Every Breath You Take, Every Tear You Shed

Every move you make, every breath you take, I’ll be watching you. Unsettled? You should be. Imagine me turning up everywhere you go, keeping a weather eye on all your doings. Not anyone’s idea of a good time, least of all mine. Most of you are probably very boring, putting bins out and booking chiropodist appointments, not working for the secret service or dating celebrities on the Q.T.

Anyway, it’s just a quote from the song, ‘Every Breath You Take’, which has been jokingly renamed ‘the stalker’s anthem’ – and it popped into my head while sitting in church on Sunday morning. Now, before you all start fidgeting in your pews and eyeing one another nervously, don’t bother – it wasn’t any of you who prompted the thought; it was the minister. And, no, he needn’t be rushing out to get a bigger padlock for the manse gate either. It was actually something in the sermon that brought the song to mind:

God has a record of all our woes. The beautiful psalm 56 tells us that he stores up our tears in a flask. 

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had some big sorrows in my life, the kind that feel as though they’re carved into my very heart. But every droplet that fell from my mourning eyes is numbered and bottled by God. He knows the depth and breadth of my grief in a way that even I do not.

Still more extraordinary, though, is the fact that he also has an exact record of the hurts that I’ve forgotten. I mean, I have cried over a lot of situations and a lot of people that long since passed into oblivion. There were emotional storms that seemed seismic at the time, but that I have certainly no word of now.

Yet my Heavenly Father remembers. Those tears are counted too. God is more tender towards me than I am towards myself.

And that is why, masked up and a metre from all my nearest neighbours, I added a couple more droplets to that eternal flask. These were not tears of pain, however. Relentlessly, psalm 56 unfolded in beauty, and I glimpsed – if only for a brief moment – the inexpressible heart of God.

You see, he not only collects the tangible record of our sorrow. In order to do this fully, he also follows us in all our wanderings. That is, he not only accompanies us on the journey we ought to take, but watches us when we stray from the path. 

Well, of course he does. A parent may smile at their child, safely sleeping in his own bed; but how much more watchful is that gaze when the little one is in danger? It was this that wrung the tears from my Sunday morning eyes – remembering all the foolish times I had tried to do things without him, never knowing that he was coming with me anyway, whether I acknowledged his presence or not.

The context for all of this is a familiar theme in the psalms – strength in the presence of the enemy. It asks the oft-repeated question, ‘what can man do to me’?

I have been afraid at times. Undoubtedly the most frightened I have ever been was when my husband fell ill with cancer. A few days ago, I overheard a television character being asked if he was afraid of something or other and he replied, ‘No. After my wife died, the worst had happened and so nothing else frightens me’. 

That is not how it is for me. When my husband died, before that, even, God caught me in his arms. He was more than sufficient in the worst fear I have ever endured. So, because of THAT- because of HIM – I cannot be properly afraid of anything else. I may get upset, I may be angry at the enemy, but I cannot fear him.

Sometimes in dealing with the onslaught against my faith, whatever form it takes, I forget to leave it with God. I get caught up with trying to tackle the situation myself, and I do so on my own (nonexistent) strength. 

It goes without saying that I make a hash of it. My repetitious tendencies in this regard have been a worry to myself.

Yet, there in church on Sunday morning in Stornoway, I felt a new surge of love and humble gratitude. One metre removed I may have been from my fellow worshippers, but my Father and I are never more than a hair’s breadth apart. Thanks entirely to him. He doesn’t permit that the stubbornness of my heart should lead me anywhere that he does not also go. 

So, why should I fear? Until the stopper is finally placed in the flask, and I reach the place of no more weeping, every move I make, every breath I take, he’ll be watching me. 

Now Only Three

On Sunday morning, I was driving through the neighbouring village of Gress. To my left, the carpark was already starting to fill up, and people were unloading an assortment of beach toys, dogs and children. Over to the right, the cemetery lay quietly, an eloquent reminder that even in the midst of life, we are in death. As I continued onwards, I fell to pondering what visitors make of our cemeteries, plentiful and prominent as they are.

