Fire and Remembrance

Once, when I was about seven or eight years old, I awoke to hear my father telephoning for the fire brigade. A few minutes later, my mother appeared in the bedroom and told me to get up and put my clothes on over my pyjamas. The house opposite was ablaze, it seemed, and people were nervous of flying debris which might set other homes alight. 

For a few minutes it was a great adventure, to be getting out of bed late at night to go and stand in the street. But when I actually saw the house in question, blackened timbers against a terrifying orange blaze, I didn’t feel so secure. 

In fact, it sparked off (pun intended) a lifelong nervousness about fire. Even now, I hesitate to light the wood burner on a windy night. I remember only too well what fire can do when it overpowers.

November begins, of course, with fires to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot. My enjoyment of these as a child was always marred by the recollection of that other inferno I had witnessed. Standing further from the flames than my peers, I winced at every crackle and spit. I could not get far enough away from fireworks when they were being lit, though I still enjoyed their colours against the night sky.

Strange that a tradition which unsettles people and their pets alike, and which has seen its fair share of tragedy, is actually about celebrating safety. We do not light our bonfires in tribute to the traitor, Guy Fawkes, after all, but in thankfulness that the King’s life was not forfeit. 

November is a month associated with remembrance, then, and with fire. Around the coast of Britain, beacons were lit to celebrate the Armistice; many will be lit again this weekend to mark its centenary. These practices echo the customs of our long-dead ancestors, who marked the end of the agrarian year by lighting up the darkness in this way. Knowing that months of winter would follow, they celebrated the harvest’s safe in-gathering by creating warmth and colour. 

For them, fire symbolised much that was good – warmth, light and safety. They used it to encircle their newborn children, and their livestock, and they traced the boundaries of their settlement with fiery torches too, to protect everything that lay within.

Over the years, we have lost this sense of fire as a protective force. It is something which the old adage reminds us is ‘a good servant, but a bad master’, and we have become nervous of its destructive power. Even Christians are inclined to think of it in terms of the everlasting torment of hell awaiting the lost.

In the Bible, however, fire is often indicative of God’s presence. When the children of Israel stepped out into the unknown, He lit up the darkness as a pillar of fire. Moses, of course, had already encountered God in the burning bush, when he had to avert his eyes. This suggests that what he was experiencing was God’s glory, as opposed to a His presence – though the two are hard for this novice to separate.

And then, there are all the instances of God’s wrath being likened to fire – when it burns hot against His enemies, and consumes the faithless. Psalm 89 speaks of this. In other passages fire tests and refined but does not destroy . . . surely all of this testifies to the fact that the Bible DOES contradict itself?

No, it testifies to God’s unchanging nature. He meets those who are His as a loving, glorious God; and He meets His enemies as a judge. In all circumstances, He is a fire – but that fire acts upon Christian and unbeliever very differently.

Britain was tested in the fire of war, and always came through with its faith intact. Services of remembrance have, traditionally, had a strong Christian element – with songs of praise and prayers of thanksgiving forming the central core. Just this weekend, however, I see the usual suspects on social media, trying to make God the culprit for war.

God is not the warmonger; Satan is. He stirs up hatred so that nations think nothing of wilfully taking lives in their hundreds. And he picks his way through the ruins of our lives, blithely walking away from the destruction he has wrought.

Some cling, wisely, to God. They give thanks that He has dealt mercifully with us. Prayers of gratitude and songs of praise go upwards to Him. Even in grief, they see His hand at work.

Still others make the war dead their focus, and berate a God whose existence they deny. They wear the poppy, and bow their heads in silence . . . but it’s an empty sort of remembrance.

We light bonfires on our shorelines to commemorate that our warfare is ended. But if these don’t also kindle an awareness of God’s presence in all our tribulations, what have we learned that’s worth remembering?

 

 

 

 

The Port We Long to See

This week, since donning my own ‘Iolaire’ pin, I have noticed them on other lapels also. Like the poppies which we are so used to seeing annually, they are a silent, unifying act of remembrance. To wear one, I think, says something about how much this place and these people mean. For me, the men who were lost on that night, and those whose lives were changed forever, are still part of the chain to which we belong. That lovely custom of patronymics – bearing not only your own name, but that of your father, and grandfather before him – has kept us linked to one another across years, across great distances, and even on either side of death.

