Churches, caravans and being apart

It is not untypical of either Lewis or social media that the weekend just past fairly bubbled with two controversies: the persistent influx of visitors to the islands, and the failure of some churches to heed government guidance on social distancing. These, of course, are not two issues, but one. The reason for both is simply that we have been spoilt, we have been used to everything turning out okay without much inconvenience to ourselves.

We humans, on some deep level, believe ourselves to be invincible. Bad things happen to others, not us.

A generation untouched by war or privation of any kind, we have grown hard-hearted. Oh, yes, we speak of social justice and helping the poor; we appease our own consciences with donations and sponsorships – but it is, too often, a cold charity. All this time we have been thinking our duty dispensed with a standing order here, and a retiring collection there.

Witness, though, how we conducted ourselves in the early days of impending crisis. A mad dash for food and soap, for toilet paper and anti-bacterial spray. Ransacking shops and leaving little for those who live from week to week. Retail assistants have been verbally abused, and even threatened; the elderly and poor abandoned to fend for themselves.

Whither now the social media virtue signallers or the ‘be kind’ brigade?

This disease is a great leveller. We are all at risk, and any one of us might die. Shame on us all, therefore, that the response has been so selfish. Not by everyone, of course, but by many. It is hardly surprising. Be in no doubt: here, we are reaping the foolishness we have sown. Like no previous generation, ours is drunk on the rights of the individual. When life was bumping along as normal, this meant that the poor and the elderly were trampled over, but no one noticed.

Now, the selfishness affects us all, and we are concerned. But we cannot figure out what to do.

Just as well there is an answer. There is even an example we can look to.

King Nebuchadnezzar famously hit a bit of a problem. He was, like ourselves, persuaded of his own sovereignty. Other people – his subjects – were equally sold on it. But then his sense of power kept smacking up against the true omnipotence of the God of Israel.

So do we. Only the most determined atheist can deny that God is speaking to us in a clear voice. Are we going to heed it?

Nebuchadnezzar was like us before Corona Virus hit. He walked on his palace ramparts and congratulated himself as the author of his own greatness and wealth. No sooner were the sinful words uttered than God spoke to him. The King would descend into mental illness and lose the kingdom for a period of seven years, at the end of which he would acknowledge God’s sovereignty.

We were walking in arrogance and pride until now. The world seemed inebriated with its own stolen power. Our first parents ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil – and since that day we have persistently chosen evil. All that he gave us, including our very own selves, we have warped and sullied with sin.

Where, even, to begin? Rampant consumerism, yet homelessness. The power to end life when it becomes inconvenient. God removed from public life, from education, and even from some of our churches. Unbridled reinterpretation of his ordinances. Truth made a lie, and lies accepted – enforced, indeed – as truth.

And, yes, a faithless, cold church. We have been too comfortable for too long, islands of complacency set amidst a sea of sin. We don’t love one another as we ought, and therefore, have nothing to offer the poor, lost world by way of a compass.

We have this providence now that surely will turn us back to the Lord. He has scattered his church, but then, his people were always thus. Occupying the same building is not what makes us a church, and perhaps he has removed that comfort blanket so that we will truly seek out what binds us – fellowship in him, strengthened by worship in spirit and in truth.

If he has to break us somewhat, it is only to build up his own church again. And that light, set upon a hill, should be a lamp to the feet of those who have wandered far from him, to bring them home.

Then, all this generation might say with Nebuchadnezzar that the Almighty is God indeed, ‘and none can stay his hand or say to him, “what have you done”?’

What he has done – is doing – ought to call us all to prayer. There is still time. 

God for one, God for all

Five years ago tomorrow, I felt that my world was ending. Everything I knew and had anchored my hope to was gone. My husband slipped away quietly in his sleep, and nothing would ever be the same again.

