Fire and Remembrance

Once, when I was about seven or eight years old, I awoke to hear my father telephoning for the fire brigade. A few minutes later, my mother appeared in the bedroom and told me to get up and put my clothes on over my pyjamas. The house opposite was ablaze, it seemed, and people were nervous of flying debris which might set other homes alight. 

For a few minutes it was a great adventure, to be getting out of bed late at night to go and stand in the street. But when I actually saw the house in question, blackened timbers against a terrifying orange blaze, I didn’t feel so secure. 

In fact, it sparked off (pun intended) a lifelong nervousness about fire. Even now, I hesitate to light the wood burner on a windy night. I remember only too well what fire can do when it overpowers.

November begins, of course, with fires to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot. My enjoyment of these as a child was always marred by the recollection of that other inferno I had witnessed. Standing further from the flames than my peers, I winced at every crackle and spit. I could not get far enough away from fireworks when they were being lit, though I still enjoyed their colours against the night sky.

Strange that a tradition which unsettles people and their pets alike, and which has seen its fair share of tragedy, is actually about celebrating safety. We do not light our bonfires in tribute to the traitor, Guy Fawkes, after all, but in thankfulness that the King’s life was not forfeit. 

November is a month associated with remembrance, then, and with fire. Around the coast of Britain, beacons were lit to celebrate the Armistice; many will be lit again this weekend to mark its centenary. These practices echo the customs of our long-dead ancestors, who marked the end of the agrarian year by lighting up the darkness in this way. Knowing that months of winter would follow, they celebrated the harvest’s safe in-gathering by creating warmth and colour. 

For them, fire symbolised much that was good – warmth, light and safety. They used it to encircle their newborn children, and their livestock, and they traced the boundaries of their settlement with fiery torches too, to protect everything that lay within.

Over the years, we have lost this sense of fire as a protective force. It is something which the old adage reminds us is ‘a good servant, but a bad master’, and we have become nervous of its destructive power. Even Christians are inclined to think of it in terms of the everlasting torment of hell awaiting the lost.

In the Bible, however, fire is often indicative of God’s presence. When the children of Israel stepped out into the unknown, He lit up the darkness as a pillar of fire. Moses, of course, had already encountered God in the burning bush, when he had to avert his eyes. This suggests that what he was experiencing was God’s glory, as opposed to a His presence – though the two are hard for this novice to separate.

And then, there are all the instances of God’s wrath being likened to fire – when it burns hot against His enemies, and consumes the faithless. Psalm 89 speaks of this. In other passages fire tests and refined but does not destroy . . . surely all of this testifies to the fact that the Bible DOES contradict itself?

No, it testifies to God’s unchanging nature. He meets those who are His as a loving, glorious God; and He meets His enemies as a judge. In all circumstances, He is a fire – but that fire acts upon Christian and unbeliever very differently.

Britain was tested in the fire of war, and always came through with its faith intact. Services of remembrance have, traditionally, had a strong Christian element – with songs of praise and prayers of thanksgiving forming the central core. Just this weekend, however, I see the usual suspects on social media, trying to make God the culprit for war.

God is not the warmonger; Satan is. He stirs up hatred so that nations think nothing of wilfully taking lives in their hundreds. And he picks his way through the ruins of our lives, blithely walking away from the destruction he has wrought.

Some cling, wisely, to God. They give thanks that He has dealt mercifully with us. Prayers of gratitude and songs of praise go upwards to Him. Even in grief, they see His hand at work.

Still others make the war dead their focus, and berate a God whose existence they deny. They wear the poppy, and bow their heads in silence . . . but it’s an empty sort of remembrance.

We light bonfires on our shorelines to commemorate that our warfare is ended. But if these don’t also kindle an awareness of God’s presence in all our tribulations, what have we learned that’s worth remembering?

 

 

 

 

Coming Home

One of the greatest privileges of writing this blog is the way it has brought me into contact with people who contact me to say it speaks to them, or comforts them, or makes them laugh. Recently, I heard from a man with Point connections (and, despite that, I still got back in touch!) regarding my blog on the ‘Iolaire’ and its place in our heritage.

 As proof of what I was saying about our ancestry, and our connection to the island being an unbreakable chain, a heaving line that brings us home, no matter where we are, I have pleasure in sharing the following with you. It is a story, written by Anna Cumming and published in her school magazine. She was neither born, nor brought up, here in Lewis, yet the ‘Iolaire’ is also part of her identity too. You will agree, I am sure, that what we have here is a fine and sensitive writer – and, hopefully, a future guest blogger as well!

As I fought my way through the bustling crowds in Kyle of Lochalsh, I made my way to the ship that was to take me home  from the War. It had been a long fight, wearisome and brutal. Everyone, from the youngest infant to the oldest man, had  been affected in unspeakable ways. Those who had not lost anyone in this fight were few and far between; over a thousand  men from our island had perished. And for many, the pain of separation from young men going off to fight had been the  hardest sacrifice they could ever have made …

Mother stood in the kitchen, baking oatcakes and humming an old Gaelic folk song as I carried in the fish I’d caught that day while fishing with my best friend Will. Father, I think, was next door with Christine, my younger sister, no doubt planning her upcoming wedding to Murdo.

It was with a heavy heart that I gave mother those fish. Will and I had been discussing the war that day, and in particular the navy. After he had told me of the need for sailors, he had said something that had inspired me. Will wanted to go to war and to fight for his country. I admired him for his bravery. I relished the idea of adventure. And so I had signed up in the town. But how could I tell father? Christine? And how on earth could I break my mother’s heart?

