Of plans, purpose and …. Predestination?
We all live within the constraints of our birth. Location, family background, genetic inheritance all combine to limit our choices, often dictating our abilities and typically governing the attitudes of others toward us. Walking amidst the gloom and crush of a lane in one of the slums of Delhi, many years ago, struggling to cope with the sheer press of humanity and the desperate trap of poverty, malnutrition and disease, I wondered who I would have been, had I been born there. We forget that our notion of personal freedom is more strictly circumscribed than we care to admit.
I was raised in the east end of Glasgow, in a home where I enjoyed both security and love. It was not until I was in my mid-teens that I realised the possibility of my roots being be counted against me. The east end of Glasgow, as with areas in most cities, had a reputation. Whist at school in the mid-1970’s, during the weeks leading up to Christmas, I had secured a Saturday job in a large department store located on Argyle Street in Glasgow. This particular store was certainly the strangest I have ever known. If memory serves me correctly, it was called ‘Stirling & Steven’, being the merger of two previously independent stores. In days when such stores had regular customers, this merger meant the merger of two sets of customer accounts. The patrons of Stirling now shopped alongside the patrons of Steven. For reasons that remain inexplicable, the pricing policy on items differed depending on which store the customer had previously frequented. Weird.
Equally curious was the rather old-world arrangement whereby customers would move from department to department within the store, selecting items for purchase. Rather than purchase these individually, all the various acquisitions would be gathered for them at a central location, where full payment would then be made. My job was to act occasionally as a ‘runner’, bringing selected items to that central location, but, more often, my task was to receive such items and sort them onto shelves alphabetically, from where they could easily be retrieved for customers.
On my first Saturday in-post, I was introduced to the school girl who would work alongside me. She was the same age as me, but from a very much more salubrious area of the city. During our initial introductions, I naïvely explained where I came from and watched the look of horror settle on her face, as my stock value plummeted to zero in her eyes. Clearly, she had been warned against anyone from my side of the city, and grew up believing that any area east of Castle Street was terrorised by roaming Neanderthals, a specimen of which had the audacity to stand before her!
When I shared with her my plans to progress to university after school, her disbelief was palpable. I was clearly a raging fantasist, with delusions inappropriate to my station in life. Things did not improve when I pulled a book out to read at lunchtime, seeking to explain that it was one of a set I had been given for prizes in Chemistry and Maths. I think she preferred to believe that I had stolen it, and was making a pretence of being capable of reading.
This prejudice became much more sinister as Christmas approached. A selection was to be made from among the casual staff as to which of us would be given longer-term Saturday employment beyond the festive period. After several weeks of seamless operation, mistakes began to be made in the sorting of customer parcels. Mr Jones’s clothes were found under ‘W’, and so forth. I could not understand it, since I did not make those kinds of mistakes.
Nonetheless, I was blamed and, on more than one occasion, given a stern dressing down. I can still remember the appalled sense of injustice, and the longing to somehow communicate to these people that I was not stupid nor did I get things like that wrong. But the evidence suggested otherwise. I had to endure numerous humiliating rows from the floor manager.
Then came the moment of painful clarity. Returning earlier than expected from a ‘runner’ trip to the Jewellery department one afternoon, I saw the girl with whom I had been working for weeks, furtively moving and mis-placing some of the parcels I had previously sorted. She was surreptitiously creating my ‘mistakes’. I was being stitched up.
Unsurprisingly, shortly before Christmas, I was told that I would not be expected to return in the New Year. The girl made some comment about how I had done well to stay as long as I had, being from the East End! I sensed she was making it clear that I ought to know my place. She had certainly succeeded in putting me in it. She knew no-one would believe any account I could provide that would apportion the blame upon someone other than myself.
That was the first time I had ever experienced discrimination because of my postcode. It was a harsh lesson in how life can be made more difficult by factors that are outwith our control.
How much more difficult if we are born into a broken home, where there is no love and where relationships are fractured and painful, or if our genetic inheritance predisposes us to ill health, or if our location means grinding poverty and a short life.
This is where those contentious Bible words such as, ‘predestination’ and ‘election’ come to our aid. They are words which tell us that we need not feel trapped by the towering restraints of our roots and background, but that there is a Heavenly Father whose love can set us free to find Life in all its fullness. These Bible words tell us of a God who has the power to rise above the constraints we find impossible to break; they speak of purpose and of power.
Moses is a case in point. Born into a slave race, held under brutal captivity in a foreign land (Egypt); born of a tribe that was under a curse (Genesis 49:5-7), born a boy meaning that he was under sentence of death as soon as he entered the world. Factors that were in play long before he was born gave Moses the worst possible start in life. Or so it seemed.
Even after this dismal inheritance is neutralised by Divine intervention, and Moses is miraculously preserved as a child (Exodus 1), and even raised in the palace of Pharaoh as a prince, Moses then creates a whole new set of difficulties for himself. Evidently he was hot-headed and there are hints that he had an inflated view of his own position - subsequently we read of him killing an Egyptian. The consequences were deeply threatening to both his person and his calling. He was now a man with a death sentence hanging over him. God had to take him away into the desert for another 40 years to quell his pride and teach him patience.
Despite the limits and even the dangers of his situation at birth, despite his own failures (and they continued even after his return to lead the people), God transformed Moses into a great leader and used him to liberate the entire people from slavery. He was forgiven and freed to become what only God could make him.
The point is, that whatever our roots, whatever our failures, God can do something productive with our lives. We may well live with some of the consequences of our past, but we need not feel trapped by who we are, or the mess we have made of things: ‘I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten’ (Joel2:25a). We need only turn in repentance and faith to the one who assured us: if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36)