixth form years, and in my lower sixth my grades started to be affected, not good. Also not desperately helped by one of my tutors who told my parents, in front of me, that my health issues were psychosomatic. On reflection I didn’t realise that expertise in sixteenth century English history also gave you in depth mental health knowledge! At the time all I knew was that someone who I had respected, who was in authority over me thought I was no good and simply shirking. Thankfully now I know better.
Flying the nest
Somehow I rallied, having decided that achieving academic excellence would definitely make everything better. I completed my extra GCSE (just for fun!), got through my A-levels, S-levels and additional AS-level with a lot of slog, got my place to do modern languages at Oxford, and that seemed to be me sorted.
Until my next crash (the one where I escaped uni and came home to spend a weekend with my best friend from school and her folks, who asked no questions, but who were unstintingly supportive and an absolute answer to prayer). And the one after that (where I knew I couldn’t cope and took myself off to the GP and formally diagnosed depression for the first time and we tried to deal with it through regular routine and looking after myself, which to be fair worked for a while). And the one after that (the one where I took myself back to the GP and he prescribed the first lot of antidepressants; I bought and read the book, Prozac Nation; them I told my tutors I had depression, which surprised them as students didn’t normally tell them, they mostly had to figure it out for themselves).
Living abroad…with depression
I defiantly had my year in Germany (my home GP got me assigned to a Community Psychiatric Nurse for support, who was the first person I was able to actually talk to about what I had been through. He thought it was madness for me to go and live abroad at that time, but I just couldn’t see any other way as I couldn’t yet explain to anyone else why I was in the state I was and had to just keep going). I moved onto some stronger medication, and armed with a recommended self-help tome or two, off I went. But that was a seriously challenging time for me, a time during which another of my closest friends said she just wanted the old me back as I was so low she almost didn’t recognise me as the same person. Having taken off the old mask of everything being okay, I just couldn’t (not wouldn’t) put it back on any more). I could barely get myself to my job as a part-time teaching assistant some days, I operated in a haze and I recall my German supervisor at the school, Magdalena, having stern words with me at one point, yet when I was there I found that teaching came naturally to me.
At night I would to go to sleep with my headphones on as I didn’t want to have to deal with the cacophony and chaos of my negative thoughts pressing in. Often it was a Madonna CD playing, I was a big fan. Mostly I remember listening to Ray of Light, after all that’s what I needed so desperately at that time. It was on one such night, with the stars arrayed like a blanket spread out across the skylight above my bed, that I sensed God say to me, as clear as a bell, “I am with you”.
I knew without question that it was God, I don’t know how, but I just accepted that. That was it, there was no angelic visitation, no vision of Jesus, no booming voice in the manner of James Mason, as Eddie Izzard would say. Nonetheless, that experience, though it didn’t bring me running back to church (which being in German may not have been much fun for me admittedly), neither did it completely transform me (I still did a whole bunch of stupid stuff after that, of which I am not proud and would not recommend), but it did sustain me through my very lowest times which were, unbelievably, yet to come. I went through a messy break up with the long term boyfriend I had been with since the earliest weeks of uni, with him having had an affair that apparently even my college tutors were aware of before me. I was devastated; floored. I then threw myself into travelling around Germany and the bits of Europe that bordered it, and that distraction technique worked for a while… I finished my teaching year and went to Perpignan for an intensive French course. Although again I passed with flying colours, at points I was quite ready to throw myself off the balcony of my room. Once again God put two truly lovely people across my path, who not really knowing the half of it, took me under their younger wings, and gave me enough hope to keep on going. I will always be grateful to them for being there at just the right time.
Back in Oxford again, then not
I came back to the UK absolutely determined to rise above all these challenges I had faced, and launched myself back into my studies with gusto, having decided to do my optional extended essay by the end of the summer. I went up to Oxford and stayed in a college house offsite to focus, but that voice of failure hovered over me like a dark cloud and once again I reached that low place where the window beckoned temptingly. It sounds so awful now to look back on it, and I know that there were snapshots of happy times interwoven with the bleakness (as a gorgeous picture of my then very little Godson, taken in the back garden of that house as we had a picnic there, reminds me). I booked an appointment with my pastoral tutor who invited me to her home and talked a lot of sense into me, I rang my parents to come and get me urgently and then, to their utter dismay, put in train the mechanisms for me to take a year out of my degree to get the help that I so obviously, when the mask came down, needed. It was such a hard decision, as it not only meant disappointing my parents, it meant leaving behind all my friends. Even assuming I came back, which in itself wasn’t guaranteed, I would be returning to a college full of strangers.