I still remember the look on her face when I told her. All the colour drained from her cheeks, and she stared at me in shock. And then she did something which took more bravery than anything I have ever seen. She smiled. Told me she was proud. Said she loved me.

And that is what kept me going through four years of pain and terror. It was for my mother, the most valiant, strong woman I have ever known. I wrote to her every week from wherever we were, to reassure her. Sometimes, Christine wrote to me about Murdo, who was now her husband, and Mary. Mary was her little two-year-old girl, who had been born to them on my thirty-third birthday. That was the best birthday present of my life, a niece. And I had never seen her.

But the war was over now; I was coming home. It was all going to be so much better. Will and I had written to our families, telling them to be at the docks early in the morning. It was going to be wonderful! And I knew a secret – Will was going to  propose marriage to his girlfriend, Catherine. She would get such a shock!

Sitting in a tight corner on the ship, I watched the stars with Will. He loved the stars. It had become a routine to look up at them whenever the night was clear, and imagine that our families were watching too. I think Will mainly thought of Catherine when he looked at them, but mother was the person in my heart. If I knew her, she’d be turning the house topsy-turvy, preparing for our return. I could already imagine her face when our boat came in. Her joy would be unbounded.

Glancing up as I came out of my reverie, I saw that the stars had disappeared behind a dark cloud, which was covering them like a shroud. I could barely even see my own hands.

“Lights! I can see the lights!” laughed someone, and as I looked out towards Stornoway, I laughed too. All of the coast was lit up with hundreds of twinkling lights, sending out beams as if to cheer us on our way. We were coming home, and it felt amazing.

An uneasy whisper started in the bow of the ship; the Arnish lighthouse was strangely out of place. Will glanced at me, brows furrowed.

“That’s not …”

CRUNCH! What was that? We crashed to a halt, lurching forward on top of one another. A sense of foreboding swept over me, until it engulfed me utterly. I was frightened, frightened in a way that no gun or torpedo had ever made me feel.

A few men yelled, but most managed to stay calm. Will bit his lip, drawing blood, before turning to me, his eyes gleaming in the darkness.

“Roddy, I’m going to go and get the lifebelts and give them out to those who can’t swim. This doesn’t feel good, and –”

As he spoke, there was another lurch. Suddenly, I realised that my worries were about to be realised. Will leapt up and grabbed some lifebelts, giving them out to those who couldn’t swim. Angus, Donnie, Alex, Norman … the list went on and on. I helped him, determined to be as brave as he was, and to do my part. I wasn’t the only one

John, another good friend and stalwart companion, had grabbed a rope and tied it firmly around both his waist and the mast. Nodding briskly at me, he dived into the wintery ocean. I couldn’t see him after that. It was pitch black, except for

the faint, flickering light from the lantern hung from the mast. All I was aware of was the motion of reaching for a lifebelt and giving it out, reaching for a lifebelt and – nothing. We were out of lifebelts. Some men were jumping overboard in an attempt to swim to shore; one began climbing the mast for refuge.

Just then, someone let out a cry: “The rope! It’s tightened! John has made it!”

The now taut rope was evidently secured to something on the rocky shore. Just as I took my place in an orderly queue, I felt a tug at my arm. It was Will. I have never seen a man look as courageous in the face of danger as Will looked that night, his hair wild, his eyes sparkling with a determined fire.

“Roddy! I’m going to swim to shore. No, don’t you dare try and come with me, you know that you can’t swim well.”

I tried to protest, but he held his hand up to silence me.

“Now, now, Roddy. I will swim alone, for that rope is needed for those who cannot swim, and I’ve a greater chance than most. You get on that rope and keep safe. I promise you I’ll be alright!”

I don’t know why I trusted him, I really don’t. Most probably, it was because Will had never broken his word before. Anyway, I obeyed him. As he dived overboard, I gripped the rope and took a deep breath before leaping off the tilting deck.

That passage in the darkness, being tossed by the rolling waves was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done. As the sea crashed against me, dousing me repeatedly with foam and spray, I could hear the shouts of the other men. When I reached the end of the rope, it was all I could do to crawl up on to the shore, safe.

The sun shone in through the window as I blearily opened my eyes. It was bright, and yet there was a coldness in its gleam, as if even the sun could not laugh. As my mind pulled itself together, I shook my head. Where was I?

“Roddy! Oh thank goodness!” cried someone, and I was pulled into a warm hug. From the warmth and scent of fresh bread, I recognised my mother, and nestled into her arms, finding comfort amidst distress. After a moment of this, I released myself. Around my bed were clustered Murdo, Christine, father and a little girl who must be my niece Mary. And then I saw Catherine. She was crying.

“Catherine …” I said, fear stabbing my heart, “Catherine, where’s Will? Catherine!”

“Oh Roddy,” she said, “He’s … gone.”

Mother wept, “And not just him, either. Around two-hundred lost their lives last night. They – they swam the wrong way. Out to sea. Their bodies started washing up on the beaches this morning.”

That was the moment when my heart broke.

Years later, and I stand gazing up at the stars, thinking of Will. How he risked all to give others a fighting chance of survival. His dreams, of children and a home of his own with Catherine. All his goals and ambitions, wasted so young. I sighed. Will really wasn’t coming home.

 

 

 

The Port We Long to See

This week, since donning my own ‘Iolaire’ pin, I have noticed them on other lapels also. Like the poppies which we are so used to seeing annually, they are a silent, unifying act of remembrance. To wear one, I think, says something about how much this place and these people mean. For me, the men who were lost on that night, and those whose lives were changed forever, are still part of the chain to which we belong. That lovely custom of patronymics – bearing not only your own name, but that of your father, and grandfather before him – has kept us linked to one another across years, across great distances, and even on either side of death.

