And the prisoners heard

Sunday afternoon sunshine lured me outside to sit on my recently-painted decking to read, write and contemplate. There were birds singing in the trees and lambs bleating in the croft beyond, but not a sound other than that to pierce the stillness. I had recently risen from morning worship with my congregation, and was in exactly the right frame of mind for a bit of contemplation.

I was also filled with an enormous sense of wellbeing. These are days filled with uncertainty, trepidation and, for many, grief. None of us knows when it may be our turn to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet, we know that God is with us, and that ,while a shadow may well encroach, it can never devour.

So, while the world’s media is talking in terms of a global crisis, of catastrophe and lockdown, God is enabling me – and many more besides, I think – to experience this as the day of small things which we are warned not to despise.  As I sat in the warmth of this early spring day, I thought about the week just gone by, and the ways in which I have met with Christ in the long hours of solitude.

There is his word, of course, and prayer. These are constants. Normally, though, they are the launchpad for what Lady Bracknell disparagingly referred to as ‘a life crowded with incident’.

I am rediscovering my inner introvert, however. This week, I have  delivered a number of lectures and tutorials, spoken on the radio about my favourite Scottish novels, attended a meeting of the Stornoway Trust, and participated in a whisky tasting – all without budging from my dining table. In between, I walk, cook, clean, read and write. In the evenings, I chat to friends and family, listen to music, and catch up on television programmes, films and podcasts that I’ve missed.

Friday was glorious. I finished classes, and took the dog for a long ramble on the machair. Confusedly dressed in wellies, linen trousers and a cashmere hoody (I like to acknowledge all seasons in one outfit), I got spectacularly rained on. Showered and pyjama-clad, I lit the wood burner and laid out my various samples of Jura whisky and wild water from the Stornoway Trust Estate in time for the Instagram tasting event.

It was not, I am quite certain, the 46.7% ABV 21-year-old malt that gave me the feeling of complete serenity, but the sense that this was a day of privileges, dispensed by the hand of a gracious God. He has enabled me to continue doing my job, and fulfill other obligations while remaining safe and not feeling isolated in the least.

Discussing this with a Christian friend on Sunday evening, she said that she was concerned by the number of people – believing people – who are not doing so well. She hears from folk who say that lockdown is beginning to pall on them, who say they miss the human interaction of church. These are by no means all people who live alone either.

All of which set me wondering what’s wrong with me that, six weekends in, I am still only able to see the positives.

I have come to a number of conclusions. Ultimately, I don’t go to church for the social aspect. In fact, quietly and without anyone else noticing, I ceased attending organised fellowships of any kind more than a year ago. Church has been a place of worship for me, and that continues to be possible by God’s grace through the technology which it is our privilege to access and enjoy. Yes, there are people whose society I miss, and I will be glad to see them when we are once more able to share a pew. Until then, however, I am getting the essential parts of the church experience at home.

Like many others, I am gratified by the way in which being a church quite literally without walls has enabled new people to join us for worship. An open door may theoretically be welcoming, but there is still a threshold to cross which can seem like a journey of a thousand miles to the stranger. Online worship presents no such barrier.

A lot of Christians are invoking the image of Israel’s captivity to describe where we are at. I don’t disparage other people’s feelings or experiences, however, when I say that this is not my view of things at all.

Christ has freed his people, and we do him no justice if we consider ourselves captive still. We ought to be like Paul and Silas who sang and prayed in their cell at midnight. The walls could not contain them because their hearts were fixed upon worshipping God. He was there with them, he is here in my house too; and he is with all his people wherever they are. Ask the suffering and persecuted church if you can’t believe a Wee Free woman.

My favourite part of that account, though, is the following four words: ‘and the prisoners heard’.

Those who are still enslaved, not by government lockdown, but the bonds of sin – what is our witness to them? Perhaps he has brought us out of our comfortable churches into the information super-highway so that they will hear us, not weeping and complaining, but lifting up our voices in praise of the Christ who will never leave nor forsake us.