Unbelievers who have heard this story before are variously appalled or patronising about my assertion that this was a necessary change. I have been asked how the death of my husband could possibly be a reason for rejoicing (it wasn’t, and I have never said so), or told ‘it’s nice you have your faith’. Either way, they don’t quite get what I’m saying, but I’m going to try again, because I believe that providences like mine were made for situations where people feel that their world is indeed ending. Just like now.

What we are seeing is a large-scale loss of control. Suddenly, none of what we previously took for granted is available to us. Here in Lewis, as elsewhere, frightened people are emptying the shelves of food and toilet paper. Events that have been planned years in advance – the Olympic Games, Euro 2020, the Chelsea Flower Show, the Eurovision Song Contest – are all mothballed. Schools and offices are closing their doors, and now churches too. We are distancing ourselves socially from one another, more distance, even, than social media and an addiction to screens has already accomplished.

Life is uncertain. We are fearful for loved ones, for the elderly, and for those weakest in our society.

It is the end of the world as we know it . . . and our behaviour must change. Not just for now, though, not just until the crisis – hopefully – passes.

When I knew my husband was dying, I was privileged to be able to draw on a lesson I had received many years before, at a time when I had no thought of marrying, let alone being widowed. My learning came from a sermon on the Apostle Paul’s moment of revelation: ‘When I am weak, then I am strong’. I thought that these words, and the message behind them, were so beautiful that I stored them up in my heart against a pain I could not even have imagined at that moment.

The wound to my heart could be perceived as a point of weakness, I suppose. Certainly I was more vulnerable to the cruelty and thoughtlessness of others in the months that followed Donnie’s death. But in these things, I have tried to remember Paul’s words, and appreciate the fact that all the hardships I have gone through –mercifully few – are to a greater purpose. God hones us and refines us with heat and friction, only so that we will do the one thing that he has ever asked of us: trust in him.

When I have managed to do that, I have experienced fully what it is to lean on his strength, to be sustained by his courage, and to act in his wisdom. Of course, there have been times when I haven’t, when I have been disobedient, or tried to be self-sufficient – and brought unnecessary suffering upon myself as a result.

God blessed me in the midst of a devastating loss, because I was dependent upon him. In the disorientating bewilderment that followed the news that Donnie was going to die imminently, I instinctively turned to my heavenly Father, and he caught me up in his loving arms.

That is the reality we all have to embrace now. God is speaking to his whole Creation, just as he addressed himself to me in my own providence five years ago.

We have turned away from him, and wandered far from the precepts he gave us to live by. In our misguided arrogance, we have convinced ourselves that we are God. From the moment that Adam and Eve ate of the knowledge of good and evil, mankind has tended towards the latter. What the Creator made and labelled ‘very good’, we have renamed to suit our own purposes. In every conceivable way, we have mocked and insulted our Maker.

God has been patient, and slow to anger. But he has warned us repeatedly that he cannot look upon sin. Instead of repenting, however, and holding our arms up to him, we deny that we have done wrong and try to cover our misdemeanours, calling them by other names. In his love and mercy, he is speaking to us now in the most serious of terms. He is showing us that we are not the authors of our own destiny, and that our ability to create problems far outweighs our capacity for resolution.

Are we going to listen to him, or are we going to persist in the mistaken belief that this is something we can solve for ourselves? Surely humanity is now at a point where it has to confront its own weakness.

I speak from personal experience, and I speak in love, when I entreat everyone to realise that there is only one place to go in our frailty. There has to be a turning back to God. We must learn how to speak to him, how to confide in him, how to ask for his help in all that we do. Not for one second since I did this for myself has he ever let me down. Though I do not deny that I’ve gone through deep waters, I can say with confidence that he led me and held me up so that the storm would never overwhelm.

God doesn’t inflict suffering without reason: he is speaking to us in every providence. CS Lewis called pain ‘God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world’. He has used it to good effect in my experience. And what he does for one, he can do for all.

But first we must humble ourselves, and ask him to be our God again.

