Keep A Thing Seven Years

There’s a Gaelic saying which suggests that if you keep a thing for seven years, a use will be found for it. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t take that long.

This Sunday, I will have kept my grief for seven years. Like many new possessions, I carried it with me everywhere for the first while, moving it around as self-consciously as a child walking in stiff, leather shoes. When it was worn in a little, I started to forget for minutes at a time, only to be assailed by the reality of it when I least expected. In the last few days of Donnie’s life, I had been painfully aware that some time very soon I would no longer be a wife, but a widow.

I didn’t like the word and still less the idea that it represented.

Yet, in seven years, I have been taught to wear the mantle with something approaching acceptance. Instead of being allowed to push the garment from me, God has gently shown me that it IS mine to put on, every day. Traditionally, it also took seven years to train a piper, before they would be allowed to perform in front of an audience. There was no such apprenticeship for me, though – just straight in at the deep end.

I often think how this might all have been, had but one thing been different.

These seven years would have seen me grow bitter, perhaps, or reckless. I might have spent my time in wishing my husband back, or wishing I’d never met him – anything, in short, to remove the excruciating pain. The memory of his suffering could have tormented me to who knows what depths of anguish.

The one thing, though, which saved me from all of that was the hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t simply Christ saying, ‘I’m here, you can lean on me’. That would have been wonderful enough. In fact, his message was subtly different. He was actually telling me, ‘Remember I’m here. You know what to do’. This wasn’t the beginning of a wonderful new relationship, but a life-changing development of one that I hadn’t truly known I was in.

While I have carried – and will carry – Donnie in my heart, it is not loss which dominates my reflections over these seven years without him. It is gratitude. I had such a marriage that I didn’t think I could live without him. But God used that blessing to show me a much deeper and more enduring love. He has fulfilled me in the years of my widowhood, and shown me that, in Christ, all situations are an opportunity to know blessing.

I have profited from his teaching. It goes without saying that I have benefitted in more ways than I can count from his love and mercy. From the very beginning of this journey, though, God has laid it on my heart to share my providence with you. He did that, and then he made it possible.

Most miraculous of all, he took what might have destroyed me and blessed it to the extent that I can say that the Lord gives more than he takes away. Last Sunday, our minister used the sermon time to remind us of the glory and holiness of this God. And, right at the end, that devastatingly beautiful flourish of truth: ‘Remember, though, he is also your Father’.

Glorious, holy, perfect – of course; but tender and loving to the last. Not ‘also in our hard providences’ but especially. If you don’t believe it, I will take you to see a man who told me all things I ever did, and loved me just the same.

The Compassion of the Christ

Today was a communion like no other. The old traditions had all been peeled away, and only the essentials remained: the bread, the wine, the table, and a gathering of God’s believing people.

It was enough.

And the words that called to mind the loneliness of Christ’s suffering could not have been more apt for such a time as this. Many of us have gone through a protracted period of aloneness over the last two years. Families and friends have been separated, people have met death without loved ones to hold their hands. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have been bereaved during the pandemic, especially in communities which normally show their support by drawing alongside those who mourn. Who could forget those images of our newly-widowed monarch, sitting quite alone in St George’s Chapel? In that moment, she symbolised the loneliness of many across the nation.

Yet, she cannot feel your grief or mine, anymore than we can experience hers. For that, there is none but Christ.

Not only is he acquainted with grief, he has borne the unimaginable loneliness of being cut off from God. He chose to take that into his own experience in order that he might obliterate it from ours. Listening to the minister today, speaking of the peculiar loneliness of the Saviour on the cross, I was reminded of Derick Thomson’s poem, in which he speaks of peeling back the Lewis sky to behold:

‘the Creator sitting in full view of His people
eating potatoes and herring,
with no man to whom He can say grace’.

No man to whom he can say grace. No man to have compassion upon him in his pain. No man he can send.

Even in my more cynical or despairing moments, when I think there is no one to whom I can turn for advice, no one I can trust . . . there is. In these two years, during which I have been much alone, I have not been lonely. There are friends, there is family – but better than any of those, there is Christ. His advice never fails, his presence never departs; he has plumbed the depths of his own loneliness and so he is the soul of compassion in ours.

We are a society in sad need of compassion. I see a strange set of parallel phenomena creeping in. The more we say, ‘be kind’, the less able we seem to be able to apply that – as Christ does – to everyone. There is a drive to stand with victims of all kinds, which is as it should be. More understanding and not less can only be a positive development. But, are we unable, or simply unwilling, to offer a second chance to people who have gone wrong? Our world sends some into the wilderness forever, guilty of unforgivable falls from grace in our eyes.