In fact, like our primary schools and churches, the burial grounds are a testament to the way in which Lewis was grown. Each village was a world entire for the people who belonged to it. And note my use of language- it’s something those from outside of the islands would do well to take on board: we make no claim of ownership on these communities, but they have a claim on us. That’s why, to a degree, the concept of community ownership in the literal sense is a bit alien. Traditionally, our relationship with land has not been proprietorial.

Indeed, our relationships were always described in terms of claims on, and not by, us. Where do you belong to? Who do you belong to? 

Thus, the villages had their churches to nurture the spiritual lives of the people, and schools to educate. Land was tenanted, not possessed, and the whole patchwork stitched together by fellow feeling, common experience and mutual understanding. 

The cemeteries are a part of it. One of the first things I did as a grown-up, married woman was to pay the lair fees for myself, my husband and my mother in-law. I began life in Tolsta paying nine pounds, then six . . . and now only three. It is an annual memento mori, a gentle pecuniary reminder nach e seo baile a mhaireas. Unlike many other townships, Tolsta’s cemetery is less prominent and so far removed from the village that you could go your whole life without glimpsing it. That’s a shame, I think, because when burial grounds are at the centre of a village, they do serve as a normaliser of death as something natural. For most villages, too, until very recently, burial itself occupied a central role in community life: everyone turned out to local funerals. 

Lewis funerals were the ultimate act of community – a public solidarity with the grieving family, and a respectful acknowledgement of the deceased person’s place in the tapestry of their lives. We understand better than most how someone you barely knew, or knew only by sight or who was just a name to you, still touched your life in some way, however small. They existed, they shared your heritage, they were a part of the same things you are. And thanks to our very civilised and healthy relationship with death, we are able to give them that dignified place at the end of life. The patronymic system ensures that their memory lives on, a chain linking those of us still in life to the relations and neighbours gone ahead into eternity.  It connects us, across the continents and oceans also, to the emigrated loved ones, keeping them a part of our community in life and in death, just the same.

We are losing our hold on what has kept these communities through the centuries. The church building may be where it was placed, at the centre of our villages, but the actual church is rarely at the heart of community life. And because of this, our relationship with death is also changing, turning into something sour and unhealthy.

It is darkly ironic that the unbelievers who call Christianity ‘a death cult’ are so prepared to argue against the sanctity of life themselves. If an unborn life is inconvenient, terminate it in the bud; if a person’s health is deteriorating or their quality of life poor, remove the burden now. Don’t wait on God’s providence, don’t trust him: push his hand away and do it for yourself. Somehow, we think that a life untrammelled by difficulty or pain is our birthright, and if it isn’t provided for us we must take it for ourselves. That justifies breaking the commandment to protect life. What does God know of our suffering?

The people who placed their churches and their cemeteries at the heart of community life knew better than to turn their faces from him. In accepting his seasons of providence, they showed great wisdom. ‘Fatalistic’, some have called it, but I don’t see it that way. They trusted him with all the moments of their lives. We are linked to them, through that patronymic chain, through all the words of prayer uttered by parents for children, by sisters for their brothers and vice-versa, and by pastors for their flocks.

Let us find our way back to a place where God is permitted to be God, and we accept that it is both in and to him we belong.

Reputation or Character?

Many years ago, the post office at Achmore briefly became a crime scene. Over a period of time, small sums of money had been disappearing and, as is bound to happen in such cases, people were beginning to regard one another with suspicion. This is an unhealthy state of affairs in a small community, and so a plan was hatched.

Two people lay in wait on a given night, hoping to apprehend the light-fingered culprit.

Imagine their shock, then, when he turned out not to be light-fingered – or, more accurately, not to be in possession of any fingers at all.

‘How sad’, you say, ‘what all that inbreeding can cause’.

You misunderstand me: he had a long tail and whiskers.

‘Yes, Achmore’, you nod sadly.