When I first got home my parents struggled to understand what I was going through and why I had apparently opted out of doing my degree. I think they were terrified I would drop out forever and be a failure. For those first few months, I did a whole lot of reading, day and night. Pure escapism into fiction – I was a regular at the library! I slept a lot. I switched off to the world really. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had well and truly taken off the mask. The genie was out of the bottle and would not be out back inside. Now that I wasn’t happy, bubbly, outgoing, confident, life-of-the-party, flirtatious, risqué, super-successful Judith, I didn’t know who to be…and it was terrifying. At that time I didn’t know if I would ever find my way again. I wanted to hurt myself, but thankfully was never quite brave enough. I hatched all kinds of plans in my mind which never came to fruition, they call it ‘suicidal ideation’. If you identify with those feelings, then please ask for help and keep asking until you get the support you need, Samaritans was a lifeline to me on more than one occasion; especially in the middle of the night when friends and family were either asleep or just wouldn’t be able to understand.
Eventually the fourth even stronger type of antidepressants must have kicked in, along with my Mum kicking me out if bed and in the direction of a temping agency, and I got a job. In the true manner of how things had been before, I was good as an administrator and PA, but it was hard work keeping up appearances at work; maintaining a veneer of normality. I went to regular counselling sessions with a social worker with some counselling training as it was best the NHS could offer me while I waited for the more specialist help I had taken time out of my degree to get. Such is life that my appointment for my 10 week course of sessions finally came through as I was about to head back to university, but I got there in the end, it just meant that I had to commute back and forth for them in between lectures and tutorials!
Oxford University is an amazing place and I learned so much there…sadly I just can’t particularly say I had the gloriously happy time pictured in the films and brochures. My college was very supportive of me taking that additional year out, and my tutor was brilliant with me, unfortunately as accomplished as they were, it was just that none of the Fellows had a magic wand! In the end I came away with my high 2:1 degree that I’d wanted, I had just taken an additional year over it. I left with no huge hoard of Oxford buddies with all those shared experiences from Freshers week, no rowing experiences, and no job. I did however maintain one very special friendship through from those early days at Oxford, with a precious friend who stood by me through thick and thin. And I came away with a very special man in my life, who I would never have met had it not been for that extra year out! And he would eventually become my husband, oh, and even more amazingly out of the blue I left with a rediscovered faith!
My husband and Jesus
How did that last bit about the husband happen, I hear you ask?? Well, in my final year I lived on a corridor in the nicest of the on site college buildings, with just me and nine guys, ideal you might say for finding a fella. In fact, despite my better judgement having vowed to focus only on my studies, I had returned to university with a boyfriend back home (we were both on the rebound, never a great idea). That was all over by the Christmas (gutted once again and utterly depressed that I was a hopeless case, unloveable, unwanted, a mess, destined to be alone…), but meanwhile I’d become friends with one particular guy who was a good friend of the only two girls I till knew from before I’d left for Germany two years previously as they like him had been in the year below. We used to chat a lot and cooked together quite often, and after the Christmas break, I came back newly single (and devastated) and he came back sporting a new haircut and a cross on a chain around his neck! Now I knew that being a physicist he valued science and knowledge greatly (who does that sound like?!), and he found it a mighty challenge to overcome his scepticism to embrace any kind of faith, so when we first met he was most definitely a dyed in the wool atheist.
What miracle had happened over Christmas? Well, unbeknownst to me, or any of his friends, bar one, after many deep and meaningful conversations with another friend of ours, who happened to the the daughter of a vicar, he had been going to an Alpha course the previous term on the quiet. The series of talks and dinners had finished just before Christmas and he had made the leap of faith to commit to a life following Jesus. He came back to Oxford in the January on fire and so enthusiastic about his new-found faith, that he rather cheekily, I thought, put a Nicky Gumble book (link) outside my door. He left it with a post-it note attached saying, read this particular page. I couldn’t believe his audacity, after all I’d been a Christian way longer than him, since childhood in fact! I didn’t need him to try and convert me! Ok, I wasn’t living life in a particularly Christian manner, so he probably could have been forgiven for not realising… Of course, curiosity got the better of me after a few days and I couldn’t resist reading the section he had marked for me. I couldn’t even tell you what it said, but the next thing I knew, not only were we together as a couple, but I found myself saying, “So, when can I come to this church of yours then?!”. God most definitely has a sense of humour!