That’s not how Christ deals with anyone. It’s not how he dealt with me; it’s not the example he set his followers.

He hung on a cross and endured the ultimate loneliness, to an extent we cannot begin to understand, in order to save us. To take that legacy of love to ourselves, we have to imitate him – he has always known the very worst and darkest details of our hearts, yet never abandoned us. Accepting his gift means sharing it abroad.

Sharing it abroad, means peeling back to the essentials as symbolised in those elements today. The death of Christ accomplished our salvation, but not so that we would keep it to ourselves.

And I bought a field

‘Faith is not a leap in the dark’, the minister told us on Sunday and, if we were not buttoned-up Calvinists, that whole congregation would have been on its feet, yelling ‘amen’, ‘hallelujah’, and punching the air. The tiny dancer in my heart was certainly giving it yee-hah, as it does every time my soul recognises fellow feeling and fellow experience among the brethren. Our man at the lectern was voicing, surely, what we would all wish the unbelievers to understand. This is not some fairy story, a pleasant fiction to comfort the bereaved, or to anchor those cast adrift from all reason.

And do you know why? Because people suffering that depth of anguish cannot be placated with soft words and pretty lies. It takes a life-changing God to be sufficient in a life-changing situation. Whether it’s illness, or grief, the breakdown of a relationship, or the loss of a job – whatever it is, only a fool would suggest that a fable might meet our needs. I know that some of my atheist friends thought that’s what had happened to me; that I had reached out for my nursery God when I found myself in the valley of the shadow of death.

Aside from the inherent blasphemy, it was an insult to my grief to suggest it is so small a thing that I could tell myself a story to make it all better. That is what you get with the myriad creeds and cults that try to fill the spiritual void in the heart of every human being, but that is not what you get with Christ. And I don’t write these things because I want you to see that I’m right, that I’m not some kind of gullible dupe. In fact, I write about it because I really, earnestly wish that you would want it too.

The particular act of faith under discussion on Sunday was that of Jeremiah who, despite the unpromising circumstances, did as he was bidden by the Lord, and bought a field. Those acres were his testament of trust in God, that the exile would end and that better days were indeed coming.

I have also bought a field. The living God has contended with me all my life, and never washed his hands of me , despite the myriad reasons I give him every day. He would not let me perish, determined though I was to have my own way. And so, when grief came into my experience, he was not arbitrarily hurting me. Of course I don’t understand why the plan had to unfold like that – but I do know that it was necessary, and done to perfection. Faith has taught me that acceptance of this is easier when we trust in God’s purpose; and it is impossible not to trust in his purpose once we know himself.

Going forward in faith is not groping blindly, it is being led by someone in whom you can have complete confidence. Indeed, someone who wants better for you than you ever sought on your own behalf.

The time of pandemic has been a test of many things, but for God’s people, I think it has spoken necessary truths. I hear often that it has fostered a spirit of backsliding in some, which is desperately sad. For me, I feel it has renewed my faith. Throughout lockdown I spent many hours alone. During that first glorious spring and summer, I walked every day, witnessing the Creator’s work, and hearing his voice in everything that surrounded me. On Sundays, through the miracle of technology – which we have by his grace – it was possible for those who are united in the Spirit to share worship. Even more astounding, he added to our number as those who could not join previously began to listen, hungry for the word of God.

These are days in which I do not despise the small things: the tang of the sea, the lilting cry of a distant curlew, the quiet morning time of prayer, and the evening peace for writing in my journal. God is here with me – he fills my mind, because I have sufficient stillness to be able to think of him, to talk to him throughout the day. And I have faith, here in this field of mine, that the renewal I am experiencing is not mine alone. It witnesses to the fact that God is active in the lives of those who belong to him, and that those who are his but do not yet realise aren’t being forgotten.

In the perfection of his own will, and in his own time, he is bringing them in, He is persuading them to purchase their fields.

Life does not look as it did in 2019, and I think it never will again. That doesn’t matter, however. If we are founding our lives on the rock that is Christ, and if the Spirit unites us in worship and a desire to witness for the Kingdom, who are we to question the means by which this is achieved? My life and my home were changed beyond all recognition in God’s providence. But he has turned this humble, grief-blighted building into a place where I can experience the fulness of his love as long as I trust in him, and accept his will for me.