 

 

No Sting in this Tale

Everyone is looking back. It is not just the turn of the year, but the close of a decade also. Photos abound, comparing faces from ten years ago with their present-day counterparts; and there are the inevitable lists – what we wanted to achieve over against what actually transpired.

If I do the same, the change in my life looks seismic. At the start of this decade, both my father and husband were still living. I was quietly going about my business: work and home and family were the boundaries of my small world. My face was considerably less wrinkled, my eyes less baggy, and that generally shopworn look had not yet settled on me. It was still possible to stay up all night at election counts and do a full day’s work afterwards. In short, I hadn’t started to think I might be mortal.

That all changed when we experienced a break in our tight family circle. With the death of my father came the real, heart realisation that this world is not forever. I felt that some door to eternity had been flung open and I lived in a state bordering on terror that death was not yet done with us.

It wasn’t. Yet, when it came again to claim Donnie, I was so blessed to be able to see it as what it really is: the last enemy.

I had heard the term, of course, many times – which death-fixated Calvinist has not? But I hadn’t properly understood that such a gloomy phrase could convey much spiritual comfort.

See, as an unassured Christian, I took it to mean that we all need to accept the fact that there is always that last hurdle at the end of our lives. No matter, I thought, how easy or difficult things are in this world, no matter whether you are atheist or believer, there is this dragon guarding the exit. It was a lurking, crouching, dark form, waiting to blight my life by removing loved ones and, eventually, to claim me too.

‘Well’, you’re thinking by now, ‘am I glad I started to read this – she’s fairly cheered me up. A blog by PTL is like the last enemy at the threshold of the year!’

I refer you to Naomi’s advice for her daughter in-law, Ruth; advice I often have to give myself: ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out’.

I haven’t finished yet.

Death being the last enemy is not a threat to me anymore; it’s a promise. You may say that this is all very well because, yes, it is the ‘last’. Nonetheless, it is also still the ‘enemy’ and that is something, surely, to fear.

It used to be. That’s why my father’s death left me feeling persistently exposed and vulnerable. Eternity was speaking to me, laying before me two options. There was the broad road, which looks so easy and attractive. Parallel to it was the narrow path, winding, steep and – in places – dark. Standing at the entrance to these it seems simple to pick which journey to take.

If I had chosen to be seduced onto the broad way, I would be facing the last enemy alone. Instead, by God’s infinite mercy and grace, I was drawn down the narrow way. It isn’t straightforward and I have stumbled so often. There are even many days when I look wistfully at that parallel track, and even stand on the verge that separates the two, wondering where I belong.

The last enemy waits for me, some way ahead – near or far, I can’t be sure.

But, because I walk, limp, and crawl in the company of Christ, the knowledge that death is the last enemy is a sweet one. It doesn’t loom ominously because my wonderful Saviour vanquished it for me long ago:

‘I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless; Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.

Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?

I triumph still if thou abide with me.’

So, yes, on the surface, and even somewhat deeper, this has been a hard decade. Over the last year, indeed, and even the past fortnight, there have been many attempts by the devil to make me fear, so that I will regret the way I have taken. It is difficult to hold your nerve against such onslaught- which is why I don’t; I give it to someone else to hold for me.

The bags under my eyes, the tired face . . .  don’t be fooled; inwardly, I – like every man or woman who calls upon the name of Jesus – am being renewed.

At the start of a new year and a new decade, then, I pray for that perspective on the last enemy to be the lot of those I love. More challenging still, I pray that it will also be the lot of those of you who hate me for Christ’s sake.

Comforting His People

, All summer, the blacker of my two cats – let’s call her ‘Mo’, for that is her name – has been largely absent from the house, except for the occasional visit to fill up on Whiskas and slap the dog. If I petted her, or even addressed a casual remark in her general direction, I was invariably met with a hard stare, or a high-pitched mew of disdain.

