How can I hand you over?

Christina Rossetti’s poem, ‘Remember’ has a particular resonance for me. It asks that she be remembered after her death, when ‘you can no more hold me by the hand, nor I half turn to go, yet turning, stay’. These lines came back to me when my husband was dying, because they reminded me of a particular weekend when he had to leave home on Sunday instead of Monday, in order to attend some work training. We had been having such a lovely weekend, and both of us were sad that it needed to end that much sooner. I was trying to put a brave face on it, when he suddenly took off his jacket, chucked his bag back into the wardrobe and decided not to go after all till the following morning.

I remembered this so many times as I sat by his bedside in the hospice. And I remembered Rossetti’s sentiment – that death revokes the option to remain. How I wished he could hug me as he had that Sunday, and tell me he was staying.

It came back powerfully to me again this morning in church. 

God restrained his own hand many times against the Israelites, never permitting them quite to suffer the fate they deserved. In the prophecy of Hosea, he asked himself, ‘How can I hand you over, Israel’? Yet, in the preceding verses, we see countless reasons for him to do just that, given the unfaithfulness of those who called him ‘God Most High’. Even though their words were not matched by their deeds, still God resisted giving them over to destruction. Such was his love for his own people that he was not willing that any should perish, and he has repeatedly held us away from death since.

But not his own Son. Jesus was not spared any of our punishment. The guilt was ours, yet the suffering was all on him. 

This is love. It is incomprehensible to our small minds but my word, it should leave a colossal mark on our hearts. God couldn’t bear to punish his sinful, disloyal people for their own dark deeds; but he willingly gave up his Son to that death on the cross, to the stark moment when he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’? 

We cannot know the mind of God, but it’s incredible to imagine the Father doing to Jesus what he would not do to us. And it is equally astonishing to think of Jesus, walking to Calvary and to death . . . and not turning back from it as any one of us would, given the chance.

Today’s sermon ended with the minister reading some testimony from a Pakistani Christian who – like many of his countrymen – has been disowned by family for converting away from their faith. Yet, he said, the empty home and the silent telephone are not reasons to pity him, because he knows that God has something far better for him, and there is no loneliness in Christ.

I can put my ‘amen’ to that, except in one respect. The awe I feel at this man’s sacrifice, is because it reflects God. Neither God the Father, nor the Son, spared himself in redeeming us. Painful, soul-searing sacrifice was willingly made. Ditto this Christian whose profession made such a moving end to today’s sermon.

Any losses I have sustained were not sacrifices  willingly given. I don’t think I would have had the strength, or the faith. But, there again, God’s infinite love didn’t ask me to give what I could not: in the light of Christian understanding, therefore, even his taking away is kindness itself.

That’s the heart of God.

Long-suffering in the Free Church (it’s not about the pews)

Going to church can have unintended consequences – unintended by yourself, that is, of course. I went this morning, thinking that after a week on antibiotics for the mother of all dental abscesses, I knew the meaning of long-suffering. Indeed, perhaps I could even be perceived as the living embodiment of it myself. Three sleepless nights, endless pain which didn’t respond to any amount of ibuprofen, salty mouthwashes or stern talkings-to, and yet I had retained my sanity and even some humour. Perhaps, I allowed myself to think, I am a paragon of putting up with adversity.

You know, though, when you’re leaning towards seòladh àrd of any description, there’s always a Calvinist minister, just waiting to take you down. ‘Think you know what it is to be long-suffering’, they mutter as they stab their sermon notes out on ancient typewriters (in my imagination), ‘just wait till you hear what I have to say’.

Now, let me be clear on something. The take-down for myself this morning was in the substance and message of the sermon, not the delivery. I am in no way suggesting that a Free Kirk service is an object lesson in fad-fhulangas, however hard the pews.

This is all the more remarkable because it wasn’t a sermon on long-suffering, but on unity. It was Ephesians 4, and Paul’s call for unity in the church of Christ. Lack of unity grieves the Spirit, and it grieves him because he is a person of the godhead. In a quite beautiful image, the gift of unity was compared to the gift of Eden: just as the garden was given to Adam to tend, unity in the Spirit was gifted to the church for us – all of us – to nurture.  I am tempted into a segue here, but some things don’t need to be repeated, far less hammered home. We are all capable of meditating upon our own role in caring for what we have been given, and growing it to God’s glory.