It will soon be one hundred years since that night which entered the Lewis psyche, arguably never to leave. I am a believer in Carl Jung’s collective unconscious: that there are areas of the subconscious mind which are motivated by experiences we did not personally have, but which are inherited from our ancestors. Because I believe also in original sin, this makes perfect sense to me. Add to that the strength of what we now call community in this island, and it is small wonder that wounds inflicted a century ago have not quite healed.

And, of course, our own particular experience may add a poignancy even to something so far in the past. When I was younger, I could listen to Murdo MacFarlane’s ‘Raoir reubadh an Iolaire’ with relative equanimity. Now, I find his description of the woman’s dawning grief virtually unbearable:

Sguir i dhol chun an dorais

‘S air an teine chuir mòine

She ceased going to the doorway

Or putting peat on the fire’

I had so many years of waiting for my husband to come home that, even now, three and a half years after his death, on some level I think I am still waiting. Nonetheless, I know what it is to feel your hope dying, and for loss to move from being an abstract thing that happens to others, to being a reality from which no earthly power can liberate you. For me, it didn’t happen when I was told he would die within a matter of days; it happened when they removed the PICC line, which had delivered the hope-giving chemotherapy into his arm. It was symbolic of the death we were now all having to accept. There would be no more going to look hopefully out the door for me either.

 But, just as light drives out darkness, life overcomes death. You must go on, and the providences which God gives will shape your dealing with others, as well as your understanding of self.

And, as it is with individuals, so it is – I believe – with community.

The Lewis that awoke from the last year of war into a January filled with nothing but grief must have faltered at first. There must have been, as there is for every one of us who has lost a loved one, the thought that recovery from this would be impossible. And there were difficult times to follow; not least the years of emigration because, much as people wanted to cling to their home island, it could no longer support them all. As Donald MacIver put it, in these lines from the beautiful ‘An Ataireachd Àrd’:

S na coilltean a siar chan iarrainn fuireach gu bràth;
Bha m’inntinn ’s mo mhiann a-riamh air lagan a’ bhàigh;
Ach iadsan bha fial an gnìomh, an caidreabh ’s an àgh,
Air sgapadh gun dìon mar thriallas ealtainn ro nàmh.

In the woods of the west I would not wish to remain;

My mind and desire were always on the hollow by the bay;

But those who were generous in deed, in fellowship and joy,

Are scattered defenceless like a flock of birds before its enemy’.

 Scattered: by war, by the Atlantic, by death. And yet, still those names belonged in the patronymic chain. It may have been strained by absence, and by distance but, like the heaving rope which brought so many men alive from the Beasts of Holm, that chain held fast.

 And it holds fast even now. We don’t wear these badges to mark a distant and remote event, but a personal grief which has permeated life in Lewis and Harris since the turn of 1918. I like to think that it has shaped this community, made it finer and stronger, and knit it closer together. Even though we will have times of drifting apart, and of falling out, remembering is an act which will always unify us.

The sinking of the ‘Iolaire’ ended 205 lives, and blighted many more. This was part of the same providence which the Stornoway motto claims as our inheritance. I have often heard expressions of surprise that such a bitter experience did not turn the survivors against God. That incredulity comes from the same place that caused someone to ask me whether I had been angry with Him for taking Donnie. 

Job’s answer ‘Shall we receive good from God, and not receive evil?’ is the right one here. Like Job, and like the psalmist – over and over – we have to take providence and let it do its work. Those more challenging aspects are not something we recover from, but something which becomes part of our identity. 

To commemorate this centenary is only partly about those who were lost, although of course that’s significant too. We have, also, to be thankful for the fact that God was faithful to this community: a constant in the years of turmoil. Many gave their sons, and who understands that sorrow better than Him? 

The poppy, a symbol of violent death, is paired with the bell, a symbol of holy power on the lapels of islanders this year. May they be tokens to us all of the One who perfectly unites both, and sees all His people safely to the shore.

 

Give Your Heart a Home

As I sat at my kitchen table, typing up Sunday evening’s sermon, I came across something in my notes which has caused me a lot of reflection. The minister had said – as ministers often will – that the
unsaved should not listen to the restraining voice which prevents them
from closing in with Christ. He pointed out that their fear is misplaced, because there is no better place to be in the whole world.

And he is, of course, absolutely right.

At the same time, however, God is not coming into your heart to pat and soothe you, or to affirm that you are essentially a good person. Quite the opposite, in fact. Just like Legion, in the same sermon, I
am commanded to tell what the Lord has done for me and, truthfully, I have to say that He has driven a coach and horses through my life.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I use that term with complete reverence and no little awe at His ability to turn everything on its head, and yet leave the person at the centre of the storm feeling more
secure than she ever has before.  That is the truth of it.

In CS Lewis’ famous Narnia series, one of the children asks about Aslan, the lion, ‘is he safe?’ The answer comes in the negative – ‘Course he isn’t safe, but he IS good’. That is a perfect description
of how I have experienced God’s providence. He has done things in my
life that I would certainly not have chosen for myself, but He does it as a loving Father, who knows my end from my beginning. What hurts me momentarily benefits me eternally; I trust this because I trust Him.

Had He been safe, I could have relied upon Him to leave me in my comfortable sin – but what kind of God would that make Him?

