For many years now my go-to author in times of difficulty has been Samuel Rutherford. I have blogged about him before: https://rosbunneywriting.wordpress.com/2012/08/18/samuel-rutherford/ My thoughts have been turning to him again recently because almost 400 years ago he experienced exile under house arrest – confined indoors and allowed no contact with his loved ones. And all this was long before the days of social media, Skype and Zoom conferences – he truly was cut off from people.
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I have picked up his volume of letters again this week, as I know he has something to say to those of us who are separated from those we love and restricted indoors indefinitely at present. When I began writing this, my daughter was confined to her bedroom in the residential care home for over a week with a mystery illness which didn’t appear to be covid-19, but no doctor was available to diagnose it. And of course the one thing I most wanted to do – rush round there and give her a cuddle – is the one thing I can’t do at the moment.
So what did Samuel Rutherford experience when he was removed from his community and confined indoors? During the early months, he struggled with depression and was even afraid that God might be punishing him. In one of the early letters from this period he wrote, “That day that my mouth was most unjustly and cruelly closed, the bloom fell off my branches and my joy did cast its flower.” He wrote of his faith bowing under “this almost insupportable weight” and prayed, “Oh that it break not!”
He worried terribly about those he had left behind: “My day-thoughts and my night-thoughts are of you; while ye sleep I am afraid of your souls.” And he spoke of the one thing that, next to Christ Himself, had been his greatest joy – preaching the Gospel. He wrote, “It was to me like the poor man’s one eye; and they have put out that eye.”
So like everyone at the moment, he felt the privations of confinement and separation very keenly. But as time went on, he discovered a wonderful secret. First, he came to realise that although pain and grief are part of our daily experience of life, indulging and wallowing in them need not be. “What folly is it to sit down and weep upon a decree of God …. It were better to make windows in our prison, and to look out to God and our country, heaven.”
In the pain of isolation and loneliness, he found the tender friendship of Christ all the sweeter. “My extremity hath sharpened the edge of His love and kindness. I would desire …. daily renewed feasts of love with Christ, and liberty now and then to feed my hunger with a kiss of that fairest face…. I find that it is possible to find young glory and a young green paradise of joy, even here.”
A few months into his confinement he wrote, “Oh what a fair One, what an only One, what an excellent, lovely, ravishing One is Jesus! Put the beauty of ten thousand worlds of paradises, like the garden of Eden, in one… and yet it would be less than that fair and dearest Well-beloved, Christ.”
He prayed for those he could not be with physically, and wrote to remind them of the fragility of their life, and encouraged them to set their hopes upon those things that would endure and not perish: “Remember, when the race is ended, and the play either won or lost, and ye are in the utmost circle and border of time, and shall put your foot within the march of eternity, and all your good things of this short night-dream shall seem to you like the ashes of a bleeze of thorns or straw, and your poor soul shall be crying, ‘Lodging, lodging, for God’s sake!’ then shall your soul be more glad at one of your Lord’s lovely and homely smiles than if ye had the charters of three worlds for all eternity.”
And he learned to live in the presence of Jesus and experience His empathy right there in the place where he was locked up: “He will be a confined prisoner with me. He lieth down and riseth up with me; when I sigh, He sigheth; when I weep, He suffereth with me.”
So what can I learn from this man who has long been one of my heroes? That I shouldn’t beat myself up if I feel depressed or anxious about the situation – that is a natural human reaction to these circumstances. But also, not to wallow in those feelings, but to turn my eyes upon Jesus, and to pray for those from whom I am now separated.
Her Majesty the Queen, in her recent broadcast, encouraged us to use this time for prayer and meditation – it sounds as though she may have discovered something of Rutherford’s secret, too. Experience tells me that if I will take time to focus on Jesus, I too will find the joy of His presence, just as Samuel Rutherford did. There are lessons to be learned, and if my heart is soft, I will learn them as he did: “Our soft nature would be borne through the troubles of this life in Christ’s arms; and it is His wisdom, who knoweth our mould, that His bairns go wet-shod and cold-footed to heaven…. Time will eat away and root out our woes and sorrow. Our heaven is in the bud, and growing up to an harvest.”
At the very end of his life, Rutherford wrote to a minister whose congregation were unable to meet all together (sounds familiar?) and urged them to gather in small groups in homes on different days and do the work of fervent prayer. He wrote, “Though the same particular day be not observed, yet, where many are on work, some salvation from the Lord’s arm is to be expected.”
Eventually, in his captivity, his restless nights of anxiety over absent loved ones had given way to a peace that enabled him to sleep undisturbed in God’s presence: “Christ will have joy and sorrow halvers of the lives of the saints, and that each of them should have a share of our days….But if sorrow be the greedier halver of our days here, I know that joy’s day shall dawn.… When we are over the water, Christ shall cry down crosses and up heaven for evermore! and down death, and down hell, and down sin, and down sorrow! and up glory, up life, up joy for evermore! In this hope I sleep quietly in Christ’s bosom.”
So my prayer for myself and all of us as we live this strange new life of disconnection and separation from familiar places and people is that we will discover, as Samuel Rutherford did, that we can be open about our doubts and anxieties, but we can give them to Jesus, and we can use this time to grow ever closer and more familiar with Him, and that we will emerge from this time with a new depth of passion in our love for Jesus that will redirect our lives from here on, into a new path of intimacy with Him.