I can and have picked holes in how we are as a church. Not gratuitously, I hope, but out of a real, prayerful concern that we are not as we should be. In reality, no Christian needs me to point that out – and there has to be some measure of gratitude for the fact that, to paraphrase Newton, we are at least not as we were. Crucially, though, we are not as we will be: we are the Spirit’s work in progress. And, listening to that sermon today, the unintended consequence for me was that I was both reassured and comforted, yet chastened and humbled also.

Christ did all that he did. He lived a life of service, putting everyone else first. A deserving everyone else? An impeccably behaved everyone else? Far from it. He poured himself out for a world that despised him. Even his own followers were not always faithful, taken up with a wrong vision of the Kingdom. James and John even jockeyed for a status of power within a government that was never intended to be built on any such thing. It must have been so disheartening for Jesus, not to have one wise friend, one close confidante to whom he could go for counsel. There was not one he could trust implicitly to do the right thing. 

This was why the answer to ‘whom shall we send’ and ‘who will go for us’ inevitably came back round to Jesus, for there was indeed no man.

Add to all this that he had no place to call home, no door he could close and be alone with his Father when disappointment and disillusion assailed his heart. Yet this same Jesus went willingly to the cross for those inconstant disciples, for a world that bayed to see him crucified and chose a criminal to be his substitute for mercy. Still, he elected himself our substitute for punishment, in the full knowledge that we deserved no reprieve.

And we fall out over the merest thing. Ironically, while waiting for the service to begin today, I overheard a whispered conversation regarding another congregation who are ‘together, but with undercurrents’. We are not long-suffering in the least. I forgive and excuse my own bad behaviour most readily, but I’m not so merciful to others. The slights and insults, the wrongdoings of my brethren are placed under my magnifying glass, while my own shortcomings, well, they’re easily excused.

What an absolute plate I have. Unity is a gift of the Spirit to which all of us who profess union in him must tend. The only way to that, the only way to anything worth the having, is through Christ. I am going back to one of the books I read assiduously as an apprentice secret disciple, ‘The Imitation of Christ’. Surely I should remember these words of Thomas a Kempis: 

‘Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be’.

Christ can, though, for all of us – and he will finish the good work once it is begun.

A House Divided

There is an amusing scene in the Scottish film, ‘The Bridal Path’, when the naive protagonist goes to withdraw some money from his bank account, and is asked ‘what denomination’? He replies – of course – ‘Church of Scotland’.

In my own part of Scotland, denomination has been all too important, time out of mind. I wonder how many of us feel that we belong to the Church of Scotland, or the Free Church, or the Free Presbyterian Church before we belong to the church of Christ. And I equally wonder how Christ, the head of the one church there is, feels about denomination. 

How have we come, in a town like Stornoway, for example, to have two Free Church congregations, three Churches of Scotland, a Free Presbyterian Church, a Free Church (Continuing), an Associated Presbyterian Church, a Reformed Presbyterian Church, and sundry other congregations?  It would be nice if the answer to that was that no one building could contain all the worshippers. That, after all, is the only acceptable justification to have the saints of God distributed across a multitude of churches.

I know this is an awkward topic, and some people don’t approve of it being aired – but we are bound to review our own conduct in light of God’s presence. And like the adulterous woman at the well, we don’t need to hear any accusing words from Him to be convicted of this sin.

Because that’s what this is. It’s pride. Resentfulness. Self-righteousness. It’s putting ourselves and our traditions first. 

Now, I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I like the plain worship style of the island Free Churches, with no accompaniment to our Psalms-only liturgy. Heck, I even like the pews. But, if the necessity and blessing of online church has taught us anything (as I believe it was meant to), it’s that the building isn’t the church. And if the building isn’t the church, the denomination with all its committees and rules and manmade fol-de-rols sure as fate is not the church either.