You’re still not getting it: he was a rat; a felonious rodent with a penchant for bent accounting. When his little stash was discovered, the money was even arranged according to denomination. 

Still, isn’t everything in this part of the world?

History doesn’t record the relief this discovery must have occasioned. We are far too ready to regard our fellows with suspicion, and they in their turn to think badly of us. That the real culprit turned out to be a rat must surely have been welcome news all round.

I was thinking about false accusations recently, and the harm they – and gossip – can inflict. It is the instinct of every person to protect their own good name, and to lash out at those who would defame it. That drive is no less present in the Christian, but there is a very particular reason why we have to fight it.

In surrendering your life to Christ you are giving him control of everything. You are acknowledging his complete ownership of all that you are, and all that you have.

Including your reputation.

That’s his too. Remember Job? Joseph? King David? All three saw their good names sullied without cause. David was exiled, Joseph imprisoned, and Job had the particular pain of being doubted by his friends. Surely – as Eliphaz believed – a Christian who suffers loss of reputation must certainly have offended God deeply.

That’s a logical stance for the world to take. They cannot distinguish between character and reputation. And, of course, they refuse to accept that their view of the matter is not final. It is a state of affairs as old as time (or very nearly). Read the Book of Psalms for repeated exhortations that God not allow his servant to be put to shame by the enemy.

Inevitably, these petitions conclude in the same way: remembering God’s faithfulness and praiseworthy name.

The key to bearing trial, whether bereavement slander, or scandal, is to place yourself back where you belong: in God’s hands. See his strength actually perfected in your own weakness. 

These are not just nice words: I have lived them.

Sadly, I have also failed to live them. The unregenerate part of me wants to defend myself against liars. These efforts tend, however, to be fruitless – not because I am wrong, but because my appeal fails in the courts of men. 

The courts of men are built on the very street in which truth is fallen.

We have all, therefore, to seek after the weakness of which Paul boasted, ‘for when I am weak, then am I strong’. God owns my reputation; it is not mine to defend.

Can a Christian be slandered and wronged with impunity, then? Yes. And no. It all depends whose verdict you value. We can, it would appear, be subject to all the vilest jibes and condemnation of the world. Christians may even – as Job was – be judged wrongly by the brethren.

However, we can also stand fast in the love of Christ and pray as he did. If our reputation is God’s then, the awful truth is that our enemies are much to be pitied, for they really know not what they do.

Because He Loved Us First

When the bombs fell on Buckingham Palace in 1940, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother said that she was glad because it meant that she and the King could finally ‘look the East End in the eye’. Many people have laughed at this statement, believing it to be illustrative of just how out of touch the royal family is. People who had almost nothing, losing everything they owned in one night were not experiencing the same war as the privileged Windsors with their untold wealth and multiple palatial residences. If one castle gets totalled, move to another: that is not poverty.

We seem to believe that empathy can only stem from our having actually experienced something. Until the monarch has to live in a high-rise flat with no food in the fridge and no money to feed the meter, she cannot begin to understand the plight of her poorest subjects.

Empathy, though, is like faith – it shouldn’t require evidence. Nothing breaks my heart more than homelessness, though I have mercifully never been in that position myself. Surely the essence of the empathetic heart is being able to find the common point of experience. The Queen Mother was not suggesting that her domestic situation was the same as that of the Eastenders; she was saying, however, that both knew what it was to have their homes threatened and even breached. One was much larger and grander, yes, but home nonetheless.

And, just the same, when I saw our Queen sitting all by herself at the funeral of her husband, I could finally understand how a blone from Lewis and the monarch of a kingdom might have something in common.

When the time came for the mourners to file into the church on the day of my husband’s funeral, a church officer approached me and asked, ‘are you alone?’ I felt his words like a knife to my heart. Yes indeed, I thought, quite alone. My best friend, my helpmeet, my companion in life, has gone on without me, and I have to navigate this path as best I can with no hand to hold.