Ask Not For Whom the Bells Toll – It Won’t Be Me

I have never been a fan of New Year. Too much looking back, too much sentimentality, and – for this unreconstructed Calvinist – too much presumption. It never sat easily with me to celebrate the unknown that lay ahead. What if providence brought you something hard, something regrettable?

The year my father died, my husband and I took the decision to spend New Year away from home. We rented a cottage and holed up for a few, snowy days. I didn’t have to feign a celebratory mood, but I was safe with someone who understood exactly how I was feeling. By the time we got home, it was all over, and we could just get on with the business of living.

As it happened, that new year – 2012 – was to be our last normal one together. 2013 brought the shadow of cancer, 2014 came in with great hope which sadly faded at its latter-end, and 2015 brought our final separation. Each turning year seems to bring me further away from him. I am more, and not less, aware of his absence. Every new thing that happens, every person I meet and every novel experience I have, are mine alone. There have been so many moments I would have loved to share with Donnie, things we would have laughed over together, and things we would have discussed endlessly.

These last few months, I have wondered often what he and my father would have made of some of the situations I’ve found myself in.

But these are all good reasons for me to not ‘do’ New Year. Try as you might to be unsentimental, it just isn’t possible and in what may well be a titanic act of cowardice (though I prefer to think of it as self-preservation) I have fallen into the habit of ending the old year a couple of hours earlier than everyone else. Bed, a good book, or a film, and the transition happens without me noticing.

Perhaps, ‘Gone with the Wind’, would be a good film to watch. Scarlett O’ Hara may not be the most obvious role model for a Wee Free widow, but she got one thing right – she told others not to look back because the past can drag at your heart so much that finally all you are capable of doing is looking back.

Lot’s wife paid the ultimate price for just that tendency too. Not, perhaps, because her past was happy, but because it was familiar.

We are all of us wary of the unknown. It is hard to admit our vulnerability, but if we were honest, we could all say to one another that it is something we have in common. What we have already experienced is always preferable because it is a path we have trodden before, and we know where the pitfalls may be lurking.

Faith changes your perspective on all of this, though. The more I meditate on the advice I was given after Donnie’s death not to ‘over-spiritualise’ my grief, the less I understand it. It is putting my trust in God, knowing that He has everything in His plan, which has preserved what little pretension to sanity I enjoy. I am not privy to what He has in store for me, nor even why those events already unfolded fell to my lot, but it truly doesn’t matter. He knows, and He is God; He has never been less than God to me, or to anyone else.

It is easy to focus on the silent voice and the empty chair at this time of year. Grief is selfish, though. Not in the most negative sense, but it is nonetheless about how we feel. We miss them, we wish they were here, and that life could resume its old, familiar pattern.
That is when we have to turn fully to Him. He only brings change, I think, to facilitate growth. And the only growth that matters is the spiritual kind, that we would allow Him to love us more and that He would be glorified.

When we are – quite naturally- missing loved ones who have died in Christ, though, we have this unrivalled comfort: the worst is over. Yes, we go on hurting because we long to see them, yet the next turn in our journey does not actually take us further away from them, but rather, closer to where they are. God has the roadmap, indeed Christ IS the roadmap. And the final separation has already been, as I said. Next time we meet, there will be no further parting.

And, remarkably, this is not even the best part of the story. It is only the tangible aspect, which we are probably best able to get our heads around. Besides, I believe that it offers helpful perspective.

At first, I was perturbed by Matthew 6: 21, which says that, ‘where your treasures are, there will your heart be also’. I worried that my priorities were wrong and that I merely wanted to see those whom I loved, all gone before me – that it was in them the attraction of heaven lay.

It isn’t that, though. You cannot separate  believers from the Saviour or understand them apart from Him. They, we, and He, are united by unbreakable cords of love woven by Him, and binding us all together in ways none can understand.

Yet.

What a beginning that will be, with no trepidation for what lies ahead. Those bells, now, I long to hear.

