Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Greatest of Influences

By Tony Harriman

When we think about the people who have had the greatest impact or influence in our lives, we usually don’t think of just one person.  There's more often what we see as a team of individuals, all unknown to each other, who have worked on our behalf.  What’s intriguing to me, though, is who first springs to mind when we are posed with the question of who has had the greatest impact.  Intriguing because the chances are, that’s the person who has caused you to make those final choices that have truly helped you become who you really are.

Most of us want to mull over the question, because we begin to look through our minds for the person who we think has had the greatest effect.  Was it a parent?   A teacher?   A friend?  Co-worker?  Philosopher?  Religious teacher?  When you take time to think about it, the question is not an easy one to answer.

The people who have had the most influence in my life are few in number, so this short writing really may not be of interest to many people.  Most of the people who know me well will be unsurprised by what follows.  Maybe I’m writing this so that I don’t forget where I came from, and who I used to be—and who, without these influences, I might have become.  And perhaps, more importantly, I simply don't want to forget these special people.

Let me take a few moments and tell you about my own experience of changes:

I was five years old before I found out that my mother had been married once before and that I had a sister who was five years older than me.  I couldn’t have been happier when she was introduced to my life, and I was thrilled when she came to live with the only family I had known.  At the time we lived in a two-bedroomed flat in South London.  Up to that point I had been an only child, and, had things gone on that way, likely would have grown to be even more selfish than I am.  But no, very quickly I learned to share everything I had: bed and bedroom, bathroom, parents, toys.  I was young enough to not really think about what I was “sacrificing” at the time; the gain, to my mind, eclipsed any loss I could have dwelt upon.  This young lady experienced life five years ahead of me, so even though I didn’t think about it at the time, I had the opportunity of seeing how I might respond when my time came to “grow up.”  Of course, much of what I learned about life from my sister wasn’t truly realized until much later.  Nevertheless, I wouldn’t change a thing about her or our circumstances.

John Bunyan —

A few years later, one Easter when I was nine years old, my Mother gave me a paper-wrapped gift of a book, just a small book, but a book that required the stretching of the mind, both in language and in metaphor, to grasp its meaning.  The book was the original English version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  My mother had bought me this book and encouraged me to read it, because she could see that my feet were tending in a way that would not lead to either peace or happiness.  My young self was making poor choices in friends and pastime.  I had very little interest in things academic; in fact, I had very little interest in just about anything.  Psychologists would say I was a classic case of a child raised in a troubled home.  Alcohol and tobacco were frequent visitors to our home, and they brought all the troubles that generally travel with them: arguing; suspicion; yelling; never enough money for a working-class family.

Though John Bunyan lived hundreds of years before my time, his influence was still tugging on this bedraggled member of the human family.  His language was not easy to be understood, so I had to pause long enough to let his thoughts sink in.  His metaphors caused my mind to think in a manner that saw things that might not lie readily-seen on the surface.  I have since learned that much of the world we live in is unseen, but that its influence is felt nevertheless.  As a child I had no real religious education, and really felt no lack, though I had an interest, sort-of, in spiritual things; and I have since learned that "religious" and "spiritual" are not the same thing.

Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was written shortly after the King James Version of the Bible was printed, but because the Bible had not yet made its way onto every shelf in every home, Pilgrim's Progress didn’t contain chapter number and verse every other line.  Had it done so, I might not have been as interested in it as I was.  I still have the book my mother gave me, and I still read it.  I also have a dramatized version that I have listened to countless times, and did so as recently as a week ago.

Bunyan’s influence is still appreciated in my life, and I see no waning of interest in the near future.

Mark Twain —

The next biggest influence (in time, though not necessarily in importance) was from another book my mother gave me as a birthday present when I was twelve years old.  This book was Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  This was my first introduction to Mark Twain, and his version of the English language I found to be most entertaining.  The characters in the book are rich and diverse, and the one I most wanted to be like was Huck Finn.  The idea of rafting the mighty Mississippi without much of a care in the world was a universe away from the troubled world I lived in.  Mark Twain, being the brilliant writer that he was, weaved into this story, not just adventure, but values; values that I didn’t have; values that placed friendship above the supposed needs of the individual; values that placed a price upon the head of a man—a black slave named Jim—that could be esteemed of far more value than could be counted in money.  When Huck decided he’d rather go to Hell than betray the only person who had ever really done right by him, well, I do believe I had some mighty fine software installed right there, software that I still don’t have to dig very deep to find.  This software causes me to drive an extra minute, pay an extra dime, and climb an extra step in order to put my business with people who have taken the time to treat me with courtesy and kindness.