Yet, we cling to these divisions as though they might be important or worthy. With no outward embarrassment, with no attempt at unity of even the most superficial kind, we have our own separate rule books, our own General Assemblies, our own identities.

As if the identity conferred by belonging to God is somehow less than that of some combination of the words ‘church’, ‘Presbyterian’, ‘Reformed’ and ‘Free’. We declare ourselves freed in Christ – free indeed – and yet, still, we entrench ourselves, not for Him, but invariably for some ‘principle’ that has us standing on our dignity. And while we bicker amongst ourselves (the children of God, mind you) about how to worship, He not only goes unworshipped, but the banner of His beautiful cause sags into the mud. The unsaved watch, open-mouthed, as those of us who profess Christ act like we have never even heard His name.

You think I exaggerate, perhaps – that I’m being harsh and judgemental?

There are four seats on Comhairle nan Eilean Sitar’s Education Committee, which are allocated to faith representatives. One, by statute, is occupied by the Church of Scotland and two, by custom, by the Roman Catholic and Free Churches as being together representative of the islands’ faith profile. The fourth has in the past been filled by the Free Presbyterian Church, but the Chief Executive of the council this week told members that he’d had representations from another denomination, suggesting that they should provide the fourth representative instead because – and I quote – they have a larger membership. 

Let that sink in: Christians – Reformed Evangelicals between whose confessional positions you could not slide one page of the KJV – trying to best one another for a seat on the Education Committee. 

Thanks to their unlovely one-upmanship, it looks like that seat will be shared with other faith groups, including some that are non-Christian.

That, folks, is an object lesson in what denominations do for the cause. The sad truth is that we show no intention of dwelling together in unity, and actually pour more energy into preserving superficial difference than pursuing the one thing needful: togetherness in the Church of Christ.

What a witness we are for the Saviour; what an example to the unsaved. My advice to the council would be not to let any of us near an Education Committee until we grow up.

Does My Ego Look Big In This?

Humility isn’t in fashion at the minute. Ditto submission. But like my human parents did in the eighties with some Danger Mouse wellies, and that orange jacket, my Heavenly Father has imposed these unwanted accessories on me, very much against my will. 

‘Cuir ort iad’, the good Lord commands, giving me no say. I can peel them off and chuck them in a corner, but he will simply dust them down again, remind me – as my mother used to – that they’re perfectly serviceable and I will grow into them one day, and stand by while I sulkily don the hated garments. Humility suits me, he seems to think, and it goes SO well with submission. 

And I hate this stupid uniform so much sometimes I could spit. I ask, him why I always need to wear them. He says nothing. And I’m learning what his silence means. It’s his gentle way of saying, ‘look inwards; you know why’.

I do, of course. Submitting to the will of God is a position of strength – but one I’m more likely to assume when he brings me low. While I don’t know why it was necessary this time, I do know it must have been, because God doesn’t arbitrarily wound us. He just doesn’t.

A few months ago, I began praying for guidance. It had been laid on my heart to think about standing for council. But I wasn’t getting a clear answer from God: was I being flattered into it, I asked him; was this my ego telling me I should? He didn’t answer. Although he didn’t say ‘no’, he wasn’t exactly yelling ‘go for it’ either. Someone suggested that perhaps my burden was a sign that this was the right thing to do. So, I changed my prayer. I stopped asking for an answer to whether or not I should do this and begged, instead, that he not let me have victory against his will. When you have looked at life from both sides, as I have, you would never choose to be at odds with your Lord, no matter the prize.

The answer I got on the sixth of May was that my first instincts had been right: this was not the path laid out for me. Yes, I’d have been a good councillor; I know that, even if I couldn’t convince the already content people of Loch a Tuath. I’d have cared about them and fought for them, and never been afraid to speak the truth. But it is not where God wants me.

People have been very kind and sometimes overly solicitous since the election. I am not heartbroken at being passed over in favour of the incumbents. The odds were never much in my favour – and not at all,indeed, now that I know it wasn’t God’s will for me. But I don’t think I have been disobedient, because I now believe he wanted me to stand. Just not to be elected.

‘Why’? you might well ask. ‘Did he wish to humble you’?