I am only one Christian, but I am a microcosm of the church. In all of this, we are not taking a leap in the dark; we are purchasing fields in the sure and certain knowledge that one day, our exile will end.
But it will be accomplished his way, and in his time.

Defending My Hope

When God decided I should emerge from my shadowy existence as a secret disciple, he must have had a plan, because he always does. Two sermons set me on the inevitable path to the Kirk Session (though they assure me that one blog – possibly even this one – will be enough to see me recalled). One, on the woman who had the issue of blood, convicted me that being healed is not enough, that we have to tell it abroad; and the second one, on the need for readiness to defend our hope in Christ. 

I have not shut up since. Compelled to defend the cause, or to share my hope, I have landed in all manner of trouble. At least part of the reason for that has been my own approach. 

In that, I am like the church as a whole. We love Christ, and in our zeal to share that with those around us, we sometimes forget that the messenger is much less apt to be shot if she considers the mode of delivery a little more carefully. 

Given that my chosen mission field was digital from the get-go, there were always going to be three principal difficulties. First of all, my audience is very mixed. On one hand there are the Christians who, for the most part, see what I’m doing and say little or nothing. Their silence may indicate approval, or the very opposite; I don’t know. On the other hand, there are the all-too-vocal unbelievers who wish I’d be quiet and keep my faith in fairy tales to myself. Secondly, online ministry of the sort I have embarked upon is lonely and prone to snap judgement from among the brethren. More traditional Christians think it folly to be engaging with atheists on social media, and some have made it clear that they see my dol a-mach as troublemaking. And thirdly, if you are using digital media for writing your views, people can misunderstand tone and intention. That’s why, I imagine, I have been variously accused of having a ‘Messiah complex’, being ‘bitter and cold’ and portraying myself as ‘the perfect, grieving widow who found God’.

You see the problem? It’s all too easy to lose people. If they dislike you, or your manner, or even just their idea of you, the psychological shutters come crashing down and you have no chance of reaching them. 

So, I have an image problem. There is an entire group of people – most of whom have never met me – entirely persuaded that I am a repellent Bible thumper, an unreasonable Sabbatarian and a smug, self-righteous hater. I must bear at least some of the responsibility for this because, without doubt, I have misrepresented my Saviour at times by being unloving and too swift to speak. If we look at any of Christ’s encounters with ordinary people in the Bible, or with leaders, for that matter, there are precious few words from him. 

We, on the other hand, seek to show him forth by jabbering endlessly. Fill the silence at all costs – isn’t that how we roll? Unfortunately, my heart is not fathomless, like the Lord’s: it is mean and brittle, and goes out only to those who are easy to love, and so much of what I think, say and write is devoid of the costly perfume that Christ pours out on me without measure. I set out to share his boundless grace, but end by keeping it meanly to myself and spilling out judgement and condemnation.

Or, at least, that’s how it seems to people who are only seeing me. There is too little of Christ in the way that I deal with unbelievers and I have, consequently, forced them to see him through the prism of me, rather than the other way around.  To say that I have misrepresented him is the understatement of the century. 

The endless words from me have been an attempt to fill the void that ought to be filled up with Christlikeness. I have to speak and write and speak some more so that the avalanche of words will persuade people that I am a Christian, and that he has begun a good work in me. Of course I believe that he has, but I shouldn’t have to say it: my life ought to be sufficient witness.

I could stand silent in the presence of doubters, as my Lord did, if I was able to reflect him back at them. For a long time, I thought I was doing that with this blog, but I am increasingly aware of speaking into darkness and being answered with silence and hardness of heart.

I think, perhaps, for a little while, it may be wise to sanctify God in my heart and ready myself to give the defence of the reason for my unquenchable hope, but only when it’s asked for. When people ask, you know that they have seen something in you without having to be told.

I have never – not once – been asked for that defence.

Dumb Witness

Witnessing is one of those Christian duties that can seem a little intimidating. We are unused, perhaps, to speaking up and to expressing ourselves in a hostile setting. One of the commonest messages I get from fellow believers is, ‘I couldn’t do that; I never know what to say’.

Well, here is encouragement in Luke 21: 14-15. Jesus himself says, ‘Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict’. In other words, don’t plan out or rehearse your responses. Indeed, don’t worry over them, but trust that the Lord will give you the words.

I suppose we tend to look on witnessing as the fruit of faith, but it is actually more helpful to understand it as the exercise of faith. This is one more area in which we are asked to forget any strength or personal quality we may possess, and rely utterly upon God for guidance. Obviously I’m talking about verbal witness and, more specifically, the kind we bring to hostile audiences. 

