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.

Sin: Catch It, Bin It, Kill It

There is usually a man standing by the roundabout as I drive to church on Sunday mornings. He wears a t-shirt that proclaims, ‘God Hates Divorce’. I fell to wondering recently whether we’d run out of denominations before we ran out of things God abhors, were we to dress every churchgoer in Stornoway similarly, listing a different object of divine wrath on each garment.

‘God hates gossip’ and ‘God hates lies’, or ‘God hates cheating’. Maybe even ‘God hates schism’ for someone edgy in the Church of Scotland.

Or, how about, in the interest of brevity, ‘God hates sin’?

I have been wrestling with sin myself lately. Sin is very much like . . . now, wait while I spend a convincing amount of time pretending to think of a suitable analogy. Hmmmm . . . erm . . . Oh, I know, just plucking one out of thin air: sin is like rubbish. We generate it; we have to be the ones to deal with it. And if we all took care of our own, there would be a lot less of it about for other poor souls to have to mop up.

When I fell victim to someone else’s badness recently, I was reminded of an old neighbour we had when I was growing up. Plagued by crows, plundering his garden and stalking his newborn lambs, he took matters into his own hands. Catching one, he killed it, singed it and nailed it to a fence post as an eloquent warning to other feathery felons.

It was in light of his display of native ingenuity that I finally agreed to report my foul-mouthed online stalker to the police. Make an example of just one loose cannon and the others will get the hint.

I made an error of judgement, though. Crows have the intelligence to recognise their own likeness, even when it is charred and nailed up and quite dead. Not so much with the keyboard warriors, though. They failed to see why, having reported one bona fide weirdo to the police I should not still go on submitting myself to their barbs and jibes as well. Oh, that person had gone over the score, some of them admitted – but not them.

They are, if you will permit me just one more Castle Grounds-related analogy, a little bit like the rhododendron ponticum. A great show is made, a display of concern, but every single one contributes to the toxicity of the environment. Each person who forcefully and repeatedly hammers home their opinion, and does so by naming names and making accusations that have no basis in fact, poisons the online atmosphere and makes it just that little bit harder for the fragrance of truth to break through.

You see, other people’s sin is much easier to spot than our own. I can see in the flamers and trolls that twisted humanity which enjoys humiliating and victimising their fellow man. If I could, I would make them t-shirts that read, ‘God hates bullying’.

But the point of bullying, like any other sin, is that we have to diagnose ourselves. Before we can don any garment emblazoned with our guilt, we have to own that sin, admit to it and meet it head on. I cannot do that for the many people – strangers mostly, but some who are not – who think that it’s acceptable to use a public forum to pillory and threaten me for having a different opinion to them.

That is actually their burden to bear; not mine. Besides, I think that someone who loses their dignity and their decency, ostensibly over the question of litter bins in a public garden, has bigger problems than poor online etiquette.

Episodes like this are distasteful. They upset the people who care about me and they persuade onlookers that public life in Lewis is a harsh and lawless thing. No one is encouraged into any kind of community service by witnessing my experience. Who would want to have their good name trodden upon for being . . . well, what? What am I that attracts such hatred?

I am a sinner – saved by grace, yes, but still a sinner. My wardrobe could be filled with t-shirts enumerating my guilt for the world to see. And that is for ME to deal with; it is between myself and God. It’s a daily struggle, and never more so than when I’m denigrated by strangers and have to remember one important truth. While that behaviour is theirs, and I have no control over it, or guilt for it, I DO have agency in how I respond. That’s the real test.

Do not, the Bible tells us, repay reviling with reviling. The world hated Christ to death and it shouldn’t surprise me to be loathed for his sake. I have looked on him, nailed to a cross, his human countenance marred by violence and hatred, made sin for our sake – and I have recognised myself.

It is simultaneously the lowest and the most exalted point in his story, and in that of any repentant sinner. You see what you are and what you have done, but at the same moment you realise that this is also the route to redemption.

From then on, the path is not smooth, as I have found out. Once you have seen yourself as you truly are, every day is a battle against that – but it’s a beautiful battle because of the template to which he is conforming us, little by aching little. What do I care, really, for lies told about me by strangers?

If there is any Christian looking on and questioning why I would expose myself to this kind of life – and I know there is – I can answer that very simply. He has called me to witness. I don’t serve an ungrateful community that hates me; I serve an incomparable Saviour that loves me. Christ loved me, as he loves them, before I ever knew his face. When they finally lift their eyes to him, as I pray they will, that understanding will become theirs too.

Sin is like rubbish. It is we who produce it, and it is we who must dispose of it. No one is asked to manage other people’s sin; only their own. Ignoring it is not a solution, nor is dumping it on others.

God hates sin, and he’s asking us all to deal with our own, leaving the rest up to him.