Very possibly. But if he did, I needed it. Perhaps I was overdue a reminder that the house will not stand except the Lord builds it. 

Another reason has come to light too, which has nothing whatever to do with me and my ego. So many people have been in touch to say my experience has helped them. Some heard the radio programme about my campaign and responded to what I had to say about widowhood – an audience I could never have hoped to reach had Radio 4 not followed my bid for the Comhairle. Others read my response to electoral defeat and saw submission to God’s will as a possibility for themselves.

I am an odd choice of person to make that point, but that’s what the Lord does, isn’t it: he uses the foolish to confound the wise. In the process of renewing my humble acceptance of his lordship over me, and of requiring that I submit to his will, God has helped others to see the beauty in such a path. He did it as elegantly as you’d expect, using what could have become vehicles for my ego, to broadcast his own name and his own perfect sufficiency to people who needed that message, just as I did.

As I left the count, someone said to me, ‘it would have been good to get another Christian in there’. He didn’t mean it – or, at least, he didn’t mean me. It was the only thing he could think of to say without actually lying or giving offence. Like so many others, that’s what he thinks I have to offer – that I sail under ‘church’ as a flag of convenience, brandishing Jesus like an ‘access all areas’ pass.

Being a Christian councillor, though, is like being an Independent one: your allegiance isn’t what you say, or what others think – but how you act. And maybe God knew that my witness for him would take a back seat if he permitted me this win. I would rather face any amount of other people’ schadenfraude than be guilty of that for a second.

Victory – in him – does not always take the shape we expect or want. Yet, it is victory, nonetheless.

Keep A Thing Seven Years

There’s a Gaelic saying which suggests that if you keep a thing for seven years, a use will be found for it. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t take that long.

This Sunday, I will have kept my grief for seven years. Like many new possessions, I carried it with me everywhere for the first while, moving it around as self-consciously as a child walking in stiff, leather shoes. When it was worn in a little, I started to forget for minutes at a time, only to be assailed by the reality of it when I least expected. In the last few days of Donnie’s life, I had been painfully aware that some time very soon I would no longer be a wife, but a widow.

I didn’t like the word and still less the idea that it represented.

Yet, in seven years, I have been taught to wear the mantle with something approaching acceptance. Instead of being allowed to push the garment from me, God has gently shown me that it IS mine to put on, every day. Traditionally, it also took seven years to train a piper, before they would be allowed to perform in front of an audience. There was no such apprenticeship for me, though – just straight in at the deep end.

I often think how this might all have been, had but one thing been different.

These seven years would have seen me grow bitter, perhaps, or reckless. I might have spent my time in wishing my husband back, or wishing I’d never met him – anything, in short, to remove the excruciating pain. The memory of his suffering could have tormented me to who knows what depths of anguish.

The one thing, though, which saved me from all of that was the hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t simply Christ saying, ‘I’m here, you can lean on me’. That would have been wonderful enough. In fact, his message was subtly different. He was actually telling me, ‘Remember I’m here. You know what to do’. This wasn’t the beginning of a wonderful new relationship, but a life-changing development of one that I hadn’t truly known I was in.

While I have carried – and will carry – Donnie in my heart, it is not loss which dominates my reflections over these seven years without him. It is gratitude. I had such a marriage that I didn’t think I could live without him. But God used that blessing to show me a much deeper and more enduring love. He has fulfilled me in the years of my widowhood, and shown me that, in Christ, all situations are an opportunity to know blessing.

I have profited from his teaching. It goes without saying that I have benefitted in more ways than I can count from his love and mercy. From the very beginning of this journey, though, God has laid it on my heart to share my providence with you. He did that, and then he made it possible.

Most miraculous of all, he took what might have destroyed me and blessed it to the extent that I can say that the Lord gives more than he takes away. Last Sunday, our minister used the sermon time to remind us of the glory and holiness of this God. And, right at the end, that devastatingly beautiful flourish of truth: ‘Remember, though, he is also your Father’.