Though Twain, too, was from another century before my own time, his influence is still very hard at work in my life.

John Shepherd —

What followed was a very long, dry period of just getting by, socially, economically, even spiritually.  Then when I was twenty-one years of age I was deputy manager at a restaurant complex: Ye Olde Rose Inne in Wokingham in Berkshire, England.  Up to that point this was the most stimulating job I had ever worked.  The complex had three restaurants and four bars which were handled on a full- and part-time basis by 80-90 members of staff.  As deputy manager, my job was to make sure that all the staff had everything they needed—before and after the doors opened to the public.  I'd love to re-live so many of the details, but suffice it to say, I was responsible for keeping the wheels of the machine greased, and I loved it.

The man I worked for at this complex is the person who springs instantly to my mind when I think about the people who have had the most impact on my life.  Mr. John Shepherd was very ordinary.  He was shorter and smaller in stature than me, but what he lacked in size and strength, he made up for in experience and uprightness.  Though he didn't smoke (a strange thing at that time for a publican), he did enjoy a small drink with a few of the regulars in the smallest, coziest bar in the place.  He was very capable of doing any of the jobs on the property; he could cook, clean, pour drinks, serve food ... whatever might be needed, and from time to time he exercised those abilities.

Occasionally we had to deal with members of the staff who were "fiddling" —stealing money or products, the absence of which wasn't really detected until times of stock-taking.  Our management team (there were seven or more of us) was answerable for "business done" to higher-ups—the Area Execs and Regional Directors, so a day of reckoning always beckoned.  In any business that handles products there are many ways to "cook the books" when things get out of whack, and many business people take that route, promising to make it up once they get things straight.

One time when we discovered that we had been royally ripped off by certain of the crooked staff among us, I was introduced to a side of Mr. Shepherd that I had not yet seen.  Instead of trying to cover anything up,  Mr. Shepherd immediately called upon the arm of our company responsible for weights and measures, and alcoholic gravities and the like to find out how much we had been ripped off and where to go from here to fix things.  Mr. Shepherd was the first person I had met who truly wanted to know how bad things were, so he could figure out what to do.  He had no desire to cover anything up.  This was a strange attitude for me ... and I liked it.

Setting things straight can be a painful, embarrassing process—for everyone involved.  Through this and other experiences Mr. Shepherd taught me that nothing gets better by continually trying to cover things up, and until someone takes an honest look at the situation—as bad as it may be—nothing can be done to fix the problem.   I found this attitude to be one that suited me perfectly, and have leaned on this mentality ever since.  I can sadly say that I have been unable to fix every problem that has attached itself to my life, but at least I feel like I had a fair understanding of the situation at the time.

Perhaps Mr. Shepherd springs first to mind because he was so much not like me at the time.  He had his feet planted squarely on the ground, whereas I had virtually no anchor ... and no compass—moral, spiritual or otherwise.

Spiritual Awakening —

In my twenty-sixth year I had a spiritual awakening.  The sister I had found just a few lines up in this writing was taken from my family by a run-in with cancer.  She was thirty-one years of age when she stepped out of our lives.  All of us—friends, family and everyone in between—were devastated.  Perhaps for the first time in our lives we were confronted with the fragility of our mortality.  Surprisingly, my first reaction was to blame God for his "mistake."  Were there not others more worthy of losing their lives?  What had she done to deserve this?  I was angry with God.  What was surprising to me about this reaction was that I really had no idea who God was, and there I was blaming Him for something I had not seen Him do.  It was confusing ... and eye-opening.

Needless to say, Heaven was very silent concerning my complaint about this order of business.  I wasn't struck dead for blasphemy.  No lightning bolt silenced my insolent tongue.  What did happen was there was born in me a growing curiosity regarding things in the spirit world.  Who was this God I had ignorantly confronted?  What kind of a world does He live in?  Who are these people we call angels?  And, of course, top of the curiosity list: what happens to people when they die?  Where had my sister gone?  Could she see me?  Could she interact with me?

Once again, the first person on my list of people who've had the greatest impact on my life ... was back on the list.  My loss of her had caused me to reach up and out. Here she was once again changing my life, this time from beyond the grave.

Initially my world fell apart.  While something inside me was born, at the very same time I started to die.  For the longest time I was slowly shrinking away inside a facade.  Brokenhearted, broken spirit, no real reason to live.  My parents resorted to the alcohol that had faithfully supported them for most of their adult lives, so there was no help there.