I am not referring here just to the loss of my husband. That was God’s providence and the death of a spouse will affect believer and unbeliever alike. But, when you have the immeasurable advantage of
knowing Christ, it’s different. There is still the pain of being parted, but there is also the sweetness of His comfort. If you let
Him, God will do more than make grief bearable; He will make it beautiful.

He has turned my life upside-down in other ways, however. When you cease to be wise in your own sight, everything comes to be thrown into sharp relief by the light of God’s wisdom. Like most dimwits on entering the Christian life, I thought that there were aspects of mine
which I could keep, untouched and unaffected by Him.

I was wrong. That is how the world sees Christianity – a philosophy, or even just a lifestyle that we choose and can adapt to our own preferences and predilections.  But it is not a lifestyle choice: it is, quite literally, a life for a life. Christ laid down His for me, and I am asked to give Him all of mine in return.

One of the sharpest difficulties has been my political beliefs. I have been a nationalist since I could pronounce the word, and I remain such. However, I cannot support many of the policies being promoted by the SNP because they go against what my conscience tells me. When your guiding principle is the Bible, there can be no compromise on what is
right, or what is moral, whatever the cost.

Being a Christian has lost me friendships – unbelieving friends who turned out not to be tolerant after all.  Part of the discipline you learn, of course, is when to stop trying. I realised that, with some,
talking of the Gospel only provides an opportunity for them to spit on it. There is most certainly a time to be silent.

However, I would not want anyone to form the impression that giving your life to Christ is all about the things He removes. Like a skilled surgeon, He cuts away the dead tissue so that what is new and healthy might flourish. And He has filled my new life with blessing, much of
which He delivers through other people.

I am privileged to be able to witness for Him through my blog and online. This has led to difficult conversations, and to public ignominy – but, more importantly and enduringly, to a world of wonderful experiences and precious friendships.  For every slur on my name for His sake, He brings me the prayers and fellowship of His people, the surrounding love of His church, and the confidence that comes from leaning on Him alone.

He has taken me down paths to serve Him that I would not have trodden of my own volition. Not a natural public speaker, and certainly not a courageous defender of anything, He fills my mouth with His words when I need them. We are not required to possess the heart of a lion,
because He does, and He lends His strength to any who ask it for His sake.

Earlier this week, I spent the evening in the company of new friends. They had known my husband before I did and I was very moved to learn of his interest in the things of God all those years ago.  We listened to a song that they had played, and which made a powerful impression
upon him – ‘Give Your Heart a Home’ – addressed by Christ to an unbeliever:
‘If you’re tired and weary
weak and heavy-laden
I can understand how
It feels to be alone
I will take your burden
If you’ll let me love you
Wrap my arms around you,
Give your heart a home’.

Christ is not safe; He won’t leave you as you are. He has turned my life into something the me of three years ago would scarcely believe. But He is good – and though He has taken me along unexpected and challenging paths, I can say with all my heart that I regret nothing
because He is with me.

And He will do as much for any heart that finds its home in Him.

Were there no men?

One hears that drugs are more readily available than ever, but to be offered them at a Free Church event was, frankly, rather shocking. I was speaking at the Women for Mission away day in Inverness last weekend and mentioned that I had a mild headache to the young woman sitting next to me at lunch. In a trice, she’d spoken to one of her contacts, and I was passed a foil strip, containing two ibuprofen. If we WILL encourage them among us, I suppose it’s inevitable that they will bring aspects of their youth culture into the church.

That headache notwithstanding, I had a glorious trip.

I flew out on Friday evening, and spent the night in a rather luxurious bedroom at the Drumossie. ‘It’ll be like a wee holiday’, my mother said, and she wasn’t wrong. Fluffy robe, fabulous shower, cheeky Laphroaig . . . A wee glance at my notes after dinner, and a deep sleep in the middle of a tennis-court-sized bed. It has been a pretty exhausting few months between one thing and another, and this was a gift from God: a brief oasis to recharge my mental and physical batteries.

But the spiritual battery, well, that got the best treatment of all. What an absolute privilege it was to be among two hundred of the Free Church’s finest oppressed, and to get a palpable sense of God’s love in these women.

Some particular encounters stand out for me. First of all, there was Megan Patterson, the other speaker. Aside from the fact that it is immediately obvious she is a very special person, her address left me completely humbled – something which did me absolutely no harm at all on that particular day. Whatever struggles I may think I have had, hearing someone with her missional experience always puts my own ministry in perspective as the small thing it is.

And then there were the three amazing women who spoke on behalf of Bear Necessities. What warmth, what humour, what simple goodness. They are the very essence of Christian service, and radiated the kind of love that makes me want to be a better person.

I met two women who are also widows, like myself – only, not at all like me. They are the kind of people whose faith shines out of them and you know, the minute you meet them, who guides their life. We discussed what it is to be a widow in a church setting, and whether there is something we could do collectively for those that are. Losing the person you had hoped to spend your whole life with has a particular effect, I have found, on your ability to cope with certain challenges. It may indeed be of benefit to find others who are on that same journey.

It was a particular gift to me, as well, to finally meet a lady from Tolsta who was able to speak to me about Donnie. In fact, she unexpectedly reduced me to tears – not in the usual way that Tolstonians have, but because she spoke so warmly of him that he actually became real again. She worried that perhaps she shouldn’t have mentioned him just prior to my second talk (yes, they had to endure me twice) but, actually, it gave me something in the day that was uniquely my own. Life has changed in the three years since his death, so that I sometimes feel I don’t know this woman who writes and speaks, and generally bombards innocent bystanders with her opinion. But, in that moment, I was anchored back to someone very special, someone who also used to make me want to be better than I am.