Glorious, holy, perfect – of course; but tender and loving to the last. Not ‘also in our hard providences’ but especially. If you don’t believe it, I will take you to see a man who told me all things I ever did, and loved me just the same.

‘Daddy, paste it’.

In what would undoubtedly be considered revealing by any psychologist – especially the cod variety – I had an unfortunate childhood habit of removing my dolls’ heads. My father would then be called upon to reattach the noggin, which he did over and over again, without much complaint. I had an unshakeable belief that he could fix anything, therefore – an attitude also displayed in the film, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, when Zuzu’s flower sheds a petal and she demands, ‘Daddy, paste it’.

This morning, I echoed Zuzu’s request. Our world – handed to us in perfect working order by our heavenly Father – has been broken and broken again. Today, the people of Ukraine are suffering the consequences of that, as their country is torn apart around them, and many are forced to flee for refuge elsewhere. As Putin’s relentless display of ‘strength’ continues, the collateral damage is immense. Homes are destroyed, families separated, loved ones killed in the midst of terrifying chaos. Other world leaders wring their hands hopelessly and look at each other, wondering how – short of military action – they can stop the despot in his merciless tracks.

Political leaders fear the might of Russia, and despair at the idea of China rallying to Putin’s side. These presidents and prime ministers do not know where to turn because what they see with their eyes is bigger than all their forces put together. The media invokes the imagery of World War II, when Europe and America last found themselves in a pickle to equal this.

But there is a vast difference between then and now. Then, you had leadership that, instead of wringing its hands in despair, might have clasped them in petition to the Lord; then, you had some people of faith, who knew that the mightiest army of all was fighting at their shoulder.

The helplessness we are witnessing in our leaders is the consequence of believing that you are the ultimate power, and that there is nothing beyond yourself to which you might look for guidance, for wisdom, or for strength. When you are strong, Biden, when you are strong, Johnson, then are you weak.

Yes, the church elders are praying, and calling upon their people to do likewise. But it isn’t at the moment of crisis, this witness is needed most. As a Christian community, we are doing what the Ukrainian leader is doing in his desperation: chucking weapons into the hands of civilians who have no idea how to deploy them. We ought to be testifying unceasingly to our political masters, interceding on their behalf with God and begging that they would see their own need of him – in all situations. Glancing through the March issue of the Free Church ‘Record’, I saw something incredibly wise in the prayer diary. It was a request to pray for people whose lives are so great that they see no need of God. No one is wishing them pain or suffering; but we do wish them the sincere yearning for the Lord that seems so absent in easy situations. I think we need to be in prayer, likewise, for our political leaders, that they would lean on God’s wisdom and strength in times of peace, so that it’s familiar and instinctive to do so when trouble comes.

Even now, though, as the tyrant batters down the gates of what we were pleased to call ‘peace’, it is not too late. Those of us who pray must put our shoulders to the wheel, and ask God to turn our helpless leaders into praying people also. I don’t know how many more messages we can expect him to send, signalling his displeasure, before we turn to him again in earnest. And those among us who do not pray, are you reading this? We have seen that people being the ultimate power does not work – it wrecks lives and it destroys this beautiful world. Ego always tries to triumph over humanity, imposing its will in a show of destructive strength, not caring who it tramples along the way.

The capriciousness you attribute to God is not his, but ours. Putin is a product of the way in which we have chosen to steward creation, with hardly a passing thought for the Author of all things. No wonder that men become drunk with power and blinded by self-importance when they think that they have actually taken God’s place.

Luckily for us, humanity is not the ultimate authority. When we look around us at the harm believing the contrary has done, however, surely we can admit that there is only one course of action left to us. We have got to humble ourselves, hold up this broken world to heaven and beg:

‘Daddy, paste it’.

The Compassion of the Christ

Today was a communion like no other. The old traditions had all been peeled away, and only the essentials remained: the bread, the wine, the table, and a gathering of God’s believing people.

It was enough.

And the words that called to mind the loneliness of Christ’s suffering could not have been more apt for such a time as this. Many of us have gone through a protracted period of aloneness over the last two years. Families and friends have been separated, people have met death without loved ones to hold their hands. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have been bereaved during the pandemic, especially in communities which normally show their support by drawing alongside those who mourn. Who could forget those images of our newly-widowed monarch, sitting quite alone in St George’s Chapel? In that moment, she symbolised the loneliness of many across the nation.

