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’.

 

 

Always Darkest Just Before Dawn

There is something about a brand new year that is like a clean sheet of paper, waiting to be written on. For some, there is the irresistible lure of the resolution, the resolve to be a better version of themselves in the next twelve months than they were in the previous. Few of these outlast January.

It is a time of renewal, of hope; a time when whatever mistakes were made in the old year can be crossed out in the new. But it is also a time for evaluating how those aspirations that were so fresh last New Year have fared.

I was asked this week which of my prayers have gone unanswered. The question really unsettled me. It has always been my belief that God does not let sincere prayer go unanswered. Sometimes He might say, ‘wait a while’, or ‘no, that’s not best for you’, but I don’t think He ever ignores our petitions. For one thing, they are too precious to Him.

But I do have things which I bring before Him continually, as we all do. For most Christians, the first thing on that list would be for their loved ones to know Jesus as their Saviour. And for many, spiritual revival will also be a priority. Most Ch

ristians pray for those things . . . but I wonder whether we have artificially separated them in our hearts, as well as in our supplication to God.

What I’m saying is that when we pray for our family to be saved, we don’t mean them exclusively; we probably just mean them particularly. In reality, a general spiritual awakening which would include those we know and care for, well, that would be better still, surely. How much more generous are prayers which are expansive in their concern? What largeness of heart it takes to pray for salvation in those we do not know, or perhaps especially those with whom we are acquainted, but do not yet love.

The Rev John Morrison of Petty, a man reputed to possess the gift of second sight, once caught up with a member of his congregation, a young woman, on a stormy night. She was concealing her newborn – and illegitimate – infant beneath her cloak, and was making her way to a nearby loch to drown the child. Instead of remonstrating with her, he simply told her that before letting the baby go she should kiss it and ask a blessing on it. This she did, and – as the wise old minister knew would happen – she could not go through with her desperate plan.

Once you have prayed for someone, there is a bond created. I think that is how the Lord strengthens the love His people have, one for the other. He moves us to pray for each other and, once we have, that kind concern is marked indelibly on our hearts.

Revival for our community, for our country, for our world, has to be willed by God. But we surely have a part to play in readying ourselves for it. It is not a small thing we are asking for, and so we should not behave as though it is. God has shown us, I believe, that He is listening. The waiting is not a divine refusal, but evidence that He hears, and wants to hear more.
Words are easily spent. I have prayed for revival, really meaning it, but more often than not I have prayed the words to fill a silence. That isn’t what God wants; and it shames me to admit that’s what I give Him. He wants the earnestness of heart I bring to supplication which directly affects me.

How I prayed when I feared my husband might die is how I should be petitioning the Lord for our community.

It’s exhausting being concerned for people who have no thought of their own spiritual welfare. A few months ago, I heard this mentioned in a sermon as one of the things which can wear the Christian down in their own walk. And it’s true. I can testify to the frustration and even heartbreak of trying to bring Christ before people who still want to spit in His face.
They pretend it’s all part of this relentless march towards freedom and tolerance; but it’s really their own bigotry got up in fancy clothes. That’s why they’re so delighted about going to see a critically-panned ‘Star Wars’ film at An Lanntair on a Sunday afternoon; that’s why the deck of the first ferry to cross the Minch on the Lord’s Day was thronged with people: ugly triumphalism.

You see, they’ve lost any sense of community they may once have had. It’s all become lost in the morass of selfishness and hatred born of fear.

You can become so acquainted with that mindset as to despair that revival is even possible when no one will have this Jesus to be king over them. But that’s no attitude for a Christian. He wants us to be community-minded, and to pray and pray and pray for these people until all hope is gone.

Jesus is the ultimate lesson in hoping against hope. When the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were filled with despair because the man they thought would be the Redeemer had died a common criminal’s death, what happened? He himself appeared and reminded them how essential all those hardships had been to the fulfilment of His plan.

And His resurrection surely reminds us that He is hope in a hopeless situation.

My resolution for 2018 is to find that fear for others, that comes so easily where I’m concerned myself; and to give it all to God in prayer. He understands loss of hope. And He restores it like no one else can.

 

 

 

 

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.