I don’t imagine the pain of losing a spouse is any less when you are a world leader. Perhaps, indeed, the pain is greater still for one whose life is so public. She must now find a way in which to do everything she used to do, but always conscious of the absence where Prince Philip used to be. It is likely – though by no means certain – that her reunion with him will come much more quickly than mine with Donnie. When I was first widowed, I used to envy elderly women in my position, because I thought they wouldn’t have to experience so much of life without their husbands.

Now, though, I know it makes no difference. Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, but he still wept with the family. His tears were not merely for their pain, but for the human condition – for the fall that has brought us to a place of death. Inevitably, whether we are exalted in the land or humble, we gather at the graveside and mourn for what the great leveller has removed.

Jesus – the Queen’s Saviour and mine – was displaying empathy. He was shedding tears for mankind, for the sin that brought death into our experience. Although he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, death would eventually claim him a second time.

Of course, the depth of Jesus’ empathy was what led him to finally surrender himself on the cross. So moved was the Lord’s heart by what we have inflicted upon ourselves, that he did not merely weep with the bereaved: he gave himself to death in our place.

Christ became man and walked this Earth. He was born into the humblest of surroundings. As a man, he had no home to call his own, no regular income, no insurance policies. The King of Kings was a vagrant.

But that isn’t what made him the most empathetic man who ever lived.

Before God sent his Son into the world, there was compassion, and there was empathy for our plight. Do we castigate God because he has never had his home destroyed, or lost his spouse? Would it be fair to tell him that he cannot understand our pain? Of course not, because he is the very model of what empathy means. If I may put it like this, he carried empathy to its ultimate conclusion.

If we are followers of Christ, then, shouldn’t empathy be part of our character? There are things I have not suffered, practices I do not approve, walks I have not had to take . . . but when I see my fellow man in their midst, where is my heart? Do I rush to judgement, to vitriol and condemnation, or do I say, ‘there but for God’s grace go I’.

Christ came alongside all manner of sin and suffering. That was empathy. And we are capable of it, it is expected of us, because he loved us first.

Love Letters Straight From My Heart

It has been quite a long time since I wrote anything even approaching a love letter. These days, my bag is more complaining emails and sarcastic texts. But it’s not a skill I plan to lose. So, today, I want to flex my writing arm in tribute to love: love so perfect and so  immeasurable that I think, folks, we’ve got to give it a capital ‘l’.

Love. 

I could tell you about how I met my husband. It would write itself, a blog about the best man I ever knew. And I could reminisce about how, weeks before he died, there were still flowers for me on Valentine’s Day. 

But I have a better love story for you even than that. Oh, and, if you don’t know this other love of mine, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s a bit of a villain. After all, he brought myself and my husband together. He knew we’d be happy. In fact, he saw to it.

And then he split us up.

What a cruel, heartless thing to do. We weren’t old: I was in my late thirties, Donnie was in his early fifties. Our twelfth wedding anniversary was a few months away. Because of his work, we had already been denied a lot of time together. And then, it was over.

All because of Love.

That’s right. Because. Not in spite of love, not denying or ignoring love, but precisely because of it. 

God so loved the world that he gave his only son. These are words as familiar as ‘I love you’ and they mean the same – only more so. The harrowing, hellish, suffering death of Jesus on that cross is God’s love letter to a broken world. Do you think it meant nothing to him, to be separated from his beloved, perfect Son, for my sin and for yours? 

God IS love. He didn’t invent it or create it – he embodies and defines it. What is not patterned on him is not really love, but a pale imitation.

He gave us those three little words that mean so much, that changed the course of not one life but countless thousands forever: 

‘It. Is. Finished.’

My heavenly Father’s love for me deserves a response. It is worthy of acknowledgment. Of all the love letters ever written, his is the only one that was designed to be shared. God wants me to pass it on. And I can do no more than to tell it to you in terms you’ll understand. 

We’re human and, being human, we experience love – if we’re that fortunate – in its various forms. When you find happiness with a life partner, however, it brings a special kind of fulfilment. I had that with Donnie and he, I believe, felt the same.