We balk at the thought of entering such a lions’ den. Yet, this is precisely what Christ refers to as an ‘opportunity’. If we are hauled – literally or figuratively – before an unbelieving court, then we have unprecedented access to the lost.

At this point, we have to do two things: give the  reins into God’s hands; and remember what we were before becoming his disciples. The act of remembering strengthens our trust in him and enables us to let go.

God doesn’t ask for eloquence, or cleverness. He supplies any deficiencies we may have. All he desires is that we would lean on him and open our mouths in faith.

They will try to drown you out. Yes, and they will try to shut your mouth. Perhaps you will be taken to law and made a social pariah for believing what is an offence to many. You may very well suffer personal humiliation and loss of respect or status.

Even, Jesus says, ‘some of you they will put to death’.

No wonder we fear to open our mouths. Today, society seems poised and ready, waiting to catch us out. 

Just, in fact, as the Pharisees and the scribes dealt with our Saviour. He knows, you see, he knows what we fear in this because he has been there before us.

That’s why we don’t have to plan our responses, and why there is truly nothing to fear if we step out in faith. 

Open your mouth and he will fill it.

The Things That Make For Peace

There is an exuberance to the behaviour of the disciples in chapter 19 of Luke’s gospel, that has hitherto been absent from the narrative. It is as if they are brimming over with love and awe, so much that they forget themselves in front of the ever-watchful Pharisees. 

See how the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rapidly followed by an account of Jesus weeping over that city, though? Again, I see a pattern in his experience that I think is replicated in the lives of many Christians. Seasons of great blessing and joy are frequently followed by times of grief and sorrow.

If I compare Jesus’ conduct with my own in such circumstances, there is a significant difference. He moves from exaltation to weeping, to the practical application of his just wrath against the money-lenders in his temple. And all the time, he is the same. Neither joy nor grief nor righteous anger mar his perfection, or halt him in his inexorable work.

The same yesterday, today and always.

The more Christlike we become in our walk of faith, the less we are affected by these kinds of shifts in our own circumstances. I am not saying that I have advanced VERY far, but I am definitely learning to follow my own advice which I have borrowed from Naomi, and repeated to myself even more often than I have offered it to others:

‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out’.

Lately, I have had to exercise this patience in a matter that has been stressful and trying. I made the usual mistakes (usual to me, that is – I’m not tarring you with the same brush): attempting to sort it out according to my own lights being chief among them. That went on for a pretty long and stormy time. 

And then, when I was finally worn down by the effort of trying to accomplish what I could not, I gave it to God. I told him I would trust whatever he would do with it, and that I would try to be obedient to his will. 

It was not quite instantaneous, but the clouds soon parted and I now feel much more sanguine about the entire situation. I know he is in it, and he is in control. Whatever he does will always be for the best. He has never steered me wrong.

That’s the lesson. Whether we are being lifted shoulder-high in triumph, or whether we are on our knees with pain, God is in control and we belong to him. His will, not mine. In the abstract, this sounds difficult; in the heat of battle, it can seem impossible, as it did to me just one week ago.

But I submitted my will to his, and now I am learning the things that make for peace.

Turn Again and Give Thanks

Jesus met a lot of people on his travels. In chapter 8, we read of the woman with the issue of blood. She’s an old friend of mine, being the reason I first felt really compelled to go forward. Since then, on our journey through Luke’s gospel, we’ve come across a whole host of characters, and a variety of situations.

In chapter seventeen, though, we meet a particular group which is standing some distance from Jesus. There are ten of them, all suffering from leprosy. You might even say that they are practising social distancing. 

Contrast their physical stance, however, with what they have to say. ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us’, they call to him. Their illness causes them to remain separate from the great crowd that seems to attend Jesus wherever he goes. Yet, their eyes are on him, and their hearts reach out to him in faith.

I wonder how many people, in the midst of the current crisis, lifted up their voices to him. Did we – individually and collectively – ask him to have mercy on us, and to help?

Sadly, the fact is that we just don’t see God in the pandemic. All the talk has been of ‘getting though this together’ and of finding a vaccine. No mention of our sovereign Lord

Now that it seems the vaccine may be here, though, the mood has lifted immeasurably. There is talk of light at the end of the tunnel, of a way out and . . . where?

Back to ‘normal’.

That is the highest ambition of mankind right now. Let us conquer the virus so that we can go back to living as we please. We have that much in common with nine of the ten lepers. Although they asked Jesus for mercy, only one returned to thank him when their petition had been answered.