Yet, she cannot feel your grief or mine, anymore than we can experience hers. For that, there is none but Christ.

Not only is he acquainted with grief, he has borne the unimaginable loneliness of being cut off from God. He chose to take that into his own experience in order that he might obliterate it from ours. Listening to the minister today, speaking of the peculiar loneliness of the Saviour on the cross, I was reminded of Derick Thomson’s poem, in which he speaks of peeling back the Lewis sky to behold:

‘the Creator sitting in full view of His people
eating potatoes and herring,
with no man to whom He can say grace’.

No man to whom he can say grace. No man to have compassion upon him in his pain. No man he can send.

Even in my more cynical or despairing moments, when I think there is no one to whom I can turn for advice, no one I can trust . . . there is. In these two years, during which I have been much alone, I have not been lonely. There are friends, there is family – but better than any of those, there is Christ. His advice never fails, his presence never departs; he has plumbed the depths of his own loneliness and so he is the soul of compassion in ours.

We are a society in sad need of compassion. I see a strange set of parallel phenomena creeping in. The more we say, ‘be kind’, the less able we seem to be able to apply that – as Christ does – to everyone. There is a drive to stand with victims of all kinds, which is as it should be. More understanding and not less can only be a positive development. But, are we unable, or simply unwilling, to offer a second chance to people who have gone wrong? Our world sends some into the wilderness forever, guilty of unforgivable falls from grace in our eyes.

That’s not how Christ deals with anyone. It’s not how he dealt with me; it’s not the example he set his followers.

He hung on a cross and endured the ultimate loneliness, to an extent we cannot begin to understand, in order to save us. To take that legacy of love to ourselves, we have to imitate him – he has always known the very worst and darkest details of our hearts, yet never abandoned us. Accepting his gift means sharing it abroad.

Sharing it abroad, means peeling back to the essentials as symbolised in those elements today. The death of Christ accomplished our salvation, but not so that we would keep it to ourselves.

And I bought a field

‘Faith is not a leap in the dark’, the minister told us on Sunday and, if we were not buttoned-up Calvinists, that whole congregation would have been on its feet, yelling ‘amen’, ‘hallelujah’, and punching the air. The tiny dancer in my heart was certainly giving it yee-hah, as it does every time my soul recognises fellow feeling and fellow experience among the brethren. Our man at the lectern was voicing, surely, what we would all wish the unbelievers to understand. This is not some fairy story, a pleasant fiction to comfort the bereaved, or to anchor those cast adrift from all reason.

And do you know why? Because people suffering that depth of anguish cannot be placated with soft words and pretty lies. It takes a life-changing God to be sufficient in a life-changing situation. Whether it’s illness, or grief, the breakdown of a relationship, or the loss of a job – whatever it is, only a fool would suggest that a fable might meet our needs. I know that some of my atheist friends thought that’s what had happened to me; that I had reached out for my nursery God when I found myself in the valley of the shadow of death.

Aside from the inherent blasphemy, it was an insult to my grief to suggest it is so small a thing that I could tell myself a story to make it all better. That is what you get with the myriad creeds and cults that try to fill the spiritual void in the heart of every human being, but that is not what you get with Christ. And I don’t write these things because I want you to see that I’m right, that I’m not some kind of gullible dupe. In fact, I write about it because I really, earnestly wish that you would want it too.

The particular act of faith under discussion on Sunday was that of Jeremiah who, despite the unpromising circumstances, did as he was bidden by the Lord, and bought a field. Those acres were his testament of trust in God, that the exile would end and that better days were indeed coming.

I have also bought a field. The living God has contended with me all my life, and never washed his hands of me , despite the myriad reasons I give him every day. He would not let me perish, determined though I was to have my own way. And so, when grief came into my experience, he was not arbitrarily hurting me. Of course I don’t understand why the plan had to unfold like that – but I do know that it was necessary, and done to perfection. Faith has taught me that acceptance of this is easier when we trust in God’s purpose; and it is impossible not to trust in his purpose once we know himself.

