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’. 

Roll the Stone Away

Last night, someone introducing himself as ‘your friendly, local elder’ telephoned. I was briefly distraught, thinking something had happened to the usual grumpy (but ultimately loveable) fellow. And then, I realised, no, it IS him, he was just trying to confuse me. He was doing a pastoral visit by phone, checking that I was surviving the lockdown, and not going off my head at the full moon.

Slightly shame-facedly, I admitted to him the thing that I have hardly dared admit to myself: this situation has brought me armfuls of blessing. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I don’t for one minute forget the gravity of what we face, or the tragedy it has visited upon our world. Yet, while I am mindful of all that, I have to confess to feeling the lightest and easiest in my mind that I have for years. There is nowhere to go, no one asking this or that of me. I am in my own home for most of every day. I am growing to love that again.

Because of technology, I can speak to my family and friends – and our conversations are more meaningful because they are our only means of contact. Last Wednesday, it was a revelation to Zoom into the prayer meeting. I felt genuine joy at seeing the familiar faces on-screen, faces I used to take for granted, faces I barely noticed when we shared the same space. And on Sundays, I can sit exactly where I usually go to read and pray at home, but also hear God’s word preached by our own minister.

We are scattered, but still able to be together in all the ways that matter.

It has afforded me that too rare commodity: time. I have not rushed my devotions, nor had to skip them in order to dash off somewhere else. My life and my mind are both uncluttered and I see something very clearly now that I was afraid to even look at before.

God truly has healed me.

See, five years ago just now, I was on leave from work, coming to terms with my new and unwanted status as a widow. From there, I hurtled into this commitment and that, afraid to have any unoccupied minutes. I have been utterly unfair to myself, because all that bustle prevented me from truly experiencing God’s care.

Now, it’s true that most of what fills my time I do because of him. That’s how I have been able to tell myself it’s not inconsequential busyness. Nor is it. But it has left me little scope to just breathe, to look around my new landscape and thank God for bringing me up out of the valley. I have been darting from one place, one thought, one commitment to the next, never once taking in the view from where he has brought me to.

It might seem strange that it took a lockdown for me to realise that there is nothing to fear from solitude, nor from having time to contemplate. Then again, not really so odd – because it was actually another lockdown that set me free to begin with.

On that first Good Friday, when they rolled the stone to the mouth of Jesus’ tomb, his followers must have been in despair. His persecutors surely thought there was no more harm he could do them. He was dead, and his body locked in for good measure. They placed a guard on him just to be sure. The risk, they thought, was that the disciples would steal his body and fake the prophesied resurrection.

What is it about lockdowns and conspiracy theories?

Three days passed during which his own people would have felt all kinds of despair and grief, the death of hope leaving a bitter tang. Meanwhile, those who hated Christ revealed something of the nature of their enmity. It was born of fear: fear of his power, fear of his true status – why else surround a dead man with soldiers?

And at last, on the third day of nothing much happening, the angel came and the stone was rolled away.

We know very well what was found there. The grave clothes for which he had no further need, were placed where he had lain. And our Saviour was no longer there.

He had risen.

Sometimes, it’s only when everything seems to be over that real hope springs forth. I know it for myself and I count it as blessing.

No one who stood, guarding over that tomb could have suspected the work being accomplished within. It was the end, it was the ultimate lockdown.

When God brings all to a standstill, he is doing more than reminding us who is in control. He is giving us the gift of time – perhaps more than those three days, perhaps much less – in which to stop, and regard him in all his glory.

After the stone was rolled away, a story was put about by religious leaders that Christ’s body had been stolen during the night by his followers.

But they lied. They lied because they were afraid. Yet, they chose fear and denial over acceptance of one great and simple truth:

He IS risen.

If we are spared to see this stone rolled away, I pray that fear will not have won. I pray that we will all use the lockdown to bow our hearts in submission.

