I left Northern Ireland in 2003.
I’d spent the entirety of my life there, and having finished university in Belfast, it was time to move away and start a new life in Essex. I had a job working for my denomination and within a few years had got married and bought a house.
One evening, I was chatting with my mum on the phone – Northern Irish mothers are unique in many ways – too many to explain here – but hopefully this story will help. We were just catching up on life, work, family and all the other usual stuff when she shared that she had been to the dentist that day. I was interested to know more about why and to find out if everything was OK, but Mum was more interested in telling me about the real horror of the afternoon – trying to find somewhere to park within the one-way system of our hometown. I listened intently trying my best to keep up, but I was soon aware that I had no idea where this story was taking place. All the street names and junctions my mum was referring to were registering blanks in my memory. After a few moments my mum said: “And then I got to the nightmare road. You know which one I mean?”
Looking back, and knowing what I now know, I should have said: “Yes, what a nightmare.”
But instead I confessed that I had no idea where my mum was talking about, where the dentist was, or where would have been best to park.
I felt good; confession has that effect. It didn’t last long. Mum’s silence turned to a question. And her tone had shifted from enthusiasm in telling the sorry to what sounded like sadness. She asked: “Do you know why you don’t know where the dentist is?” I went to answer, but was beaten to it… “Because you’ve forgotten your roots.”
The words stung. It might be a particular quirk of growing up in such a small country, or the guilt that moving hundreds of miles away from home always leaves you with, but the one thing I never wanted to be accused of was forgetting my roots.
I’d seen it loads growing up, people who’d arrive back home from their first term at an English university with a bizarre new accent and a sudden desire to drink espresso. Others who would laugh patronisingly at what ‘quaint lives’ we’d been living while they’d been ‘expanding their worldview’ on a two-month placement in Hull, and I didn’t want to be one of those people.
But my mum’s words had hurt because the truth has a habit of doing that. I’d become the very thing I hadn’t wanted to.
My accent had softened quite naturally, but I deliberately lost and found it as the situation warranted in my eyes, choosing to return to Northern Ireland with a heightened English hybrid, that in my head sounded well-versed and well-travelled.
My tastes had developed as I’d tried more things and I found myself suddenly turning up my nose at the tastes of home that had for so long nourished and pleased me.
And I had found myself patronising those closest to me because I had now seen the world – or Essex, at least.
It was like I’d seemingly become embarrassed by where I’d come from.
I wish the story ended with some grand gesture of how I made it up to her or displayed my new found respect of my roots. It would be a great way to finish.
As it turned out, after we’d got off the phone I Googled it and discovered the dentist in question had only been open for a couple of years, so not only had I never been there, I couldn’t have remembered it even if I’d wanted to – told you they’re a unique bunch. But she was still right.
By moving away I’d somehow convinced myself I’d moved on, and what was now somehow surpassed what had been with no understanding of how one had shaped the other.
We closed our house church a few weeks ago, and that means my wife and I have been looking for a new church for a while now.
We’ve found somewhere we love, somewhere we’re not only really excited about, but that raises lots of questions for us and challenges us. Somewhere completely unexpected and quite possibly the last place we thought we’d end up.
It’s meant we’re leaving the denomination we were both born into and raised in, that our parents are part of or work for, and that our siblings and many of our wider family still attend. A movement that over the past 33 years has taught us loads, taken us across the world, and introduced us to some incredible people. And above all, the place in which our faith and discipleship have been nurtured.
For me, it’s almost like leaving home again. A sense of sadness, a tinge of guilt, and in the midst of it all a deep hope that I won’t make the same mistake of forgetting my roots.
It happens all the time and for many of us, I guess. The belief that everything from the past is somehow of less value than what is now of what’s ahead. “The best is yet to come” has become a mantra for many and it holds a certain truth, but if we’re not careful it also conceals an equally pertinent one. That not everything in the past is the worst. That where we’re from, who we’ve been, our foundations, our roots can have tremendous value and should be not only remembered but respected and rejoiced in.
That in the midst of newness, development, change, whatever you want to call it, not everything we leave behind stays behind. We bring all those values, relationships, lessons and more with us.
That leaving well, means not only taking the best bits with us, but recognising where they’ve come from.