Going forward in faith is not groping blindly, it is being led by someone in whom you can have complete confidence. Indeed, someone who wants better for you than you ever sought on your own behalf.

The time of pandemic has been a test of many things, but for God’s people, I think it has spoken necessary truths. I hear often that it has fostered a spirit of backsliding in some, which is desperately sad. For me, I feel it has renewed my faith. Throughout lockdown I spent many hours alone. During that first glorious spring and summer, I walked every day, witnessing the Creator’s work, and hearing his voice in everything that surrounded me. On Sundays, through the miracle of technology – which we have by his grace – it was possible for those who are united in the Spirit to share worship. Even more astounding, he added to our number as those who could not join previously began to listen, hungry for the word of God.

These are days in which I do not despise the small things: the tang of the sea, the lilting cry of a distant curlew, the quiet morning time of prayer, and the evening peace for writing in my journal. God is here with me – he fills my mind, because I have sufficient stillness to be able to think of him, to talk to him throughout the day. And I have faith, here in this field of mine, that the renewal I am experiencing is not mine alone. It witnesses to the fact that God is active in the lives of those who belong to him, and that those who are his but do not yet realise aren’t being forgotten.

In the perfection of his own will, and in his own time, he is bringing them in, He is persuading them to purchase their fields.

Life does not look as it did in 2019, and I think it never will again. That doesn’t matter, however. If we are founding our lives on the rock that is Christ, and if the Spirit unites us in worship and a desire to witness for the Kingdom, who are we to question the means by which this is achieved? My life and my home were changed beyond all recognition in God’s providence. But he has turned this humble, grief-blighted building into a place where I can experience the fulness of his love as long as I trust in him, and accept his will for me.

I am only one Christian, but I am a microcosm of the church. In all of this, we are not taking a leap in the dark; we are purchasing fields in the sure and certain knowledge that one day, our exile will end.
But it will be accomplished his way, and in his time.

Tempered Temper in the Temple

The account of Jesus turning the merchants and money-lenders out of the temple is a famous one, well-known even to those who would claim no regular acquaintance with the Bible. I suppose it seems to be at odds with our idea of him. In popular imagination he is either the Christ-child, gentle and meek, or he is the God-man, giving himself up uncomplainingly to the horrors of death. Those are both facets of his character, certainly, but they are not the whole person. His tour de force dealing with the agents of commerce in his Father’s house reveal an aspect of Christ that helps us understand him better.

There is a small incident in John’s telling of this story that drew my attention this week. Having taken a whip and driven the livestock out, along with their retailers, he commands the sellers of pigeons to remove the birds from the temple.

Picture the scene: he has scattered the coins, overturned the tables and personally expelled the merchants with their sheep and oxen. But the pigeon-sellers must take themselves and their wares out with no help from Jesus. What prevented him from sweeping their cages to the floor, or throwing them outside? Of course I don’t know, but I am inclined to believe that it was compassion. To rough-handle these gentle creatures would have been cruel and capricious – and, whatever people who don’t know him say, that is not in his nature. This is someone, in fact, so wholly consistent, so reliably in control of his responses, that he can direct and channel his wrath where it is deserved, and turn on a sixpence to show gentle consideration in the same moment.

His anger is not an emotion in the way that mine or yours might be. Sometimes we are controlled and directed by our feelings to a degree which can be destructive. Indeed, our forefathers believed that envy, for one, could be so powerful as to cause physical harm to the object of our desire, without us even knowing what we had done. That phenomenon – usually referred to as ‘the evil eye’ – is mentioned in a lengthy list in the Bible, alongside a whole host of other evils which are not external, but which actually emanate from within ourselves.

That’s quite a bitter pill for us to swallow – that we are not always the poor dupes of Satan, but more often than not, the willing perpetrators of badness ourselves. Our anger, our mean-spiritedness, our jealousy, our greed, our lust, our self-righteousness, our unconcern for others – that’s all on us. Satan just seeks to exploit the way we’re already inclined by nature.