The moment, however, the weather turned a little colder, a little wetter and a lot windier, Mo became my best friend again. She can now mostly be found curled up in my wardrobe (don’t ask), or stretched on the radiator in the front hall. Cuddles are welcomed, and she even seeks out my company from time to time. However objectionable my personality and conversation, Mo clearly realises when she’s onto a good thing – I am a warm and cuddly guarantee of food and shelter. In short, I am her source of comfort.

For human beings, there are two levels of comfort. There is the ordinary, everyday kind – or, at least, it’s seen as such by we privileged westerners – which consists of all the things we take for granted: warm, clean clothing, a secure home, income, a steady food supply, good health and good healthcare, relative peace and safety.

I don’t know why, particularly, but this morning I was moved to thank God in prayer for the howling wind and driving rain sounds to which I awoke, to which I often awake. They remind me of my blessedness in living where I do, in a place I love, and in a home which is a stronghold against the elements.

The other level of comfort, though, is a deeper one – it caters to our emotional and spiritual needs. Like Mo, our craving for it can be particularly acute during the onset of a soul-shaking storm.

We heard in church recently how the idea of comfort in the Bible carries with it the sense of getting alongside the person who needs it. It is not unusual, when we anticipate going to the home of a bereaved family, to worry that we will not know what to say, as though the perfect choice of words from us could make any difference at all. The words don’t matter; the being there does. And, comfort comes from knowing that there is solidarity in grief, which is surely the most universal of all human experiences.

This week, two families I have come to know and love in the Lord have parted with loved ones. In their different ways, these deaths have touched the church and wider community in Scotland. It isn’t simply that Anna and Murdo Alex were so young, though that cannot fail to give the hardest of hearts a thought of eternity. I think it is the strength of their faith that compels everyone standing near to confront the fact that this comfort which we get from God, it’s real. There is no quick-fix, this’ll make you feel better for now-ness about it – this is the solid, all-encompassing, unchanging, faithfulness of God writ large across the lives, and deaths, of those who love him and, more crucially, whom he loves.

He has created his church as a body, to experience his providence – easy or challenging – collectively. I tend to think that’s what Ecclesiastes is getting at when it says, ‘in the day of prosperity, rejoice, but in the day of adversity, consider’. We learn something in our own providences, yes, but it is something we were made to share with the rest of God’s people too. I feel able to speak to people who have lost loved ones, from a place of greater understanding because it has been part of my own experience too.

The thing is, though, I hope that what I’m sharing is not so much my experience of death as my receipt of God’s comfort. For me, the miraculous thing is not that I got through the worst thing that has ever happened in my life, but that I was comforted by the presence of my Saviour, and by my knowledge of his sufficiency in that and all things.

That received sense of peace would be meaningless were it not for the complete trustworthiness of the source. A made-up God that I was choosing to believe in would be a thin comfort blanket indeed against the chills of grief. Yet, poor unbelievers persist in the delusion that Christians ‘choose’ to accept the existence of God as a crutch to get them through.

God exists; that is not up for debate. It is not the mere existence of God which keeps his people in their darkest hours, however – it is his provision, through Christ, of a love that will not let them go. Our relationship with him is often at its most beautiful when we need him most. Hardship and trials in this world, even those less painful than bereavement, drive us into his arms.

It does not remove, or even lessen our difficulties in this world, but it does help put them in their proper perspective. We are the body of his church, and what hurts one, should pain all. Equally, the comfort which we individually receive at his hand is for sharing, that we might bear one another’s burdens.

“ ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’, says your God” – not empty words, not a ‘there, there’ pat on the hand, but a prelude to his own coming among us in the person of his Son.

That’s comfort of the most complete, all-encompassing kind. And there is no comfort apart from him. I know, because it is mine, and it is enough.It will  always be enough.

 

Before Bethesda

I have never been able to tell when God opened my eyes to His marvellous light of truth. It dawned gradually, I think; so much so that day had broken long before I felt the warm rays on my face.

What I can recall is when that blessed assurance became mine. It was simultaneously the worst and the best day of my life.