It will soon be one hundred years since that night which entered the Lewis psyche, arguably never to leave. I am a believer in Carl Jung’s collective unconscious: that there are areas of the subconscious mind which are motivated by experiences we did not personally have, but which are inherited from our ancestors. Because I believe also in original sin, this makes perfect sense to me. Add to that the strength of what we now call community in this island, and it is small wonder that wounds inflicted a century ago have not quite healed.

And, of course, our own particular experience may add a poignancy even to something so far in the past. When I was younger, I could listen to Murdo MacFarlane’s ‘Raoir reubadh an Iolaire’ with relative equanimity. Now, I find his description of the woman’s dawning grief virtually unbearable:

Sguir i dhol chun an dorais

‘S air an teine chuir mòine

She ceased going to the doorway

Or putting peat on the fire’

I had so many years of waiting for my husband to come home that, even now, three and a half years after his death, on some level I think I am still waiting. Nonetheless, I know what it is to feel your hope dying, and for loss to move from being an abstract thing that happens to others, to being a reality from which no earthly power can liberate you. For me, it didn’t happen when I was told he would die within a matter of days; it happened when they removed the PICC line, which had delivered the hope-giving chemotherapy into his arm. It was symbolic of the death we were now all having to accept. There would be no more going to look hopefully out the door for me either.

 But, just as light drives out darkness, life overcomes death. You must go on, and the providences which God gives will shape your dealing with others, as well as your understanding of self.

And, as it is with individuals, so it is – I believe – with community.

The Lewis that awoke from the last year of war into a January filled with nothing but grief must have faltered at first. There must have been, as there is for every one of us who has lost a loved one, the thought that recovery from this would be impossible. And there were difficult times to follow; not least the years of emigration because, much as people wanted to cling to their home island, it could no longer support them all. As Donald MacIver put it, in these lines from the beautiful ‘An Ataireachd Àrd’:

S na coilltean a siar chan iarrainn fuireach gu bràth;
Bha m’inntinn ’s mo mhiann a-riamh air lagan a’ bhàigh;
Ach iadsan bha fial an gnìomh, an caidreabh ’s an àgh,
Air sgapadh gun dìon mar thriallas ealtainn ro nàmh.

In the woods of the west I would not wish to remain;

My mind and desire were always on the hollow by the bay;

But those who were generous in deed, in fellowship and joy,

Are scattered defenceless like a flock of birds before its enemy’.

 Scattered: by war, by the Atlantic, by death. And yet, still those names belonged in the patronymic chain. It may have been strained by absence, and by distance but, like the heaving rope which brought so many men alive from the Beasts of Holm, that chain held fast.

 And it holds fast even now. We don’t wear these badges to mark a distant and remote event, but a personal grief which has permeated life in Lewis and Harris since the turn of 1918. I like to think that it has shaped this community, made it finer and stronger, and knit it closer together. Even though we will have times of drifting apart, and of falling out, remembering is an act which will always unify us.

The sinking of the ‘Iolaire’ ended 205 lives, and blighted many more. This was part of the same providence which the Stornoway motto claims as our inheritance. I have often heard expressions of surprise that such a bitter experience did not turn the survivors against God. That incredulity comes from the same place that caused someone to ask me whether I had been angry with Him for taking Donnie. 

Job’s answer ‘Shall we receive good from God, and not receive evil?’ is the right one here. Like Job, and like the psalmist – over and over – we have to take providence and let it do its work. Those more challenging aspects are not something we recover from, but something which becomes part of our identity. 

To commemorate this centenary is only partly about those who were lost, although of course that’s significant too. We have, also, to be thankful for the fact that God was faithful to this community: a constant in the years of turmoil. Many gave their sons, and who understands that sorrow better than Him? 

The poppy, a symbol of violent death, is paired with the bell, a symbol of holy power on the lapels of islanders this year. May they be tokens to us all of the One who perfectly unites both, and sees all His people safely to the shore.

