The summer I was 16, to borrow a little from Bryan Adams, seemed to last forever. I finished my GCSE exams at the beginning of June and could look forward to more than two months off school before I had to return in September. The highlights of that summer live long in the memory. There was the Godfather trilogy of films, which I watched for the first time in one sitting the day after my final exam. There was a family holiday in Greece where I discovered the delights of Greek food and the unalloyed pleasures of snorkelling. There were rehearsals for a musical I was going to perform in in 6th form – who knew that actually going back to school in the holidays could be fun? There was the fun of results day – when I was given another student’s grades by mistake. (On reflection, the mark I got for Science seemed a little high.) Then there was the soundtrack: every summer has a soundtrack and this one was no different. I recall playing two albums non-stop: Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life and Grace by Jeff Buckley. The latter – a wonderful record if you’ve never heard it, by an immensely talented vocalist and guitarist who had drowned in the Mississippi River a few years before while recording his unfinished second album – was introduced to me on a trip I had taken that summer with my father to Norway. We had spent a bit of time there as a whole family when I was younger and we had regularly had Norwegian visitors to our home in South Wales. My Dad took me with him on this occasion to a summer camp where he was taking a series of meetings. We traveled across that beautiful country by train; I still remember the low slung seats and large windows out of which I looked at new and breathtaking terrain as we made our journey. In those meetings I heard the most tremendous and terrifying prophetic words brought to the people of God. I joined in with the infectiously exciting and exuberant worship, all while marvelling at how good the band sounded and how cool they looked. I was amazed and inspired and provoked by the genuine warmth and clear spiritual maturity and purity with which the young people my age interacted with one another. These were moments that stayed long in the mind and made a massive imprint on my soul.
But when I look back now, to borrow from Summer of ’69 one more time, there is another moment in that summer that was to prove much more significant than all the other events put together. That summer, I landed my first proper job. When I wasn’t travelling with my family or hanging out with friends or learning songs in my high school’s drama department, I was stacking shelves at my local supermarket. I was hired on an eight week contract, given a standard issue uniform of navy blue trousers, a white short sleeved shirt and a nondescript clip-on tie, and was paid, by today’s standards, an absolute pittance. But I loved it – once I’d worked out where everything was in the store, that is. And after I’d got over the ignominy of dropping stuff and spilling stuff when I should have been stacking stuff. Well, anyway, the summer went well enough that at the end of the eight-week contract the store offered me a permanent contract and I spent the next four years working there part time.
Now it wasn’t the job, per se, that made it the most significant event of the summer. Nor was it the money I suddenly found in pocket (and yes, I did tithe my earnings and, following my Dad’s instructions, did buy my mother a bunch of flowers from my first pay packet). It was more to do with how I came to get the job in the first place. I had been looking forward to my long and languid post-exam summer for some time. I had every intention of enjoying it – preferably in such a way that the summer would not only be long and languid but also a lazy one too. But I made a mistake. At least, from my point of view I made a mistake. Although now I realise it was the sovereignty and grace of God. What did I do? I read my Bible.
I had grown up going to church with my parents and enjoying it for the most part. Church when I was a kid was an exciting place to be. The meetings were large and the people exuberant and we experienced at times what some experts might call a revival. Church for me was never boring and God never quiet or dull. Still, as I entered high school and embraced teenage years, I didn’t always behave as I should and certainly didn’t speak as I should. I started getting into trouble, largely due to having a mouth that moved faster than my brain did. When I was fourteen or so, it came time to change school and, at that moment, I made the decision that I was going to follow Jesus with all my heart. From now on it wouldn’t just be because my parents did – in fact, if they stopped following Jesus, I decided, I wouldn’t stop following him. I remember praying this out loud to God one day in an assembly; I’m surprised no one turned around to hear me.
My first steps following Jesus for myself were slow and steady. I had really, really good youth leaders (most of whom I’m still friends with and one of whom I currently work with) and found a place to serve in the church that allowed me to participate in some small way and get to know other people I wouldn’t otherwise have met. And I started reading the Bible for myself. I was fortunate to have heard some great preachers growing up who made the stories of the Bible sound exciting and relevant; when I turned to them in the Scriptures for myself I found this to be true. And so not long after I turned 16, while dreaming of a summer of idleness, holidays and endless trips to the cinema, I started reading the Book of Proverbs. My troubles really began when I reached chapter 10. This is what it says in verse 5:
‘A wise youth harvests in the summer, but the one who sleeps during harvest is a disgrace.’
I hadn’t finished reading that verse a moment when I heard a voice in my head say, ‘Well you better get a job then.’ To this day, I honestly don’t know whether that was the voice of the Holy Spirit or the voice of my own conscience. But what I did know was that the long, languid, lazy summer I had envisioned for myself was a dream that would never be realised. If I wanted to be wise I had to make an effort to find some work. So, with the help of my mum, I got an application form for the local supermarket, filled it in, and applied for a job there over the summer. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now why on earth do I think that’s such a significant moment in my life? Very simply because it was, as best as I can remember, the first time I ever made a decision about my own conduct and future based upon my own reading of the Word of God. My parents didn’t tell me to get a job (although they might have done if I’d lay around the house for too long!); the leaders of my church didn’t; my schoolteachers didn’t; nor did the supermarket themselves. This was a moment when I read the Word of God, realised it had to have an impact on my own life, and I made a decision to live accordingly. Now I don’t want any credit for this – no glory or praise. You realise with the benefit of hindsight that it was all the Lord’s doing. He had ordered my steps to bring me to that point. I just had the opportunity to respond.
But it’s a valuable lesson we all have to learn at some point in our lives. The Word of God is a wonderful, inspiring collection of writings. It was inspired by God himself. It’s a means of encouragement and hope and warning and protection for us. It is designed by God to shape our thinking, fashion our faith and affect our lives. When we read things like, ‘rejoice in the Lord always’ or ‘give thanks in all circumstances’ or ‘go, therefore, and make disciples’ we’re meant to do them, put them into practice, not just underline them or copy them into a notebook. Jesus said those who hear his words and do them are the wise ones: their lives are built on rock, unlike those who hear but don’t act, whose lives are built on sand.
Since that summer I’ve had plenty of opportunities to read the Scriptures, hear God’s voice through his Word, believe what he says and put it into practice. I’ve probably not done it as much as I should; no doubt I’ve made mistakes, misinterpreted and misunderstood things. But I’m determined, despite the fact that the summer I was 16 gets further and further away every time the school holidays come around again, to be a follower of Jesus who still listens to his voice, looking for guidance through his Word, ready and willing to act in faith and obey the master. Enjoy your summer, all of you. Especially those of you whose summers are being shaped in some way by the Word of God.