My husband was in hospital. He had a raging infection after his third dose of chemotherapy for metastatic bowel cancer and needed specialist care. They had scanned him the previous day, and the news was encouraging – it appeared that the tumour was responding to treatment. In the midst of a truly awful, bleak period of four months since his recurrence was diagnosed, this was more than a glimmer of hope.

So, imagine how it felt the next morning when his Macmillan nurse phoned to summon me to the hospital. ‘He’s a lot less well’, she said, ‘and you should come’.

I drove, I parked, I ran to the ward. She told me, as I held his hand, that we were more or less out of options. He could go to Inverness for extensive surgery, but they doubted he’d survive the journey. Besides, she said, he’d had enough, and only wanted my say-so to lay down his arms. It didn’t give me a moment’s hesitation. Donnie had been through enough; he had battled bravely, and not once opened his mouth to complain.

The ambulance came within the hour and took us to Bethesda. His family were there, and my sister. I cried then. But from then on, I was surrounded by what I have only ever been able to describe as a bubble of peace. If I called to God, it was with my heart, not my voice – but those prayers, He hears them too: perhaps even more so. My soul inclined to Him instinctively, because somewhere along the way, it had become His property without my knowing it.

Donnie lived a week after that; Friday to Friday. We were both in God’s tender care, I have no doubt about that. All of this I have said before, many times.

But what I have not done justice to is the instrument God chose. For the last week of my married life with the man I will love forever, Bethesda Hospice became God’s hands and feet.

I can’t recount every instance of their ministering to us, but I can tell you enough. The kindly-stern nurse who insisted I eat a proper meal at lunch and teatime; the one who brought me tea and toast each morning. Those lunchtime naps I was forced to take, away in a room by myself where I could weep, and pray, and then gather myself again to face everything. And halfway through the night, I would leave his room for a little while so they could tend to Donnie, making him more comfortable.

One evening, nearing the end of the week, I was exhausted. There’s a little room with a recliner and a sort of giant lava lamp. The nurse more or less shoved me in there, dimmed the lights and shut the door; within seconds, I was away. That nap refreshed me; but the memory of the kindness with which it was orchestrated remains to this day.

And I will certainly never be able to repay the nurse who sat with me as I held Donnie’s hand for the last time, who gently confirmed for me that he had indeed gone home.

All of this might have been so different. For many families in years gone by, it was – loved ones died in the clamour and bustle of a hospital ward. Or, far worse, inadequately medicated against pain, and frightened, in their own homes, helpless relatives looking on, unable to help.

That was before Bethesda. A group of like-minded people, largely drawn from the Christian community, sought to provide a facility for palliative care in the island.

Having been in receipt of that care, I see how inadequate a word like ‘facility’ is to describe Bethesda.

Because of the hospice – the staff, the people who raise money to fund it – I can look back on that week with no regrets. The merest flicker of a frown on Donnie’s peacefully sleeping face was noticed by nurses, and more pain medication administered ‘just in case’. They ensured that I did not worry for one second that he was suffering. He was, I can truthfully say, gentled into death.

They couldn’t take my pain away, but they did everything short of it. I could not have thought of or asked for better treatment for him, or for me.

I left there the night he died, his wedding ring clutched in my hand. Thanks to the care I had – God’s own care administered by human hands – it was possible to reflect upon a good death for my husband. Their tenderness made me strong enough to return home unbroken.

And home was not a nightmarish place, littered with hospital paraphernalia, as it might once have been, in the days before there was Bethesda. Because of that, I was returning to a cocoon of happy memories, to a place I had shared with someone who did not have to die there, our much loved home becoming his prison of pain.

I don’t think the authorities realise what they have in Bethesda. It’s the kind of place that shouldn’t have to beg for the resources to do what it’s doing – making the awfulness so much less awful for people who just need to be upheld.

For me, the hospice is symbolic of the Saviour’s love. There is an untouchable peace and dignity at its heart, even as the politicians and the money men wrangle over every last penny. Still, Bethesda stands as a beacon of all that is kind and caring. Established to minister to the sick and dying, used by God to draw near to His own suffering people, we surely cannot let it become a tawdry pawn in the hands of politicians.