What I like about this aspect of Christ is its realness. It demonstrates even further how completely I can trust him with my life. I have often been unjust to others, judging them harshly, expecting more of them than I should, and then feeling angry towards them when they fall short of my unrealistic demands. But he never has ‘a bad day’. When I go to him in prayer, he never casts up at me that I forgot him the day before when everything was going fine; he never grumbles that I do nothing for him, or retreats because he wants a little ‘me time’.

He is not a two-dimensional nursery god – Christ is multi-faceted, but not mercurial; he displays feeling, but is wholly consistent.

This is why people read Scripture: it is a means of seeing a little more clearly the beauty of Jesus Christ. And it is why, in a way, I prefer John for advent reading. The baby Jesus, whose life was in danger from the moment he was conceived, and the circumstances whose birth has become so culturally iconic as to be almost Disneyfied in the eyes of the world, he is easy to love. All babies are easy to love and none more so than the manger-child who gave us Christmas.

John presents us with something more challenging, though – he brings us Christ, who doesn’t lie helpless in a manger. He walks abroad and challenges those he meets with his very presence; and when it is necessary, he shows his wrath. Wrath to the defilers of his Father’s house, and gentleness to the helpless creatures who are guiltless of any wrong. I wish I had the wisdom to know the difference, and the self-control to treat them accordingly.

But, more than anything, this Advent, I’m grateful to know him a little better than I did last year. What an unparalleled feeling it is to be assured that there will never be any unpleasant surprises with Christ – that even his displays of anger are wholly justified, and trained precisely on the target.

My Heart Will Go On

A few years ago, I was asked to write my testimony for the church newsletter. I began by saying, ‘The Lord’s presence in my life is something of which I have been aware for almost as long as I can remember’. It was a conscious decision to begin, not with me, but with him, and to end the article in much the same way. This was not merely stylistically important, but a deliberate avoidance of what Sir Humphrey Appleby called ‘the perpendicular pronoun’. Our coming to faith is never about us per se, but about the miraculous goodness of God, who saves in spite – and not because – of who and what we are.

Testimony is not a static thing, however: it grows and develops as we persevere in the life of Christian discipleship. I think, for that reason, it’s important that we should go on testifying to the power of Christ to save, every day of our lives.

I am spending this advent in reading John’s gospel. It is a slightly unusual choice because, of course, this book doesn’t deal with the birth of Christ; instead, John starts at the real beginning of everything. 

And, fittingly, chapter 1 presents us with the testimony of John the Baptist. He tells who Jesus is, presenting him as the Son of God, and humbling himself as a mere witness to the glory of Christ. John makes himself recede into the background of the story, so that our eyes are not on him, but on the Saviour. On Friday, I attended the funeral of an elderly Christian lady, known for the brightness of her faith. In a lovely and personal service, the minister paid tribute to her, and then added that he was conscious that she herself would not want to be eulogised; but rather prefer that he should spend the time in talking about Jesus.

In that moment, I understood fleetingly what is meant by ‘irresistible grace’. It was hard to believe that anyone listening to this beautiful and moving testimony to faith could harden their hearts against the attraction of Christ. 

And I fell in love with him all over again. 

This is why Christian testimony cannot remain the same: the richness of our relationship with Christ is such that we are discovering new depths to it all the time.

If I had to distil what I’ve learned since writing that first testimony down to two things, I think I would start by saying how practical a thing faith is. It isn’t an idea, a concept, or that most threadbare of things – a comfort blanket. Christianity is a faith to live by, or it is a delusion.

And it is not a delusion because belonging to Christ and following him, however imperfectly, will set you free. I know. Believe me, I know.

The second thing I’ve learned is that no one else has a right to comment on your relationship with God. People will have ‘rules’ they think you should be following, and draw their own conclusions when you don’t measure up. It’s not about them, though. They won’t be there to dry the tears of hurt their thoughtless words provoke . . . but Christ will, always, so fix your eyes on him. Make his the only good opinion you seek and never mind the naysayers.

He is the author and finisher of our faith. Stick with him and he’ll see you through, not merely to the end, but forever.