Who would believe an ugly lie in place of the beautiful, wonderful truth – that he rose again, and in him, we are free indeed.

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.

 

 

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’.

 

 

Life Goes On (and On)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Christian or Psychopath?

There were times during the recent Stornoway Trust election when I might have voluntarily asked to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, just to get out of it. Or the Crofting Act of 1886, for that matter. Only, that wouldn’t really have been a section, more of an apportionment . . .

Anyway, I wasn’t sectioned, despite my frequent exposure to the excesses of other people. But it was what we are pleased to call a steep learning curve. Very, very steep.

God sets us on little journeys, I believe, in order that we might learn and grow spiritually. If I really think about it, I have grown more, and grown closer to Him, in the times of adversity than in the times of prosperity. The former have, as the Bible says, led me to consider. I didn’t want them, but I did profit from them.

During the campaign, I knew that I would suffer a spiritual onslaught. The devil uses every means at his disposal when he’s on the ropes. He will spit poison at you until you think you can take no more.

And, make no mistake – you can’t. God can, though, and does. You have to stick close to Him, and never try to do anything on your own.

I was caught a little off guard on Sunday. Some strangers who, according to themselves, believe all aspects of my life are fair game simply because I’ve written about them, took up a very painful topic in unimaginably callous style. Because I’m a Christian, I am apparently not supposed to grieve Donnie’s death. My husband. The man I intended to spend my life with.

Which got me thinking about that perennial problem – the misconception about what being a Christian is. Apparently, this woman (who I have never met) feels that I should be happy he’s dead. Yes, read that again slowly. This person, a member of the human race, has dehumanised me sufficiently in her own mind to write such an extraordinarily stupid thing. What she is describing is not a Christian, but a psychopath.

Unrepentant, despite me questioning the mindset of anyone who would write such a thing, she went on to justify her actions. I have blogged about Donnie, so I can’t complain if she feels the need to stamp all over his memory, despite knowing neither of us. Or, rather, because she knew neither of us.

I am less than human to her – because I am an online Christian, presumably.

But I am human, with a family and feelings, and a heart that felt her words like a knife.

Last Sunday, reading the horrible, callous words that she had written, I was crying and shaking. I felt sick that anyone would sink so low. My first instinct was to hide away, to stay at home and weep.

But I needed to go among my own people, where I feel safe. So I made the effort. And I told someone what had happened – a kind man, one of our elders, charged with the spiritual oversight of the congregation (as well as election-rigging, obviously). He looked pained. His reaction mirrored my own: disbelief at the callousness.

The prayer restored me. Being with His people revived me. Everything returned to its proper order. And then I began to feel pity for this woman’s ignorance of Christ. No one who knows the Jesus who wept with the family of Lazarus could think a Christian forfeits the right to mourn. So, when I got home that night, I prayed for her.

It cost me a lot to do it. I despised her for the way she made me feel, for the upset to my mother, to my sister, to my friends. Left to myself, I would have driven to her house and let her know that I am not just an online caricature for her and her friends to denigrate.

But I am not left to myself, thank God. And so I brought her before Him, where I leave her.

I hope she understands one day that my tender writing about the man I shared my life with was never intended as a sacrifice to her, or her kind. My identity as a widow is God-given; my faith leads me to believe that He wants me to inhabit that identity for the good of others, as well as myself.

Those who justify their godless and inhuman trampling on the feelings of others need pity much more than I. In recent weeks, I have seen for myself how very, very low the human condition can sink when it removes itself from God. I had not thought to see it on my own doorstep.

Pray for them. There but for the grace of God go any of us. They cannot save themselves, and they will not ask His help.

He expects this much of us. That is what a Christian is: someone who has feelings, yes, but lays them aside in obedience to His greater love. And His love, like many other things, can only truly be understood from the inside.