I don’t write this as emotional blackmail – it wouldn’t work anyway; but as a letter of thanks to Bethesda, and praise to the God who established it for all such hours of need.

May it be there for others as it was for us.

Spiritual Journey to a Destination Unknown

In a couple of weeks, I plan to visit Ness, to speak to the ladies of the WFM there. Believe it or not, I rarely address any group without having put some thought into what I will be saying. I have a technique which works reasonably well for me in this respect and I started to put it into practice this week, while driving my car.

Actually, a lot of my spiritual journey centres on the car and it was only while sitting in it, thinking about Ness, that I realised just how long this has been true for me.

Life became frantically busy last year, and each day I spend at least 50 minutes just driving to and from work. On the mornings when I am pushed for time, I wait until I am underway before speaking to God as I drive. At first, I felt guilty about doing this, as though I was being disrespectful. But then it dawned on me that I had always spoken to Him on car journeys . . . just that I was now doing it out loud, and calling it ‘prayer’.

And, this year, I have taken things a step further. I am following a plan which allows me to listen to the Bible being read over the course of a year. As soon as I start the engine each morning, therefore, David Suchet’s calm voice reads to me a portion from the New Testament, followed by a reading from the Old.

When I worked in Ness, I drove back and forth across the moor every day. I was single and living with my parents, and enjoying life. There was nothing to trouble my mind. To while away the miles, I began to listen to recordings of sermons our own minister had preached. This being well before the digital revolution, I was limited to the cassettes that were available to me and so I listened to some of these sermons repeatedly, and two in particular.

One spoke of God as a refiner of silver, retrieving the object from the fire only when it was finished, and the Maker could see in it His own image. The other favourite was on Paul’s famous utterance about God’s strength being made perfect in weakness. I loved these – yet if anyone had asked me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell why.

But I know now. Reflecting on it as I prayed over what to say to the ladies of Ness, I realised that all those years ago, God was preparing me. I was not in the midst of troubled waters yet, but I stored up the precious truths in my heart against a time when I would be. This was not because of my far-sightedness, but because of His.

When the man I had not yet met was taken from me, I would fall back on these precious words and the reassurance that they convey: God is not punishing you; He is drawing you closer to Himself.

That our eternal God plays the long game should not surprise us, but it should certainly give us comfort. We often speak about the difficult providences which we encounter, and the fact that we often cannot comprehend their meaning. I think it’s important to remember something else, though: God equips us for the journey He has set before us; not the one we think lies ahead.

I didn’t know why I was listening to those sermons repeatedly back then, but God was working in me the faith that would hold me to Himself when that was all I had.

It was sitting in my office in Ness that I enrolled on the very first Free Church Saturday course in theology. This was an uncharacteristically bold move on my part, because I was terrified that I would be the only non-Christian (I was) and possibly the only non-elder (I wasn’t) in the class.

By the time the Ness chapter of my life had closed, I found myself no closer to being a Christian. Although I had found happiness with my husband, and a new job, everything else seemed to have been a waste of time. The theology books I had bought sat in the bookcase, mocking me – reminding me of that other sermon message which replayed in my memory: do not begin building the tower, unless you are sure you have the tools to finish the job.

But that was just spiritual myopia, and a failure of faith on my part. I didn’t start the job – God did, and when He begins a good work in us, He will see it through.

Perhaps you are reading this, feeling discouraged, thinking you are no nearer to Him than you were many years ago. It’s just possible you feel that way because you don’t see what He sees: this is a journey, and He knows what you will need along the way. God is making sure that you are trained and equipped as you need to be for all that providence has in store.

It was because of this period in my life that I knew there was Someone there to catch me when I fell. There is no wasted time with God: He knows the plans He has for us, and every breath we take builds towards the moment when He calls us by name.

