Yesterday was Mothering Sunday. I couldn’t help remembering the Mother’s Day I spent in Dunblane twenty five years ago. The shooting on March 13th 1996 was deeply shocking – sixteen little children and their teacher shot dead in a primary school classroom. Scotland grieved. The world grieved. All week I struggled to hold back my tears – tears from somewhere deep inside.
We were recently back from years of living abroad. I had returned to Glasgow with evangelistic fervour, to my homeland where at last I was totally fluent in language, and thought I understood the culture. Yet, of course, Scotland had changed and so had I. There was even less hunger for the Lord than I remembered, and even less passion for the lost. I felt an emotional and spiritual clash within me, a sense of loss and frustration even amongst my best friends – even in church, adding guilt and loneliness to the mix. It’s called Reverse Culture Shock! Now, with this tragedy, I felt a deep sense of shame and an ache inside to confess and repent that such an event should happen in our nation.
The headline in one tabloid newspaper read, ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’ and reminded us of Herod’s massacre of infants 2000 years before in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18). The local bookshop had a large children’s Bible lying open in the window. The picture was of Jesus welcoming the children to himself. To many it was comforting to imagine these little ones safe in Christ’s arms, yet so tragic that they were gone from this life. They seemed in some way symbolic of so many lost lives, young people stolen by drink and drugs. Having teenagers at the time, I was acutely aware of an increasing sense of hopelessness running through much of youth culture, evidencing the rejection of God by society as a whole.
‘Slaughter of the Innocents’ had led me to Jeremiah 31:15 quoted by Matthew. It speaks of a voice in Ramah, the sound of weeping from Rachel’s nearby tomb. Rachel, wife of Jacob the patriarch, died there in childbirth, and later Ramah was the assembly point for captives prior to their long trek to exile in Babylon (Jeremiah 40:1). Rachel is pictured rising from her tomb and weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted.
It was Mothering Sunday, a cold, windy, rainy day in March, just days after the shooting; it seemed appropriate to go and mourn with Dunblane. Bouquets, posies, cards, posters and soft toys lined the street and surrounded the school. Many people were paying their respects. I placed the prayer I’d written amongst the floral tributes and watched as the rain smeared the ink until it was illegible. The footpath down by the river was deserted; I leaned on a wall overlooking Allen Water, desperate to hear God’s voice. At last I was alone with complete freedom of expression, but my eyes were dry. Not a single tear, and yet I’d come to weep. Maybe I’d misunderstood the promptings of the Holy Spirit and my journey had been in vain.
I opened my Bible and read the passage in Jeremiah 31 starting at verse 16, “Refrain from weeping!” I read it again, “Refrain from weeping!” Could God be speaking to me? I read on. Could he be telling me that there was hope and a future for the Scots? Yes, we would come to our senses like the prodigal. We would cry out and God would have compassion. There would be a reward for the activity of weeping but God was giving me dry eyes to help me understand what he was saying, “Look up!” “Have hope!” The exiles will return because of Jesus. I needed this encouragement because in the midst of Reverse Culture Shock the church in Scotland seemed in such decline.
During the 16th century on the 4th Sunday of Lent, people in the UK used to return to their ‘mother church’ – where they had been baptised and nurtured in their faith. Mothering Sunday was less about mothers and more about church. The church like a mother is called to bring to birth, to gather and protect, to nurture into maturity and send out into the world. We cannot underestimate the mothering role of the church community. St. Cyprian, a third-century bishop, famously said, “No one can have God as Father who does not have the church as Mother.”
Perhaps church can learn from the Old Testament example of Deborah. Idolatry within the nation had brought God’s judgement; their enemies were at the gates. The nation was in a state of decay and it’s at this point in response to the people’s cry for deliverance that Deborah ‘arose as a mother’ (Judges 5:7).
In Judges 4:5 we find Deborah had a special seat among the people, under a palm tree situated between Ramah and Bethel. These place names have rich connotations in the Old Testament. The church needs to live in earshot of Ramah. Unless we are conscious of people living in exile, dying without Christ, and experience, like Rachel, the weeping heart of God, our praise will be hollow and triumphalistic. However, we need to find our shade near Bethel too. This is the place of dreams and visions. In Genesis 28 we find it to be an open heaven where God meets with Jacob. At Bethel God promises far-reaching blessing and fruitfulness beyond what we could ever ask or think. Without Bethel, we would be overwhelmed with despair and give up.
God touched me in Dunblane twenty five years ago. He showed me how to find his heart for my own country. It would be through prayer and lament amidst the hope filled promises of Scripture. If I stayed emotionally real with Christ, he would keep changing me, helping me understand my own people and teaching me to reach out in his way.