I’ve been on holiday this week. With the weather we have had, I would normally have been in the mountains or wandering riverside and I have missed the ‘living companion’ that George Eliot likens a river to in Mill on the Floss.
It is well observed.
Whilst a river is essentially a collection of water molecules heading downhill, it manages to nurture and sustain life in between and alongside its banks. How you view it will depend on your relationship with it; a hydrologist, ecologist, farmer, fisherman, swimmer, sewage worker, kayaker or someone on flood watch will all have their own take. Poets and writers metaphorically draw us into the riverine where it is instead humanised with familiar character attributes. I fall into this category; rivers for me are female, just as capricious and beautiful, intriguing and fun to be with as the girls I walk with along the Eden, Tees, Tyne or Wear. Living companions all and I miss them.
However, I have had a river running through my world this week that has brought food for my soul and life to my bones. The local church groups have joined together online under the Heart of Westmorland Mission Community banner. Within days of lockdown beginning and church buildings closing, the church has reappeared on Facebook and YouTube. Not just pretty faces on my tablet screen, the team has pooled their creative, teaching and technical talents to bring some very good things into my living room.
My holiday has coincided with Holy Week and I am notified two or three times daily of online Messy Church events, live feeds from Bishop James, Zoom services and YouTube broadcasts from our own clergy who have a remarkable gift for unpacking the events leading up to Easter in short thoughtful videos. This flow of Bible verses, retelling of events and reflections has filled my mental and emotional world with life and hope and joy.
And bucketloads of truth.
Which is what I need when faced with the life I have to live.
Mum died when she was 61. I was 35 and 15 weeks pregnant with Jonathan, her first grandchild. Two years beforehand my father in law had suffered a double stroke which left him semi disabled. Six months after that my mother in law died from cancer and a year later I had a late miscarriage. Tragedy was our new normal. Mum’s funeral was held a couple of days before Christmas and she had asked me to speak at the service.
Not long out of teaching, I was reminded of a lovely children’s story, “Waterbugs and Dragonflies” which I chose to read. I introduced it with a statement that, in the Western world, children have a healthier perspective on life and death than we do as adults. Grownups appear to prefer to stick their heads in the sand and say, it won’t happen to me.
The children I had taught had brought occasional tales into the classroom of the rabbit, guinea pig and granny who had died. They weren’t devaluing granny, rather accepting the natural cycle of life with the simplicity that only children can do. Their grief was real, and even more so when it was a parent or close sibling, but they walked through their pain, holding onto every hand that was offered until they found their feet in a new normal.
I was comforted on my own path of mourning by three things; the idea shared in the “Waterbugs and Dragonflies” story that there is life after death, the people who came alongside me in my pregnant and new mum world and the reality of Emmanuel, God with us, who held my every tear in a bottle.
Before and since, in various circumstances, pain has scraped out my heart and there have been times when I have wondered how to get through the day. I’ve also queried what benefit pain brings in its destructive path. I found part of an answer in “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran where he suggests that “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?”
The other part I discovered in Jesus who refused to leave my side. It’s easy when faced with the unexpected and loss to feel that God is distant and uninterested. That trouble is a punishment of some form and I just need to suck it up. This was not my experience.
I’ve walked in clouds occasionally as they have swept unbidden across summits. The majority have had a strengthening breeze or some change in weather conditions that has forewarned me of their arrival. They look imposing, and a tad forbidding to be fair, and I don’t naturally choose to climb into them. But they all have had a common characteristic; in the cloud there is a calm that outweighs the wind outside and below it. My walking pace has to slow to accommodate the reduced visibility and navigation needs to be focussed but there is a sense of being enveloped and held safe while the squalls quarrel and spin outside. Every cloud I’ve walked in has bathed me in peace, as well as damp mist, and I have bizarrely never wanted to leave.
When I review all of life’s clouds that I have had to walk through, I see them as treasured places where Jesus drew closer and revealed more of His Provision and Healing in my broken heart, mind and body. When I share that with someone, they invariably look at me in a puzzled fashion,
“Well, how does that happen?” is invariably the question.
“I look up and ask for help,” I reply. And it comes. Sometimes in a very real sense of His Presence or it may be a message or phone call from a friend at just the right time. Or I may inadvertently switch to a TV programme that provides just what I need even if it’s an hour of distraction.
The solution is always different each time and it always arrives. From a God who knows my every need and meets each abundantly.
At Easter I am reminded of the Darling of Heaven who stepped out of glory, into my shoes and onto a cross. He died humiliated and rejected by everyone including His Own Father and, in so doing, meant I never had to experience the same. In fact, He died so that, should I accept his sacrifice as a gift, I would experience the complete opposite – loving acceptance by a Father God in whose presence I am continually in. Jesus engaged in the original lockdown and self-isolation in hell so that I should never need to.
This is beyond me. Beyond all that I can ever think or imagine, as is His Peace, which passes all understanding.
And His Joy.
That has crept up on me, unannounced, like a spring which refuses to stop bubbling. I didn’t ask for that. It came as a result of being permanently grateful for everything He has done for me on the cross and all that He now brings into my day, knowing that in all things I will know more of Jesus and his love for me by the end of it.
Mad? Giddy? Maybe.
Jonathan gave me a lovely little bag of mementoes one Christmas. It includes a plaster to heal me when I hurt, a love heart to know that someone loves me and some string so I can hold it together in tough times. It also contains a marble for when I start losing mine.
I haven’t had to use it yet.
One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the LORD. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonging to him, and the other to the LORD.
When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints.
He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life.
This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it:
“LORD, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.”
The LORD replied:
“My son, my precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
Author: Carolyn Joyce Carty