The outgoing chairperson, Rona Matheson is another of those people that you feel you’ve always known. She had, like myself, blown in from the Hebrides, after a whistle-stop tour, speaking about her work with Blythswood. And she shared something from one of her island experiences. She was interviewed for Isles FM’s ‘GLOW’ programme, by its . . . well, let’s call him ‘laid-back’ host, for I feel ‘cognitively-challenged’ would be going a little too far. In true depressive Leòdhasach style, he had asked whether the comparative emptiness of our churches made her downcast. Her answer is a reminder to us all about perspective, and how it can make or break a situation. Rona said that we are always better being thankful for what we do have, than bemoaning what we do not.

What good advice. But how inclined we are to sit down, weeping, as we remember our own particular Zion.

I had spoken about the attention we must pay to our own hearts, that they would be ever-prayerful, attuned always to God. Proverbs 4: 23 reminds us to guard our hearts, because it is from them that all we do will flow. In fact, I think that true prayer, like water, is purest at its source – and the wellspring of our truest prayer is always our heart, not our lips.

A day like last Saturday is so helpful. I was beginning to feel the weariness of a too-busy life. Repeatedly, I have promised myself – and others – that I would take a weekend to go and chill out somewhere. Of course, it hasn’t happened. So, God gave me this particular blessing. Every obstacle was smoothed over, and I arrived back in Stornoway into the darkness and rain, renewed and refreshed.

And even my mother didn’t ask ‘were there no men?’

 

 

 

Life Goes On (and On)

A good friend told me a story about a lady who, some years ago now, was renowned for her tour of the communion circuit. She was something of a legend in her own lifetime and, when she passed away, a neighbour asked her husband what he was going to do now. He replied, ‘keep her in the house for a few days – something I never ever managed before’!

Women who are rarely at home are the stuff of Lewis humour. ‘Falbh nan sìtigean’, ‘rèibheireachd’ and ‘sràbhaicearachd’  have all been used as slightly judgemental ways of  referring to these shameless hussies who will not settle to the domestic life.

I have become one such. In a short space of time, I have been transformed from a  woman who rarely left her own fireside, to one who hardly gets to see it at all. Before I was widowed, I spent a lot of time in my own company, which I didn’t dislike. Donnie, before falling ill, worked all week at Dounreay. He would phone at the back of seven in the morning, and at teatime, and again at bedtime. It took me many, many months not to feel anxious away from a phone at ten in the evening; and I have only now stopped taking my morning shower with the bathroom door open, so that I could hear if he rang.

Life revolved around him, around us and around our home. I was content to ‘potter’.

So, when he had gone, I suppose I worried that time would sit heavy on my hands. At first, it didn’t matter, because other people filled the hours, or I walked the dog, or watched television, or worked in the garden. During that initial raw stage, I kept myself safe, and didn’t stray too far from home. I did a little redecorating, planted flowers, and slept soundly at night.

Through those months, I was sustained by my new-found assurance. Nothing was too big, or too terrible to bear because all my trust was not in a fragile human being who could leave me at any moment, but in Christ, who never will.

It was, of course, a sad time. All my routines, all my touchstones, all my plans . . . these made little sense any more in this strange, new world. But, when I look back on it now, I also see that it was a precious time.

I am reminded of the life of Elijah. In case any elders/ministers/outraged cailleachs are reading this, I am not comparing myself to the prophet. Well, alright, maybe just a little.

When this tower of strength and obedient zeal for the Lord was frightened, he took to his heels. And an angel of God ministered to him, persuading him to rest. This lovely interlude in the account of Elijah’s life reminds us of the need to conserve energy, and to draw back from the fray when it becomes too much.

My life has changed radically since those first months when I was ministered to tenderly by God. He gave me that time, I believe, as a gift, to prepare me for everything that would follow. I don’t suppose it ever entered my head as the first gaping wound slowly healed, that I would eventually regard that time in my life as an oasis. But it was.

Now, three years on, I have what Lady Bracknell would disparagingly call ‘a life crowded with incident’. I am rarely to be found in the house at a sensible hour, and hardly a day goes by without some sort of extra commitment – or even two or three. I have had to start operating a ‘system’ to keep abreast of where I am meant to be.

None of this is helped by the fact that home is a twenty-minute drive away from work, church and the various other places I now spend my time. Last week, I had a post-work meeting every single day. The previous week was about the same.

And, I hit a wall of tiredness and discouragement. So, I did exactly as Elijah did. Oh, you’re thinking, how very wise Catriona is. Follow the prophet’s example and you can’t go wrong.

How did he end up being ministered to by the angel, though? He took to his heels in fear and he ran – not to the Lord, but to find shelter for himself. That’s the behaviour I replicated: Elijah ran for the shelter of a broom tree; I took myself away from church and the fellowship of God’s people. I skipped a Sunday evening service because I was tired, and then a midweek prayer meeting. And, while I’m in confessional mode, I may as well say that my private worship was not all it should be either.

Thankfully, this weekend was an ‘in-house’ communion. There is a quietness and a peace about it, which encourages a spirit of restfulness. We heard about the strength and power in the Lord’s hands, but also the tenderness – and the knowledge that before His hands were extended towards me, they were first outstretched on the cross.

How did I ever allow myself to forget, in the midst of all the bustle of life, that my best shelter is there, under their protection?

 

 

 

Time On My Hands

Last week, I was looking for something else entirely, when I came across my husband’s pocket watch. It was nestling in its box, in the top drawer of what I still think of as his bedside table. He was, as I am, a great fan of timepieces. After he died, I gave both his brothers wristwatches that he had worn and cherished – but this remained where his own hand had last placed it.