So, you see, it was real love. The kind that used to make me think I could never live without him.

What stopped me from falling into an abyss of despair, then ? How can I look back on what I had and not feel bitter that it has been taken away?

I must be an amazing person, no?

No. Those who know me are scratching their heads, going, ‘no, that’s definitely not it’ – and they’re right. 

It’s that all this is done in love. Real love. God gave his only, perfect son for me. Does it seem likely he would do anything to gratuitously hurt a person he loves that much? Of course not; God is love. 

A life lived in Christ is a life of love. Even though it may seem that he is inflicting pain, in fact, it is the very opposite. I would not willingly sacrifice the things or the people that he would have me give up, and so, in love, he gently removes them himself.

I love the Lord because he first loved me. And he has gone on loving me. God’s love is not the fragile emotion that we humans sometimes share – it is active, and it follows a set trajectory which ends in perfection. He doesn’t waver, or doubt, or forsake.

So, don’t pity me for my loss: envy me so much for my gain that you do everything you can to secure that love for yourself.

With God, every day is a celebration of real love.

Godness Without Goodness

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Well, the answer to that rather depends on who you ask. Robert Burns, I think, was steering us towards a negative answer. The prophet, Isaiah, on the other hand, urged us to ‘remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old’.

At the turn of the year, it is natural, however, to  reminisce. That other gobby spideag, Scarlett O’ Hara used to advise against such things, warning that the past would drag at your heart until eventually looking back would be all you could do. Normally I’d agree with her, but New Year is a special case. We stand on the threshold of 2021 and, however this twelve-month has served us, it’s hard to resist a last glimpse before finally taking our leave.

The world is in visible chaos. This pandemic drives home a truth that has been with us since our fall in Adam: we are not in control. It may be more apparent to us at this moment in time but it is, actually, no more true than it was last year, last century or last millennium. God has told us this repeatedly. He has told us gently and kindly, he has roared it at us, he has written it in fire and cloud across his beautiful Creation. That is, the same Creation we fractured when we first tried to take his place.

As those who commit wrongs often do, we failed – collectively and individually- to accept the guilt of that presumption. Instead, humankind has wasted all its time and effort trying to prove that God doesn’t exist and, if he does, he’s to blame for wars and childhood cancer, while man furnishes the peace treaties and the cures. 

We fail consistently to go to our Father and repent of this age-old struggle to wrest his godness from him and confer it upon ourselves. 

As a race, humanity lacks humility.

For me, 2020 was a fresh beginning. I came to terms with a lot of things, and put others into their rightful places. Because of the new way of living, I rediscovered the joy of home, and the manifold blessings of this life that my Father ordained for me. 

Another privilege I have enjoyed is peace. That is, the settled peace that permits me to take a step back from my own experience. I view it, if not with a dispassionate eye, then certainly with a perspective that comes from the Lord. If people say things about me that are unjust or untrue, what is that to me? My reputation with God is crucial; he sees and he knows. We may protest our goodness and our kindness, but if our actions witness to the contrary, that is recorded. It is simply a question of deciding whose opinion of me matters and I will take the courts of the Lord ahead of the court of public – or social media – opinion any day of the week.

I cannot say that I deserve the blessings he has poured down upon my head this year. In a period of uncertainty and grief for many, God has been more present than ever, and much more giving than I have any right to expect. Though I cannot say exactly how, I feel that I have turned a corner and that I am ready for a fresh beginning in 2021. Never really having been conscious of particular weakness or vulnerability, it is strange to acknowledge that I feel much stronger and more like my ‘old self’.

She is an old acquaintance that I don’t want to forget: Catriona Murray, Donnie’s wife. There is nothing about those years I would wish to blot from memory. I can survey them with happiness for the life well-lived that joined to mine for a time. Now, I am someone else. A germ of that same Catriona went into making this present incarnation, but I am renewed and refined by all that has happened since I held my husband’s hand for the last time. 