Dear Younger Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Outwards and Upwards

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

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

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

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

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

So did God Himself, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing everything by the Book

In the last, difficult weeks of Donnie’s life, we spent a lot of time on planes and in hospitals. I say, ‘we’ because, although he was the patient, I went through it all in my own way too. My way involved reading. Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ were satisfyingly bleak and waiting-room long; they suited the mood, and they passed the hours.

And for a while, I thought they were going to be the last books I would ever open.

After Donnie died, I could not read. At first, it didn’t matter, and I barely noticed. There were other things to fill my time, other concerns to occupy my imagination. But, gradually, it started to worry me. I had already lost what felt like the greater part of my identity. The months and months of anxiety and nursing had ended abruptly; I was no longer a wife. Now, it seemed like reading had gone too – I simply had no appetite for it any more.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a big deal, especially in the context of my loss. But reading had always been part of me. I remember being endlessly chided for trying to bring books to the dinner table, and for walking from room to room, book in hand, nose buried in a story. Once, hilariously, my father watched me bring home yet another purchase and said in exasperation, ‘surely you have enough books now!’

Yet, some of my most treasured volumes are the ones he bought me because he knew how much I wanted them.

I think I worried him enormously by insisting on finding a new home for the bookcase full of theology texts I’d amassed while doing a short course with the Free Church. He must have despaired when I kept saying, ‘I won’t need them again – they should go to someone who will use them’. And although I’m not sorry that they joined the fledgling library of a now newly-ordained minister, I am sorry for the anxiety I must have caused my father in the process. Did he think I was turning my back on God?

Yes, books have played an important role in my life. I wish I had told my father about the devotional I read as a child that caused me to kneel and ask Jesus into my heart. It may not quite have been a conversion, but He never quite left me after that either.

By the time I was a widow, all these years later, I was also His completely. I had lost the ability to get absorbed in a novel, but was beginning to find a new identity in Christ. Wrestling with mounting concern about my reading mojo being gone, I began to tell people how worried I was that it was never coming back. Privately, I actually thought I was mentally ill. When I would try to make myself read, I could not finish anything. It was like a sickness when food turns your stomach. My sister in-law suggested that it was the result of my conversion, that perhaps I no longer cared for ‘worldly’ books. Okay, but I wasn’t exactly devouring Christian ones either.

Except for one, that is. The One. Morning and evening, and in those still stormy, tearful times in between, I reached for my Bible. Gospels, Pauline epistles, the beautiful Song of Songs, the melancholy Ecclesiastes, the inspiring Job, and the incomparable, endless Psalms. They all spoke to me in their different ways, and in my different moods.

This Bible that had been a dumb thing in my hands for so many years, it was transformed by the power of the Comforter. Now it was ministering to me in all my need. When I wondered what all this fog of pain could mean, it spoke truth into my heart.

The Bible is not just a book. It is the living Word of God and He reaches us through it. If I did not know this before, I know it now. Books, the very things which had once peopled my world, receded from me when I needed them most. They would have been no use anyway.

His Word, though, did the work. It caused me to feel my pain, to regard it through the lens of God’s mercy and justice. For all that people call it folktales and fairy stories, it does not provide a means of escape. We have got our means already; He from whose lips the cup did not pass. But the Bible helps us accept that, it helps us see where we fit into His plan.

It did not always use soft words, nor did it beguile me with pretty promises for this world.

But it does speak absolute, inerrant truth. It comes from the Lord, and it tells us what we need to hear – that is, not what we want, but what He knows is best for us.

Trying to run things for myself, I had begun to panic, and to struggle against what was happening. Actually, though, I see it now: it was as if God had taken the book from my hand, laid it down, and whispered, ‘listen to me’.

The more I listened, the clearer His voice became.

No, the Bible is not just a book. It is a direct line from God. There is no pain, no loss, no heartache, into which it cannot speak. But it’s got to come down from its high shelf first; and so do we.

 

I can’t feel your pain, but I know a man who can

Recently, I read a blog post by the late Rev.Dr. Iain D Campbell, in which he reflected on his own father’s death. As a minister, he said he felt that he owed an apology to many families for having failed to fully appreciate the pain of parting with a loved one. I rather think he was being a bit too severe upon himself.