He used to joke about my obsession with clocks, especially when March or October rolled around, and their hands had to be moved in the requisite direction. Sometimes he would jokingly suggest starting on them a week before.

I counted them today – not including the cooker, or other electronic timers, there are eleven clocks in my house. The sitting room is home to both a grandfather and a mantle clock, with a resonant tick-tock, and lovely Westminster chimes.

I also have numerous watches, but far and away the most precious is the one I wear most days. It is Swiss with a mechanical movement, bought by Donnie for me when we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary in Barcelona. It was two months before he was diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life.

I can sit here and look at the present  he gave me, and remember how it was before we knew that time would end for us. It is almost like having the ability to go backwards through the years. This object seems to connect me, not just to Donnie, but to that last perfect holiday.

Because it’s mechanical, like the pocket watch, it stops when it has been off my wrist for a while. When the nurse handed me Donnie’s wedding ring, I felt like that too: everything seemed to grind to a halt.

Time became my enemy. It had ticked relentlessly away towards 7pm on Friday, 20th March, 2015. One minute, he was still alive, and the next, he was not. One minute, I was holding my husband’s hand, and then elders from the church were shaking mine, newly-widowed and bewildered.

How many years might I have to get through without him? How soon could I reasonably hope to die? Those were my very real thoughts.

But I didn’t stop. My cogs and gears kept moving, and time carried me along with it. It still does.

Even now, I have probably got too many timepieces, and a certain tendency to anxiety if late for anything. But, in every real sense, time has lost its hold over me.

Just one glimpse of the eternal will do that.

I don’t pretend to have had a vision of the celestial city, although, for a while, the idea of heaven possessed me. Once, at a house fellowship, someone casually mentioned having read a book about heaven. At the first opportunity, I bought a copy and read it in two sittings.

Christians can’t help but be curious about this home that they have never seen. It is a frequent, speculative topic of conversation. But I have lost any appetite that I may once have had for reading books about it. None of us can possibly imagine what it will be like. If God is too perfect to behold our sin, then it follows that we are too sinful to conceive of His perfection. Never mind that we cannot grasp what eternity actually is, with our finite minds – we cannot imagine heaven with our sinful hearts.

Of course, as a Christian, I associate the word ‘eternal’ with its companion, the word, ‘life’. And whatever my tiny, science-avoiding brain cannot comprehend, my heart tells me this for certain: eternal life begins, not after death, but the moment you accept your Saviour. That’s when time loses its grip on you, and concedes to its Master.

And it’s why, whatever I felt on losing Donnie, time did not win. Nor did it stop. For him, it gave way to eternity.

Receiving his wedding ring back after he died, I see now, was so appropriate. The circular band is a symbol of eternity, without beginning or end. Beautiful as that seemed on our wedding day, it actually achieved its full resonance the evening he went home. I keep it now as a reminder, not of our promises to one another, but of God’s promise to us both.

And the pocket watch I kept because it was lovely, and it was his, no longer carries the same meaning. Because it only moves when it’s worn. I don’t want it lying in a drawer like some morbid memorial to Donnie – as if, like grief first made me fear, time stops with death.

I know that isn’t true. Time goes on for me. Now, my wee mechanical wristwatch has ticked me three years forward from the night I last held Donnie’s hand. But when it finally stops for good, and is laid aside in its box, I know with certainty that eternity beckons.

And although I don’t know what that will be like, this I do know: God is there.

If only our obsession with time would be replaced by a real concern about eternity – it should never take a stopped watch, or a wedding ring without an owner to lift our eyes to that horizon.

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Younger Me

In the last blog, I mentioned in passing my ongoing education in spiritual music. Although it was certainly a revelation to be told last weekend that there is no scriptural reason why I might not precent in church, there remain several very good musical (and, indeed, social) reasons why this would not work. I am in this, as in everything else, a follower and not a leader.

Of course, I was brought up in a tradition of singing Psalms. I love them for their sustaining wisdom, for their ability to speak to me in all circumstances. They have the power to heal and, just sometimes, the power to wound. If I am feeling vulnerable, Psalm 100 can tip me over into lip-trembling wobbliness, simply because it was sung at our wedding and . . . well, I’m only human.

There is, however, more to spiritual music than psalms. I have, by virtue of living in the world and having a mother who grew up in the Church of Scotland, some idea of popular hymns. Once, as a child, I surprised my mother by quoting ‘Blessed Assurance’, probably to help me win an argument.

A couple of years ago, I went to a women’s conference where, on the programme, the – to me – mysterious word ‘praise’ was printed at various intervals. I glanced about me, mildly nonplussed as to who would precent in a room full of dames.

Imagine, then, my surprise at what ensued. Musical accompaniment, and something calling itself ’10, 000 Reasons’. Not a clue. I scanned the song selection. Nope, nothing familiar here. A Christian gathering consisting only of women and no psalms, with added music.  To say that I had been catapulted out of my comfort zone would not be an exaggeration.

The women thing, I realised, was just a blip. Once the Session got to hear about it, I was certain that those responsible would be punished and normal services would resume. But, my eyes – and ears – were opened to the possibility that there was another kind of music out there; that there were ways of singing your faith that didn’t have to be metrical.

My exploration of the possibilities turned up a few singers that I could get along with. There is, after all, absolutely no excuse for bad Christian music. Who has got more reason to sing than us? Like the hymn says, ‘I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free’.

