How can I hand you over?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the heart of God.

In unity to dwell . . .

Many years ago, my granny used to tell a story about an indignant woman from her own neck of the mòinteach who once nailed a list of her grievances to the door of the manse. While I would in no way suggest this as the best means of communicating with your minister, it certainly would be a non-confrontational means to tell him . . . oh, I don’t know, say, how much he hurt your feelings by implying you wouldn’t get a singing voice till Heaven. If that had happened. Hypothetically-speaking.

Generally, though, nailing stuff to doors is not the way to get taken seriously. Particularly, I would imagine if, like the woman in the story, your missive culminates with a threat to ‘cud of’ the hands of anyone removing your notice. Such dark ravings will only ensure that people avoid you in the street, while also keeping your exploits alive in folk memory long after you have passed away, hopefully to that place where – apparently – everyone will have the voice of an angel. She added, bitterly.

There’s one fellow, though, we remember for the door-nailing carry-on, not because his behaviour was eccentric, but because his influence was so far-reaching and long-lasting. Martin Luther did not like what the church had become and so he took very direct action, according to tradition, hammering his 95 complaints into the door of Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517.

This set in motion the chain of events which history recognises as the Protestant Reformation. It was not a time for subtlety, or gentle implication. Objections had to be nailed to doors, not whispered in corners, or written into politely phrased letters.

These days, though, perhaps we need to hammer our concerns to the inside of the door. It really takes someone exceptional to effect change from outside and, in the case of the church, isn’t it always better that we work together for the greater good, rather than react to external forces?

Luther, and the other Reformers are not remembered and revered because they created the ultimate schism. Surely, we celebrate their legacy because their eyes were opened to the truth, and they were used by God to relentlessly spread that message, whatever the personal cost.

One very important facet of their message was that Christ is head of the church, no one else. As such, then, it is His church – not ours. Logically, therefore , the outworking of that is for us to treat the church as we would wish to treat our Saviour. Of course, I hardly need add that by ‘church’ here, I mean the people, not the building.

Who has not been moved by descriptions of His plight at Gethsemane, and at Calvary? Which Christian has not shed tears over this perfect man being made sin for our sake? And yet, which of us has not harboured ill-feeling towards one of His sheep? Haven’t we had partings of the way which were unedifying and unnecessary? Most would agree that there are few things sadder than a family divided. How much more true is that of God’s family?

Besides, if we are of the reformed faith, then surely we must remember that the Bible is our guidebook. Too often, we act on our own instinct, which is never a good idea.

I don’t know about you, but my instinct is governed and guided by ego, by self-interest, and by pride. I may even be the guiltiest of the sinners in my church; I wouldn’t be surprised.

Nonetheless, I cannot be the only one whose judgement is constantly clouded by self. Yet, if we allow ourselves to react to every perceived slight and wrong and hurt inflicted upon us, and if we think our own behaviour beyond reproach, then we will always be at odds with a church which is full of imperfect people.

Sinners saved by grace are still sinners. I had heard about conviction of sin before, but really only felt the guilt of it once my prison door was opened. This, I imagine, is a truth which applies to all Christians – that we struggle daily with sin.

And as such, ought we not be moved to help one another, rather than to judge? If sin is our common enemy (which it is), we have more to gain by sticking together, and by helping one another with our burdens. The thief, that is Satan, comes to steal, and kill, and destroy. He knows better than any of us that a divided household cannot stand.

That love which we are exhorted by Peter to have for one another, is the same love which he later tells us covers a multitude of sins. When a Christian stumbles, the world purses its lips, and gleefully crows that he is no better than anyone else. It takes pleasure in his misfortune, and holds up his sin as proof that Christianity is a sham.

This is no more than we have come to expect from the enemies of Christ.

If his brothers and sisters in Christ do likewise, however, or stand aloof in his misfortune, how are they different from the world? And how are they showing obedience to the Lord that forgave them so much?

As Christians, we are the body of Christ. One body, of which no part can be afflicted without it causing suffering to the rest. That is why we are to love one another, to help one another, and to bear each other’s burdens.

Armour was always easiest to put on with help from a friend. If the breastplate of righteousness should work loose, who will help me tighten it, if not my brothers and sisters? And if I see theirs slipping, my hand should be first to help, and my lips silent of all reproach.