Singing my Sorrow in a Strange Land

The night before my public ordeal by presbytery last Tuesday, I got a message from a friend saying they were praying for me. They didn’t know that I was nervously facing my first gig as a male impersonator (well, you know, sort of), but that only makes it lovelier in my eyes, that these Lochies would pray for me, while I was miles away, sitting by my stove in Tolsta.

On Thursday, after a moving and thought-provoking service of thanksgiving, I went off to Isles FM – our local community radio station- to do a live show, called Glow. It’s a mix of Christian conversation, music and readings. The host is an easygoing Siarach with a pleasant, laid-back style. He manfully endured my ramblings about the Reformation for the entire show, and we parted company late on a very wintry night.

The midnight drive home over freezing white roads was unpleasant. I registered with surprise the unfamiliar sensation of being glad to see Tolsta: I was home. Back within wi-fi range, my phone pinged out messages. Laid-back Siarach doing his ‘mum thing’ and checking I’d arrived safely. A very dear friend reminding me of something so lovely from that evening’s sermon. And a new friend joking that I seemed to be everywhere, but that he’d enjoyed the show.

The road home had been a challenge, but there was light and warmth and kindness at the end of my journey.

It caused me to reflect on other things that had happened this week. Someone who is researching for a documentary about loneliness called on Monday to discuss it with me. And, just yesterday, a friend very perceptively said that she realised how difficult it must be to have no one to talk to about my day when evening falls.

Yes, that silence has got a particular quality to it. There is no one asking about how work went, or telling me I look tired. Donnie was a generous man and gave of his love and concern liberally. He cared in a very practical way because his heart and his conscience were both larger than was sometimes good for him. And, just when I was most tired, or at my lowest ebb, he would do something unexpected. Our life together was one of small kindnesses – and great ones – which I miss very much.

But, even this is something from which I can learn. I know that this life I find myself living is part of something intentional in God’s scheme. So, with His help, I am trying not to follow it as though it’s some kind of plan B.

By extension, then, the inherent loneliness that accompanies my widowhood is something of which God is aware and which He knows will be the lot of anyone in my situation. He supplies much which alleviates it. I am blessed in having a supportive and loving family, good friends and no shortage of activity to keep me distracted.

Which is fine if all I’m supposed to do is survive. One of my initial thoughts after he died was to wonder how many years I might have to ‘get through’ alone on this earth. But that was transient, something borne of the acute despair I felt at the thought of living without him.

Until I remembered that my strength had never come from Donnie. That was a mistake I had made many times before. When it really mattered, though, God gently showed me who it was that had taken me through.

Three things occur to me, then, inspired by what I have heard and where I have been this week. First of all, I believe that being distracted from grief and loneliness is not what God wants for me, nor is it why He has placed so many incredible people along my path. I think he wants me to see my widowhood, and yes, even the loneliness, as a gift through which I can experience more of His love. That was one message in last Sunday evening’s sermon.

And on Tuesday, discussing the Reformation solas, we were reminded that soli deo gloria, or ‘to God’s glory alone’ may sometimes be overlooked. It is a personal challenge to remember in everything I do and, though I try, of course my efforts frequently fall far short. After all He has done for me, how can I even think of keeping the smallest bit of credit for myself?

Reflecting on all He has done was the theme on Thursday as we gathered for a service of thanksgiving on an icy cold evening. Even in sorrow – perhaps especially in times like these – the minister said, God wants His people to sing their sadness to Him. In singing to Him, they remember His name; His name is wedded to salvation; and so in the midst of their sorrow, they remember all that His grace has accomplished for them.

That song of desolation becomes a song of praise and thanksgiving because they are no longer looking backwards at the night, but forward to the eternal daybreak.

It has been a busy week, one in which I have rarely been alone. Now that I am, my mind does not dwell on the silence, but on all the love He has shown me in these last few days. How can I sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? When I think of all He has done – His steadfastness, His forbearance, His mercy, His love towards me – how can I be dumb?