And because of these experiences, I ponder the resurrection of believers and see the same mind, the same creative hand at work. God can take us and make us into something else. Catriona the wife and Catriona the widow are the same person, and yet, not.  

He is working in his people, the world over, right at this very moment. Look at your loved ones – little children, old ladies and everyone in between: if they belong to him, he is remaking them in his own image once more. Perhaps he will have to bend them, and pummel them and change them almost beyond recognition, but he is conforming them to the original pattern of perfection.

We try to take his godness from him, and to possess it for ourselves. But, if we would only recognise his goodness and submit to it in Christ, 2021 could be a year of renewal and blessing for all.

A Home For All Seasons

I am writing this blog as a howling gale rages outside. Myself and the dog are tucked up by the woodburner, enjoying the warmth and safety of home. And it occurs to me, as I pour another cup of Dark Grey no.4 (tea, incidentally, not malt whisky), that it could all serve as a metaphor for the life that I live.

The house was built many years ago by the father in-law that I never met, as a home for his growing family, of which my husband was the baby. In time, it became his, and I moved here with him as a bride in 2003.

Over the years, we carried out work that made it more our home, including the installation of the Morso Squirrel woodburner upon which I am currently toasting my cable-knit slippers. And Donnie became a tree and shrub aficionado, growing obsessed with screening the house off from the world. I remember saying to him, as we made yet another pilgrimage to Maybury Gardens, to please not mention the word ‘privacy’ again. ‘David Iain is going to think we’ve got something to hide’, I said, as we both laughed at the thought.

It is on a feu, and it is not mortgaged. So, when my beloved Donnie passed away in 2015, I had the comfort of knowing it was completely mine. No one could take it from me. He had, in the last few months of his life, been single-minded in ensuring that I would be secure in every way that he could make certain of. That was always his instinct. 

I remember one evening, a few years before the shadow of death crossed our path. He had filled up the log basket and gone out to close the gates. ‘That always feels good’, he said, shooting the bolt home, ‘everything secured for the weekend, and both of us safe inside’. It was why the trees were so important too: he was putting a circle of protection around what meant the most to him. This house was everything: it symbolised his parents and siblings, and his marriage to me. It was everything warm, safe and positive in a life kindly and gently lived.

So, when that legacy passed into my keeping, I felt very keenly that it was like having his protection still. He cannot put his arms around me now, and I cannot go to him with my troubles – but I have our home, with all its happy memories and warm associations.

Every metaphorical storm – and every literal one too – that has blown since I lost him, sent me to the solace of this place. Here, I feel close to him, and safe. 

But there is an additional reason for this. No, not additional – it is, in fact, the foundation that was there all along. It was what motivated Donnie, it was what sustained us both as we walked through the valley of the shadow, as much as in the sunlit uplands of happiness.

Love. Real love, that is. Not the Mills and Boon sort, nor the kind that breaks under pressure. The original, the best, patented by the Creator.

Over my sitting room door hangs a sign that says ‘The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?’, the first verse of psalm 27. It speaks volumes to me of what home is, of what it always has been. I understand God’s protection because I have always been blessed to have the shelter of a loving home.

Now is no different. I have a home that was built with love, and – as my husband wrote in the last of his diary entries – was always a place of happiness. That sort of legacy is not meaningless, and I don’t hold it lightly.

Not long ago, a friend of mine was talking about a widow who had some slight bother with her neighbours, and kept saying, ‘this wouldn’t happen if Murdo was alive’. I suppose he thought she was full of self-pity and being melodramatic. But I believe that she probably had a point, because people do treat you differently. Kind people treat you more kindly, and those who are only out for themselves seek to exploit your solitude. 

God has a heart for the fatherless and for the widows, though. I don’t just believe that; I know it. He has given me to have a safe place in storms of all kinds. Sometimes, he causes them to be calm, and sometimes he lets them rage and fume and blow themselves out.

But always, I am here, in the warmth and safety of my home. When the forces outside batter and buffet me, I look up and I read once more:

‘The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?’

The answer is this: no one. I am safe in the shelter of one who can silence the storm with a word. 