Church and the Holy Spirit
We went to St Aldate’s, a very studenty, happy type of church, which is much like where we are now, but at the time I couldn’t really quite deal with how far different it was from the church I had experienced just 9 years earlier – I recognised none of the songs (where was ‘the battle of Jericho’, or ‘Jubilate Deo’?!!), and there was no church aerobics, but instead around 40 minutes of sung worship, (with people who weren’t in the choir (there was no choir!) singing loudly in harmony right behind me), so having dressed up smartly (another mistake as everyone else was in their normal jeans and jumpers) in my high-heeled boots and skirt etc, my feet were killing me by the time we sat down for the sermon! I found it hard to adjust, so we headed off to St Andrew’s in North Oxford where we were welcomed in like family. To be honest, we were there barely over a term, but they treated us as if we would be there forever and we loved it so much that neither of us wanted to leave Oxford after finishing, just so we could stay at our church! It was there that I first did the Alpha course, mostly as a way of meeting others in the church, but my eyes were truly opened. An adult in a way that as a child I couldn’t have understood.
As part of that Alpha course, we had a Holy Spirit day at a beautiful house just outside the city. On that day we learned all about who the third person of the Godhead, God the Father and Jesus the Son being the first and second. We also had the opportunity to be prayed for and to receive the Holy Spirit. What did that look like, quite simply sitting at a table with one of the group leaders, them praying for me and asking God to send his Holy Spirit, and me holding out my hands in a posture of being ready to receive. I had no idea of what to expect, and in some ways I can’t really remember exactly what happened, but one way or another, I experienced a closeness of God, an intimacy, a warmth, a lightness, a clear-headedness and certainty that I had never experienced before. Something changed that day in me, something that was different to having made the choice to welcome God into my life, and it was like a switch being thrown that can never be thrown back by anyone or anything. I don’t mean that I no longer have free will, of course I do. I could walk away from my faith if I really wanted to, but the way I would describe it is that receiving the Holy Spirit, is like the pilot light in a gas oven having been lit (remember those?), once it’s on, you can turn it to the minimum, you can choose never to let that fire burn brightly in you again, but it is there for you no matter what, whenever you need it, ready and waiting. It’s our choice.
Marriage and growing up
Since then, we’ve overcome us having had a long distance relationship involving much motorway driving, particularly for my long-suffering other half who came to see me far more than me him (my place was much nicer!); overcome opposition from family to us being together; overcome my own initial scepticism at us lasting the course (I was pretty brutal at first and said I wasn’t guaranteeing our relationship beyond the end of the summer term – ouch! It probably served me right then, that by the end of that Summer I knew I wanted to be with him forever, but it took a further 2 years and 9 months before we got married at long last!); overcome us being made redundant from both of our first jobs; more challenges with anxiety and depression, and so much more. So you can see that it hasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, been easy or straight-forward since inviting the Jesus into my life, but I can tell you though that my life has been totally transformed. It is immeasurably better than it would undoubtedly have been had I continued on the path I was walking on my own, and I am such a different person now (kinder, more humble, more caring, more balance, more forgiving, more thoughtful, more genuine, more secure…) I have so much to thank my husband, and of course God for!
Where does that leave me now? Well some years on, I’m still learning, still growing, still being challenged, still being humbled. I’ve been privileged enough to lead, to teach, to pastor and to minister to others within our church, and I have a huge heart to reach out to others, especially those who have been hurt along the way, those who would be so blessed by a touch of an awesome, loving God in their lives. I’m a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister and a friend, and each of those roles has taught me so much about my relationship with God, how rich, how deep, how multi-faceted and yet how simple it is.
So, my identity? Ultimately it’s in Jesus, it’s in Him that everything about me comes together and makes sense. He has taken all the tough stuff in my life and has worked it all together for good into the most amazing pattern. It is still very much emerging and like the back of a tapestry, quite messy, but which the end of my life will be seen from a different vantage point and I believe will have been perfected by Him.
Having got this far (congratulations!) it’s now your turn…how do you introduce yourself to others?
Where do you find your identity? How do you define yourself?
Or perhaps that’s something you’re still figuring out?
And what have been the big influences or milestones in your life?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses… :-)