Our problem is that we treat blessings as though they are our due, and we treat hardships as something unnatural and wrong. The fact is, both are part of God’s providence for reasons only he knows. That includes Corona Virus and all the difficulties it continues to bring.

Instead of complaining that we want the ‘natural’ order of life restored, we would do well to be like that tenth leper, the Samaritan, who remembered Jesus – because Jesus had remembered him.

Take the Shame

No one enjoys having their enemies triumph over them. The psalms are full of exhortations that God not permit this to happen. I have been there many, many times and, whatever we say about being happy to suffer for our faith, it’s hard when ego is wounded.

The thing I have always found most useful in adjusting my thinking is to reflect on why I have enemies in the first place.

And when I do, I realise it’s got absolutely nothing to do with me. Yes, I might be objectionable in many ways, but it isn’t that which makes complete strangers take against me. They don’t loathe me for my own sake, but for Christ’s.

That’s a comfort in ways that nothing else can be, and especially on reading Luke 13:17, where we learn that all Jesus’ adversaries were put to shame. 

How were they? Did he exact cruel and unusual punishment upon them? Was he able to use his supreme power to humiliate them, to hurt them?

No, that’s not the way. It might be what we (well, I, anyway) wish for our own foes, but it is not what Jesus did – and, therefore, not what he would have us do either. 

He quite simply laid the truth before them. No need for anything else but to tell it as it is. We are not required to react to what they do, or what they say, but to hold fast to Christ, who IS truth.

If we humble ourselves with him, he will see to it that we are exalted with him. The truth transforms; it sets you free from hate and from shame of every kind.

No condemnation in Christ, remember – and his is the only verdict that matters.

Your Lord or Your Loved Ones?

Jesus didn’t go by the adage, ‘he travels fastest who travels alone’. He was almost always to be found at the centre of a group, whether just his own 12 disciples or, as in Luke 8, a more extended company.

For me, one of the interesting features is not the number, but the composition – ‘many women’. At least one of these was a married woman. She was only obeying Jesus’ own command to leave her family behind to follow him. It is what he asks of all who wish to throw their lot in with his; it is what he asks of us. Our loved ones are to move into second place,  behind our Lord.

When my father died, we discovered a letter he had written to us, the family. In it, he expressed his love for us, something a Lewisman of his generation would never verbalise. I don’t for one minute believe, however, that he thought we doubted his feelings for us. That was not the purpose of the letter.

He told us what we already knew, that we had been so happy together that two lifetimes would still not be enough time. 

Yet, he added that he was content to go to be with Christ, which is far better.

In one sense, this is an example of a father putting Christ before his family. But, in another, it is an illustration of that great Christlikeness which is the fruit of faith. He was using his love for us in the service of a greater love: he was saying, ‘you know how we feel about one another; well, here is something far more to be desired’.

He used this last communication to us as a witness for his Lord.

Leaving your family to be with Christ is not the cold sacrifice that it may sound. In fact, it can be a far greater act of love than remaining in the place where they are.

The Nets Were Breaking

Have you ever felt like you might be crushed under the sheer weight of the world, of your own failings and disappointments? It’s a rare person who has not. We have all been in situations where it feels as though, no matter how hard we try, no matter how justified our actions, our efforts are doomed not to bear fruit.

If we are Christians, that sense of inadequacy comes with a side-order of guilt, because we are well aware that our failing is often a result of cutting God out of the picture. And yet – if you are anything like me – in situations like that, we still persist in doing it our own way.

We know, but we somehow don’t believe, that God will do it better.

When we trust in him, though, he does amazing things. I can’t count the number of times I have put myself through agonies – what should I do, should I speak up about this, is it up to me to act, have I been wrong, is my anger justified – and why? All because I do not carry everything to God in prayer. And finally, when I am broken by my own complete inadequacy, and I go to him, arms out like a hurt child, what happens?

He astonishes me all over again.  

If only I would remember that, then, and not repeat the mistake of thinking I’m doing this alone. Luke 5 spoke to me so boldly this morning about the difference between my puny efforts, compared to those that are done in the strength and wisdom of my Saviour. 

We have to ask ourselves, when the going is tough, is the Lord withholding his blessings from us, or are we keeping ourselves aloof from him? Is our profession of faith truly bound to the way we live? Are we saying we trust in Jesus, but keeping our own hands on the steering wheel?

I know I am very guilty of this. Here, though, in Luke 5, is the reminder I need.

By myself, I am fishing with no bait; leaning on Jesus, the nets are straining to hold all that he bestows.