 

 

The Harbour They Longed To See

At this time of year, it is inevitable that we find ourselves looking two ways – forward with some uncertainty into the unknown that lies before us; and backwards at the twelve months just gone. It is easy to become reflective, sentimental, and even maudlin as our minds dwell on other times, and on people no longer with us. Each turn of the year seems, in that sense, to carry us further from them, to blur their faces and fade their much-loved voices a little more in our memories.

New Year in Lewis has a particular resonance this time around, marking a whole century since the loss of HMY ‘Iolaire’, no distance at all from the shores of home. 201 men who should have been returning to the warm embrace of their families that night, instead went to their deaths, leaving countless relatives and loved ones bereft for a lifetime.

On Saturday, I went with a friend to look at ‘Sheòl an Iolaire’, the simple, temporary monument that has been created on the foreshore at pier number one. It is made from wooden posts and has been lit with coloured lights. White paint daubs represent the survivors – including one, on the mast, for ‘Am Patch’, the Nessman who clung there for dear life.

I didn’t know until then that the distance the monument is from the sea wall is also the distance the ‘Iolaire’ was from land when she foundered on the Beasts of Holm.

As I looked, and saw other members of the community come also to stand and gaze upon it, I thought about a conversation I had recently, when we had discussed how the churches coped with the aftermath of loss on such a scale. ‘There must’, the other person said, ‘have been prayer meetings, and church services after this. And there must have been doubt – people’s faith must have been shaken’.

Of course that is perfectly possible. For many people, one stage of grief will be anger, and that may well be directed at God in the absence of anyone else to blame.

However, grief is not really corporate. We are commemorating the ‘Iolaire’ centenary as a community, because we were devastated as a community in 1919, and the ripples from that blow were felt for generations. But the reality of bereavement is that it afflicts us individually. I cannot feel your pain, and you cannot feel mine: only Christ can truthfully empathise with any of us to that extent.

I don’t mean to say that there is no such thing as communal grief, either; I very much believe that there is in this case. It is born, however, of many, many individuals experiencing loss simultaneously. So, dealing with that was not the overwhelming task that we now tend to view it as – because ministers, elders, and all those trying to bring God’s comfort could only deal with one heart at a time.

God Himself deals with us on that level. We pray for revival, we pray for communities, we pray for families – but in each case, His work will be personal, based on a relationship with the individual. And it is in that closeness faith finds its home.

I have experienced painful loss. It did not shake my faith – in fact, it drove the roots even deeper. Faith is nothing to do with me, or my circumstances: my faith is in Christ, who does all things perfectly. What He does, and what He permits – though it slay me – must be for the ultimate good. If that is true even sometimes, of some things, it must be true at all times, of all things. If I make that conditional on my circumstances being favourable, and Him dealing with me as I would wish, well, then, He is not God and this is not faith.

Commemoration of the ‘Iolaire’ has permitted more conversations about faith than has been possible in this island for quite some time. All of the events have incorporated psalm singing, Bible readings or prayer.

January 1st, 1919 dawned on a broken community. Families bereft, hearts torn, and a generation at least blighted by terrible grief.

January 1st, 2019 will witness a Lewis which is probably in a worse spiritual condition than it was that morning, one hundred years ago. While we are remembering an old, settled grief, and giving thanks that this is a generation which has known little of conflict or loss, are we looking to God as they did in 1919?

We have surrounded ourselves with reminders of the ‘Iolaire’ generation – beautiful writing, meticulous research, haunting photographs and paintings, monuments, and exhibitions . . . lest we forget. Like all bereaved people, the community is creating memorials because it fears that faces will blur, and voices will fade, and even that this great weight of pain which reminds us may dissipate in time.

But those who clung to God then, and who look to Him now, know that each turn of the year only takes us further from those painted, printed, fading memories – and all the while we are brought closer to seeing them as they really are now: alive in Christ, safe in that ‘harbour they longed to see’.

 

 

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.