 

Raging & Witnessing

Once, when I was eleven years old, someone really annoyed me. When my shocked teacher returned to the general mayhem of the classroom after playtime, she found me, standing on a chair dishing out a full-blown row to one of the boys. She gave the accustomed blast to everyone to get back to their seats and be quiet. Me, she took aside, and instead of the expected punishment,said that she’d like to see more of that kind of spark in future.

Great displays of temper are largely beyond me. Recently, I was ambushed by an angry secularist who claimed not to have been following the ‘debate’, but still knew that I was in the wrong. I simmered, but stayed calm. It was ill-judged and inappropriate in every sense, on her part, but I should have walked away much earlier nonetheless .

We have been hearing a lot recently in church about situations like these and, more specifically, where you are denigrated in public because of your attachment to the Lord. The correct response is not to say nothing. It is, pretty obviously, not to respond in kind either – we know better than to stoop to that kind of reviling and abuse. God wants a bit more of us than that.

And so I remember the one area of my life where aggression sometimes manifests. I am a pretty impatient driver. People dawdling along in front of me, pulling out at junctions when I’m almost upon them, waiting at roundabouts when they have the right of way . . . these can bring out the Mr Hyde to my normally placid Dr Jekyll.

However, I had the capability to subdue my baser instincts behind the wheel in one significant set of circumstances. At election times, displaying a sticker in support of my party of choice, I would turn into the world’s most courteous driver. Smiles, waves, signalling folk to pull out into the flow of traffic while I waited with a beatific, Mother Theresa-style countenance (or the Wee Free equivalent) – all these were suddenly possible. I could be an ambassador for that cause.

Surely this one deserves that same consideration, and more: much, much more.

What more can we do, then, when someone tries every lie available to sully our reputation? Other than walking away, that is, or standing mute before them.
Well, Peter wants us to bless them. He wants us to bless them so that we can show them by our good conduct how far short their own falls of what Christ requires. In other words, we do not just omit to revile them, but we actively do something for them to demonstrate the power of the Lord in our lives. That’s important to remember, or we just couldn’t do it.

He is in charge; they are not. The fact that they behave as though they are in complete control of their own destiny should cause sympathy in our hearts, because we know that is not the case at all. We have been where they are. And we did not take ourselves out of danger.

Earlier this week, I listened to a talk about the loss of the ‘Iolaire’ at New Year, 1919. There was, after the war, something of a spiritual revival here in Lewis. These men who had been in such grave peril were turning to God in peace time.

I hear some say that this is understandable – that after the unimaginable horror of war, compounded by loss of life on the threshold of home, they looked for something outside themselves.

There is no logic to this. Not in the ordinary sense. In looking for God’s hand, might they not see it as coming down against them? Some of those men witnessed the loss of childhood friends, the stench of battle in nostrils more used to the fragrance of machair and the tang of seaweed at home.

So, when they sought God, why did it lead to faith, and not rebellion against Him? Why were they not angry and reviling like the people in our own midst, who see the Lord only as someone who denies them freedom?

I can only think that it is this: those men saw God as He really is. They looked for Him, and they found Him – His spirit witnessed to theirs, and they were healed in their souls.
For the angry ones here in our own island, there is a difficulty. They are not looking for God, but pushing Him away. As yet, they do not see Him as He really is.

That, I think, is where Christians have a job to do. We must subdue the angry words that rise to our lips when they call us the names that they do. And we must shrug off the lies that they tell, because God, our witness, knows the truth.

It serves no one – least of all our Lord – for anger to seize us. This week, I have watched people tie themselves in knots to prove that theirs is the correct point of view. Ministers, one argued, must place the Bible between human conscience and false teaching. I disagree; I think all believers should position Christ there.

You cannot unsee Christ once He reveals Himself to you. No matter what else your eyes may have witnessed – battle, sickness, death, despair – suddenly they are filled with Him.

He is the truth. And once you have the truth, you are set free – from doubt, from anger, from all the cares of the world.

It is my job, the job of every follower of Christ, to quell our anger, and guard our tongues. Sometimes, I fear we distract from the Saviour, instead of pointing to where He stands.