You cannot feel someone else’s pain for them. No matter how much you empathise, it can only go so far. If I ever complained to my late husband of an ache, a pain, or a bad day, he would make all the right noises and then say, ‘but, look on the bright side, at least I’m ok’! Of course he was joking, but there is some measure of truth in it.

My father passed away at the age of eighty-one and, when the minister came to visit my mother tried to play down her situation, mentioning the death of a young man that had happened the same week. ‘But’, the minister said, ‘everyone’s loss is painful to themselves’.

There is a limit to how much of another person’s burden we can shoulder, because we are not them. In the moments after the news was broken to me that my husband would die, the nurse said that, were it possible, she would take it from us. I think on that often; I’ve probably written about it elsewhere. But, of course, she couldn’t take it from us. We had to carry it ourselves: first, both of us together; and then, just me.

I had prayed, of course, that God would heal Donnie in a dazzling miracle, and restore him to me. God is unfailingly merciful, though, and doesn’t play with people’s emotions. He didn’t put false hope in my heart. Instead, He opened my eyes to what healing really is.

But my desperate petition reminds me of something else. Our Saviour also asked that the bitter cup of sin and death should pass from Him. In His very humanity, He flinched in the face of what was to come upon Him. And small wonder that He should.

What a uniquely lonely situation He was in: only He knew just what a weight there would be in the sins of the whole world; only He understood what it would mean for us to be parted eternally from the Father; He alone knew that the hope of salvation rested squarely upon His shoulders. And, of course, He alone has viewed death from both sides.

Although Jesus knew that He would raise Lazarus from the dead, He still wept with the man’s grieving family. And although He knew that He was fulfilling God’s redemptive plan at Calvary, He still experienced fear and pain. No one could take that away from Him either.

We have to remember that He was also wholly God, which makes Him uniquely capable of understanding our pain. And totally human, which made Him desire to be freed from His fate.

That very fact means  He is weeping alongside every person going through a difficult time – through family troubles, through loneliness, through illness, through death. He wanted to push it away from Himself, but still drank that bitter cup to its very dregs for us. This is no well-meaning, aloof God, patting our hands and saying, ‘there, there’. Jesus has experienced all the horror of death so that we never have to.

I would be lying if I said that the bereaved Christian does not suffer. Of course they do. There is a sentiment I hear expressed in prayer for the bereaved from time to time in church which, I feel, sums up the great emptiness of it. ‘We pray for those who have lost loved ones – how difficult that a familiar voice is gone and that the home is now silent’. That is unendingly hard, it’s true.

Throughout Donnie’s illness, my mother kept getting the same text: ‘This sickness is not unto death’; she and I both clung to that promise. We forgot something, though. Our understanding of death, and God’s meaning in these words, are simply not the same.

After all, it doesn’t end there – it continues, ‘but for the glory of God’.

My home is a lot quieter these days, and a much-loved voice is gone. I would have him back, but I also know that if there are bolts on the doors of Heaven, they are sure to be on the inside.

I have nursed my husband when there was hope he would recover, and when there was none. And I have done many things I had believed were years away – cleared his wardrobe, stopped his mail, picked his headstone – but I cannot feel the pain of other widows doing the same things. Of course I empathise with bereaved people, and yes, probably more now than ever, but I am limited in what I can take on of their suffering.

Jesus is not limited. He is limitless. Our Saviour weeps with us, binds up our broken hearts and gives us not only the one comfort to be had, but the greatest comfort that could ever be: death shall have no dominion.

This Jesus, on the brink of a savage death, was afraid. He suffered unimaginably, but He went through it. My prayer for anyone whose home is silent because of death, is that they would speak to Him. Speak and He will answer. He will not leave or forsake you. He knows what you are feeling – better even than you do yourself.