Burning darkness


The darkness of the early evening pervades the icy streets, despite the glow of city lights. I walk with my family up a high street and into a rectangular churchyard. We tread carefully along an unlit path and past a collection of vintage gravestones, looking somewhat foreboding in the shadows. Then we duck to the side of some black railings and head through the doors of an old chapel building. The physical warmth of the redesigned interior embraces us and we are soon greeted by friends in the modernised cafe area. They are men and women from all walks of life: old and young, single and married, ‘able’ and disabled. This is our church.

Tonight is the special Christmas service and the main talk is about the symbolism of Christingles. The kids are invited to the front and sit down to listen to the story about the first Christingle service, which happened way back in 1747, at a Moravian church in Germany. The preacher at that time, Bishop John de Watteville, wanted a simple illustration to explain the love of Christ to young people. He held up a lit candle to represent Jesus, the Light of the world, and wrapped it in a red ribbon. This was a visual reminder of the blood lost by Christ when he was executed for us.

I half-listen to this historic tale with an overactive mind worrying, as usual, about things. Foremost in my mind are the kids. They are holding candles and positioned next to a curtain lace by the wall. What if. . . my wife hurries over as the wicks are lit. We both know there is a strong possibility that one of them could drop a candle and set the stage curtain on fire. I watch her talk to them and pull out a small monitor from my pocket to check my blood sugar levels. There’s always that worry too. In the back of my mind there’s also a tugging about God. I think about my failures of late.

I tune into a voice. It is one of the church leaders and he is giving a message about the significance of the Christingles. The light. The blood. He sounds excited but I find it hard to feel the same joy. My face feels cold and my eyes are heavy with tiredness. I am given a candle too and lean my chin slowly over the flame, to let the heat touch me. I have an inner sense that I can rest awhile. The light from the candle seems almost alive. It is somehow burning me.

The light on the table

My wife and I have become strangers. We both acknowledge the fact. We’ve reached the end of the festive week and it’s been a good time, apart from the death of the pet rabbit. But in the midst of sharing company with our parents and children, opening bottles of mulled wine and attending the hot oven for platefuls of roast – we’ve lost each other. We haven’t spoken properly for too long.

We sit in a bustling restaurant licked with red paint and photos of strangers, and enjoy just being ‘us’. Talking about our own private world. We’ve been together for years but it somehow feels like the first date. She seems more beautiful than I have ever known her. I glance out of the nearby window fronting the seaside and see the dark silhouettes of waves ebbing and flowing, trying to overcome the promontory of the shore. There is a strong wind billowing across the swell.

Then I look down and discover there is a small candle on our table. The flame is bright and burning.

The hidden water

The next day, we both argue about who should wash the dishes at home. We’re both aware there is ‘lots to do’ in the house and the pressure affects us. I escape and take two of our children for a walk but don’t have much expectation, apart from a bit of exercise. I try to focus my mind on heavenly things, as the Bible encourages us. But it feels like a pressure and I am reluctant.

I have an idea to take the kids by myself to a nearby smallholding that I chanced to find on a previous solo walk. We spend time with the Berkshire hogs, observe some bored sheep and try to spot the chickens behind a fence in the far distance. My younger daughter pushes past an information sign and we follow her on a rural track into a small copse of birch trees. There is the sound of running water from a brook and we head upwards until we reach a small river.

The kids love it and I start becoming a child again too. We make it across a log bridge with handrails, point out a grey squirrel scampering on a branch and play ‘poo sticks’ on the gentle rapids. At the bend of the river, the tiniest of waterfalls appears and I take a moment to admire it. The bubbling water is dynamic but humble. It reminds me of the one who says, “I am the water of life.”

Later on, back home, a strange event happens. I am looking at some packages that have arrived by post. More ‘things’ to attend to, on the ‘lots to do’ list. Suddenly my little son walks in front of me and points at the packages.

“That’s not golden. That’s not heavenly.”

I am taken aback by the remark. What does he mean? But he refuses to explain and just repeats the statement.

“That’s not golden. That’s not heavenly.”

I feel a familiar coldness in my spine. A beckoning to turn back to God’s way of doing things. The next day, I apologise to my wife about the washing up.

Looking at the sea, looking at calvary

We end our festive holiday, as a family, by the sea. A beautiful spot famed for oysters and smuggling on the far south west of a peninsula, near where we live. We walk across the pebbles and sands to the furthest side of the main beach. My oldest daughter asks me to teach her how to skim stones and I pretend to be an expert. Meanwhile, my younger daughter keeps finding fossilised rocks, which she suspects contain special crystals. Our boy escapes the froth of the tide, at a safe distance, and keeps running in circles. My wife chases him.

I look across the expanse of the wide blue water and marvel at the crest of waves. The Sun is setting now but the rays still burn on the horizon. I keep praying to God, asking him for a deeper revelation. And the thought arises of a devotional I’ve read recently, saying we enjoy the sea because it’s the Lord’s creation but our focus is to be on the truth of calvary. The ‘place of the skull’ where the GodMan died for failures like me.

The Lighthouse

My wife and I return to the same restaurant we had previously visited. It is ten days later and it’s been another busy time. I’ve returned to work in my new job. The kids have been languishing indoors in the last days of the school holidays. Bad weather has stopped them from enjoying the garden. I’ve told them time and again ‘not so much screen time’ on their computer tablet. But I offer no alternative fun indoor activities. My mum is still with us after going Covid positive for the first time, whilst visiting us for the festive break. She’s been stuck in a bedroom and has needed looking after, regaled with endless cups of tea.

We try and recapture the intimacy of our last visit in the eatery. I am entranced by the mysterious irony of the lovingly golden sparkle in my wife’s aphotic, inkish eyes. A gaggle of shrieking and laughing loutish ladies on another table distracts us. I start complaining loudly like a grumpy old man about them. We finish our meal quickly and head outside, walking into the wind alongside the seafront promenade. The Moon splays iridescent doorways to deeper worlds, etched onto the surface of the caliginous waves.

At the end of the walkway, at the head of a pier, we step carefully down stone stairs and onto the sands of a tiny beach. The white froth of the waves is clearly visible as a slight gale force thrusts towards the shore from the Atlantic but the visibility is nil.

“That island is very cut off.”

My wife points to the small silhouette of an island just 50 metres from us. A bright light flashes in the darkness and then disappears. I am mesmerised by the pattern of the lighthouse powerfully shining in the blackness before momentarily disappearing. My thoughts wander to consider how that imitates life. We are surrounded by so much darkness and distractions but the light of Jesus Christ is still there: solid and lighting up the stygian recesses of our existence. He is hope in the background.

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcome it.’ (John 1:5)


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