Yes, I’m still quoting hymns. Old habits die hard. But I am also having my musical horizons broadened.

A friend supplies me with seemingly random links to songs he likes, sometimes when I least expect. During a recent public trial by secularist hate mob, he sent Matthew West’s ‘Grace Wins’ – ‘Take a breath smile and say: Right here right now I’m ok because the cross was enough’.

The best songs will do that, just like the word in season, the shared reading: God speaks through it, reminding you who He is and that nothing will overwhelm the person who puts their whole life in His hands.

But then there was the intriguingly-titled, ‘Dear Younger Me’. This is something different because it explores what we might say if we could go back and speak to a younger version of ourselves. The dilemma, of course, is whether you would warn the young you about the pitfalls that lie ahead; whether you would try to head yourself away from dangers and bad experiences. Would you not try to spare yourself pain?

Perhaps there was a time when I would have answered that question very quickly in the affirmative. Why would you not want to spare yourself suffering? It is, after all, how we are expected to behave towards others; why would we not want to do ourselves the same kindness?

Is it a kindness, though? Yes, if you look on that span of life between cradle and grave as what concerns us most. But for the Christian, that can never be the case. The journey we are on here is towards a destination in heaven, yet we are not simply plodding, there, head down; we are being equipped for it as we go.

Not a day passes without me thinking of my late husband, and missing him in countless ways. This time of year, though, I think of how hard it was to fear losing him, to be told I would lose him, and to watch him die. And how much easier it was to know he had gone, and to Whom he had gone.

That is the difference, I think, between wanting to spare yourself burdens, and knowing what pain and loss and thoroughly unwanted providence can do for you in the longer-run.

The song says, ‘every moment brings you closer to who you were meant to be’. I know that if I could go back to Christmas 2000, to that person I used to be, I would not say, ‘See the man you met the other night, maybe don’t meet him for that drink. It doesn’t end well’.

In fact, if I was forced to meet her, 25 year-old Catriona, I would tell her two things you will also find in the song. First, I would tell her that life will bring sadness and joy, but that the deeper peace in her soul has nothing to do with either of those; and then I would tell her that whatever challenges come, she was never meant to carry them beyond the cross.

And if she asked me about the man she had just met. I would smile, and nod, and she would do it all exactly like I already have.

Other Christians I know, too, are a bit battle-scarred, and wondering the same sort of thing – trying to make sense of what they have gone through. If I had the courage, I would tell them the precious truth I have learned:

The roadmap may be hidden from my sight, but it’s hidden in God’s hand. He’s got this, dear younger me. And I would not have Him change a thing.

 

 

 

 

Outwards and Upwards

My late husband used to carry a photo in his wallet – just one, mind you. It wasn’t a picture of me, however, but of another young lady entirely, one he loved with his whole heart.

She is his niece, Joanne – beautiful to look at, and one of the most consistently happy people that I have ever known. To hear Joanne laugh is to have your day brightened unexpectedly.

She was born very early and, as a consequence, has faced many challenges in life – her vision and hearing are both limited; she cannot walk or speak; she is fed via a peg in her stomach. Joanne has spent a lot of her life in and out of hospitals, and she has been a worry to her family and friends on many an occasion. This week alone, she has been staying in hospital suffering from – amongst other complications – pneumonia.

Her parents are an inspiration. Not because they are remarkable in any way that is outwardly obvious, but because of their commitment to her. They would not want to be portrayed as heroic because they are not: they are simply loving their daughter; it just happens that loving Joanne requires more practical application than it might if she did not have so many health problems. The crucial thing is that Joanne has problems; she is not, herself, a problem; she is a blessing from God.

Those who are unbelievers struggle with the idea of children suffering under the eye of a benevolent and loving God. I understand their confusion; we think that if God loves, then He will not permit it.
But, the evidence of our own experience teaches us that this is not so. There is suffering. Many of God’s own people go through unimaginable hardships.

So did God Himself, though.

He knows what it is better than any of us, and so He does not shrug His shoulders and walk away from the person who is afflicted – God is NOT watching us from a distance. Scripture even tells us that He hovers over us like a broody hen.

Donnie once asked me why I thought Joanne had to bear so much in her young life if there really is a loving God. I don’t know what I said at the time – my answer would have been wholly inadequate anyway.
He had the most compassionate heart of any person I have ever known – Donnie came closer than anyone to actually being able to feel other people’s suffering. There were many occasions when I told him that his conscience was far too active, and that he could not take on the problems of the whole world. His reaction to every crisis was automatically, ‘what can I do in this?’ It took me sometimes to point out that not everything was his responsibility.

His mother, by the time I first met her, was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. Donnie’s patience and care of her spoke volumes about the kind of person he was.

One Christmas, after washing up the dinner dishes, we went for a short walk in the early evening, leaving her at home for just half an hour. When we came back, she had emptied the cupboards of every single item of crockery. In a worried voice, her big, dark eyes full of concern, she told us, ‘There’s a child missing, and everyone is out looking. I’m making tea for them’.

And it’s actually now, writing this, that I realise who he took his enormous empathy from.

Finally, it was his own turn to suffer. It is one thing for your heart to be exercised for others in their hardships, but the way you conduct yourself in the midst of personal pain surely speaks volumes about who you are. He never wavered. I didn’t expect that he would.

It is a measure of him that he had far more pity for Joanne, and for his mother, than he ever had for himself. He did not ask ‘why me?’ Not once. In fact, I have often recalled how, many years before, when his friend was terminally ill with cancer, Donnie said to me, ‘imagine if that was one of us, how the other would feel’. His attitude was always , ‘why not me?’