The urge to launch into recalling a long series of unbelievable events is strong, but that's not what this piece of writing is about—not really.  So let's pick up here:

I didn't get "saved" in the traditional sense.  What I did get was an introduction to the God who claimed to have created all of the world we live in.  Those questions that were awakened in me were somewhat addressed in what we call the Christian Bible.  And here began the journey with the Person who, by far, has had the biggest impact on my life.

I suppose, concerning my understanding of God, for most of my life I had been an agnostic: I believed the world had come from something or someone; there was far too much beauty, order and math in the natural world for me to believe there wasn't a designer of some kind.  But I was fuzzy on the details.  English people really don't have religious conversations, so any interest I might have had as a youngster soon got lost in the business of life.

I've never seen God.  Never heard His voice.  Don't know what language He prefers to speak.  Don't know what color His eyes are, or what His favorite color is.  Beyond the brief description of what God is like — kind, long-suffering, merciful, loving, and more — I really don't know much about Him at all.  But I can discern His handiwork in everything we have a microscope or a telescope to see; His mathematical fingerprints are all over the scenery ... in the very close ... and in the very far.

I discovered in the Bible a pen pal, a Father, from Whom I enjoy one-sided descriptions, not so much of who He is and where He lives, but of how well He knows my name, where I live, and what my aspirations are.  This Being we call God appears to live outside of time and place, and uses no ink in trying to describe to us a reality we have no way of understanding.

It's true, I have never "sensed" God, but I have had the experience of "knowing."  Through a series of very personal experiences God has been made "known" to me in a manner beyond the senses, just like when you sit in a familiar room, close your eyes, and "know" where things are in the room. You couldn't prove your experience to anybody else, especially if that somebody else had never been familiar with the same room.  Imagine the amount of times you might have sleepily, but safely, wandered into the bathroom at home during the dark of the night, then compare that with how different your experience has been in a darkened hotel room.  Yes, I've walked into a few strange walls a couple of times myself.

The Bible speaks of God having a Son, Jesus, and of God giving that Son for the redemption of the dying human race.  I have become familiar with all the human answers for why Jesus had to die, but I can honestly say I don't understand it.  Surely One Who is all powerful, all wise and all knowing could fix things without having to resort to this horrible act of barbarism.  But I am convinced, because of the greatness of the One in command, that if there was a better, more efficient, more effective way for the human race to be saved ... that's the way things would be working.

Not All the Answers —

Contrary to popular belief, the Bible doesn't contain all the answers.  Perhaps it contains all the answers I need to know, but God has caused me to think further, and to ask questions regarding the world we live in, why things work this way, and if there's a way to get something done that will be more agreeable to my personality and abilities.  What's out beyond that horizon?  Why are there so many languages?  Why so many stars?  What kind of light appeared on the first day of Creation when the sun didn't appear until the fourth day?  Is the universe some kind of giant timepiece—a clock?  Some would say, "What's the meaning of life?"

God has had a tremendous impact on my life, one that keeps on vibrating.  And perhaps without all these other influences in my life I wouldn't have so much interest in being less selfish, or have a desire for things to be better, or have any wish to behave in a more noble manner.

The pain and sadness that creep into my life and into the lives of those I love are no greater nor lesser than anyone else's.  My tears are just as real and stinging as yours. But what makes such a big difference in the way I manage my corner of life on earth, is that I don't have to do it alone; there is a shoulder, bigger than mine, that I "know" is there.  Though I cannot see them, I "know" there are arms long enough to wrap entirely around me.  And I "know" that things will not go on this way forever; the God who made everything right in the beginning will put everything right in the end.

I thank God for the people who have stepped into my life, and I thank God for being interested enough to step into my timeline and to help me recognize and appreciate those people.

And would it not also be fair to include my mother who especially had a tremendous influence in my life?  How would my list look had not my mother given me life and love in the first place?  Suppose she had not given life to my sister?  Or had not given me that first book?  Or the second book?  All of a sudden our list of influential people takes on a very 3-dimensional look, doesn't it?  

If you've got this far in the reading of this piece, I thank you for your time, and I would just encourage you to consider the people who have made a difference in your life.  If you can, while you can, thank them for being who they are.  And, if you wear one, tip your hat to a God who has had an interest in you for longer than you know.

The Story of Redemption - Narrated by Tony Harriman

Steps to Christ - Audiobook

Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing - Audiobook

Christ's Object Lessons - Audiobook

Up a Tree with Christina Bee - Audiobook

Leave the Thorns Alone - Music CD