A humbling thought if you have ever glibly said of yourself, ‘I am the storm’. 

But if not . . .

I was set a challenge this week, by one of the overbearing blokes of Stornoway Free Church. ‘Shut up, woman’, he ordered, ‘your blog titles are too long-winded – and who permitted you to have ideas, anyway?’ Or words to that effect; no doubt I am paraphrasing somewhat. ‘Write about this, and stay out of trouble’, he said finally, firing a Biblical reference at me and departing.

He had quoted Daniel 3: 18 and, specifically, these seemingly negative, doubting words: ‘but if not’, uttered by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, when King Nebuchadnezzar is telling them of their imminent punishment in the fiery furnace. Their answer is along the lines that we always expect from believing people: do what you will, our God will protect us, and pluck us out of the flames.

‘ . . . but if not . . .’

So well-versed in Scripture was the wartime generation that a naval officer at Dunkirk telegraphed only these three words home and had the Allied plight immediately understood. The situation was desperate. Indeed, in the ordinary sense, the situation was hopeless.

Was that officer telling his loved ones to prepare themselves for German invasion, then, for the loss of all Allied hopes of success? Not any more than Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were preparing for the possibility that God might leave them to a fiery death. He was, in fact, telling the people at home that whatever happened, God would be with them.

We have our own ideas about how we would like the Lord to salvage a situation. It may be that we pray for a desperately ill loved one to be cured; it may be that we want him to stop our enemy’s mouths; it may be that we beg him to not send us into a particular situation. These are all prayers I have uttered, some of them many times. And in every significant example I can recall, God gently shook his head, ‘no’.

At this point, the unbeliever scoffs. The book of psalms brims over with examples of the enemy mocking and asking, ‘where is your God now?’ In the world, they see our relationship with the Lord as being similar to that between a small child and Santa Claus, or perhaps Aladdin’s genie. He is not, though, a capricious granter of wishes. God hears my prayers before they leave my heart, before I know them myself. But he is wiser than to let me direct him in how these should be answered.

When I prayed for my husband to be cured, and was comforted by the verse, ‘this sickness is not unto death’, I was hearing only what I wanted. I was stopping short of the next clause  ‘but to the glory of God’. In my understandable human pain, I wanted God to make everything all right, to make it stop hurting there and then. In his infinite goodness and wisdom, though, he took my request and granted it more fully and completely than I would ever have the grace or courage to ask for myself.

In times of sore oppression – verbal, rather than physical, lest anyone feel the need to accuse me of exaggeration – and slander, I prayed that God would silence those who lifted their voices against me in hatred. The chorus only intensified and became nastier and more vitriolic. Far from stopping their mouths, God seemed only to lengthen the lead to give them more latitude. And, in the end, the freedom of that leash became the rope from which their unkindness swung, for all to see. He caused them to stop their own mouths.

There have been situations I wanted no part of and asked God to let me go around. These requests he has also denied. I have lived through confrontations, through spiritual and emotional difficulties that I would have just as soon avoided. More times than I like to admit, I would ask God, ‘why have you put me through this’, and concluding over and over that my soul seems to require an inordinate amount of honing! But hone me he does. Every trial, every mistake, every misunderstanding between me and my brethren, every word I say out of turn, every relationship that I enter into, every partiality I show, every decision I make for good or ill, God is there.

That is what those three little words mean: ‘but if not’. They are immediately followed by an affirmation that, even if God does not deal with them as they have proclaimed, still they won’t turn from him. It is the same submission to his will that caused Christ to ask for the cup to pass from him, and then to add ‘not my will but yours’.

‘But if not’, however it sounds in the mouth of an unbeliever, is the very opposite of doubt. It is faith, born of an intimate knowledge of this God, who does everything perfectly. It is the confident proclamation of the believer who knows that he may not always take them out of the fiery furnace, but neither will he leave them to suffer it alone.

I hope this blog encourages you to believe, or to remember that God is with us always – but, if not, he is, just the same.

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.