I believe he knew how to conduct himself in the midst of his own suffering because he had gone through it with and for others so many times. He suffered less for himself than he had for those around him. Even the last few entries in his diary are full of compassion for me, not pity for himself.

I understand that aspect of his character better now through closer acquaintance with our Saviour. Sometimes, Christians believe that they are entering the ‘fellowship of His suffering’ by enduring hardships in this world, but I can’t think that this is what Paul meant at all. God does not ask us to suffer in order to enter His fellowship – we identify with Him in His suffering for us.

As ever, it requires nothing from us but our faith.

What our own trials will do, if we allow them, is bring us closer to Him. Like a hurt child, we hold our arms up to the Father who knows how to comfort. It is, in every sense, an inside job for Him: He has been there Himself, and He heals the bruises that the rest of the world simply cannot see.

On February 22nd, 2015, a month before he would pass peacefully from this world, Donnie wrote in his diary of his love and concern for me, and of his gratitude to, and trust in, God.

I thought then that it was a good way to die. But, as I have since learned in facing this journey without my husband, it is also a very good way to live.

Look outwards at others, and upwards to Himself, and your own pain can never overwhelm.

Coming Out of the Wilderness

Among the many things we don’t do in the Free Church – joy, love, peace, freedom, feminism – apparently we are not much into marking Easter either. So I’m told.

We don’t festoon the church with fluffy chicks, or put bunny ears on the elders; and we don’t exit the church en masse to roll eggs down the staran after the Easter Sunday service. The Wee Frees, you would think, are the ideal denomination for an Easter bonnet competition but, well, they’d all look sort of the same, wouldn’t they – black and devoid of fol-de-rols?

Of course, we do mark Easter, in the sense that we have hung onto the heart of it. Next weekend, in Stornoway, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper – it is a sacrament, dispensed for remembrance of His death, and so that those who believe in Him will meditate upon the benefits they have derived from His sacrifice and, based on that, reaffirm their commitment to Him and the debt they owe.

When, at the beginning of the Supper, the presiding minister utters the words, ‘On the night that He was betrayed . . .’ I shiver. Nowhere else, in no other context could these words be both an accusation of guilt and a proclamation of freedom to the same person. But because Christ died and rose again for us, for the unworthy, we feel both the guilt of His crucifixion, and the freedom in His resurrection.

In other faith traditions, the period of Lent – beginning on February 14th this year, and ending on March 29th – will be observed. My first encounter with it was in school when a classmate from Barra was eating blocks of jelly during our morning interval. I asked her why and she told me that she had given up sweets for Lent. Being teenagers, none of us had much idea of what self-sacrifice was, and the jelly was a good substitute for her, while she technically kept her Lenten vow.

But I’m more than twenty years older now and I still have the same problem with dying to self that my jelly-eating school friend did. As a Christian, I should be working harder to subdue the inner voice that shouts, ‘what about me?’

Recently, I have been subject to some criticism for my beliefs. My last blog touched something of a nerve and the unbelieving community in Lewis, alongside a few professing adherents, were outraged by what I said. Well, no, sorry, let me rephrase that. They were outraged by what I am; no one actually critiqued the writing, unless you consider words like ‘disgusting’ and ‘rude’ a critique (I don’t).

The slurs are mainly inaccurate, but I am not going to bore you with that here. One very kind Christian lady whom I have not yet met, messaged me to point out that people who resort to personal attack when they have never met you, are merely highlighting the fact that they are spiritually bereft. Comments on my personality, lack of Christlikeness (how true), lack of manners . . . well, they are meaningless when they come from strangers.

Some of the arrows hit home, however, as they will do. This is a vulnerable time of year for me. I don’t say that to garner sympathy, nor to claim that I am a victim – I am not and never have been that. But I do make myself suffer. For a little while, I dwelt on the fact that there was no Donnie to make it better; I wallowed in self-pity and the memories of three years ago, when our time was running out. When the going gets tough, I often retreat into that kind of self-harm, picking at the wound, and making everything seem much blacker.

This is Lent. And Donnie’s last weeks were Lent. It is representative of forty days spent by Christ in the wilderness, preparing for ministry and resisting the Devil.

I decided last Saturday that I was going to stop blogging. Or, at least, that I was going to stop commenting on the activities of unbelievers in my own immediate vicinity. When you are alone, and feeling sorry for yourself, you can easily believe the liars. They themselves are speaking, of course, for the great liar. He seems to be fond of hanging about the wilderness.

But I don’t choose to linger there with him; and I am not alone. If the Lord doesn’t come Himself, He sends His people with encouragement and prayer. And His own Word, so full of peace and strengthening – Psalm 31, Isaiah 43 . . . and my own mantra, if a Wee Free can be allowed such a thing: ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid’?

Lent for many who observe it is a pilgrimage. It should bring us, finally, to the very foot of the cross. My journey, three years ago, brought me to rest there, in Him.

On Sunday night, I was powerfully reminded of that once more. Tempted though I had been to find a solution in myself to this latest problem, the preaching reminded me that challenging situations should not be met by doing, but by being.

Your identity, once found in Christ, remains there. He keeps you safe in His hand. Gradually, He takes you, leaning upon Himself, up out of the wilderness. If I am tempted again by the Devil to take refuge in the past, to dwell on my loss and my human frailty; or if I am slandered and inclined to be affronted, I should remember what follows Lent.

At the foot of the cross, and again at the empty tomb, we remember who He is, and who He has made us. No person, no words, no circumstance can ever undo the finished work of Christ.