Faith Matters

Living without bitterness in the wake of tragedy

This week's 25th anniversary of the Shankill bomb was a reminder of the deep scars inflicted in Belfast and beyond during the Troubles. The Rev David Clawson, who spoke at Tuesday's memorial service, explains why Psalm 116 is a 'survivor's song' and how Jesus offers the joy, peace and strength that needed to live with thankfulness and without bitterness

The Shankill Road came to a standstill during a service to mark the 25th anniversary of the IRA bomb in which nine people as well as one of the bombers were killed. Picture by Justin Kernoghan

I was very glad that Zoë McBride was able to read the Scriptures today.

She was reading from Psalm 116, which is a survivor's song.

The writer writes a joyful song, but their situation was not always happy.

They had come through a lot when they wrote it: "The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came over me; I was overcome by distress and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord: 'Lord, save me."

I chose this Psalm because I know the people of the Shankill Road have 'come through a lot' - as families, as those who were first responders, as those who helped at the scene of the blast, as survivors with emotional and physical scars.

I grew up in east Belfast a world away from the Shankill Road, but like all of us I remember where I was on that terrible day when the bomb exploded.

On Monday night we walked up the road and remembered the atrocities that happened in this community, at places like the Balmoral Showroom, Frizzell's Fish Shop, the Mountainview Tavern, the Bayardo Bar, the Four Step Inn...

We walked as individuals and as a community who have come through a lot.

Psalm 116:3-4 speak of our situation.

The "cords of death" have entangled this road, the "anguish of the grave" has come over this community, this city has been "overcome by distress and sorrow"; for many years that has been the story of our community, and countless others all over our land.

On this 25th anniversary of what has become known as 'the Shankill bomb' we gather here inside and outside West Kirk as people who have come through.

But maybe, as a Christian minister, I would rather say this: we gather as a community that has been 'brought through'.

For some it feels like you have come through 'by the skin of your teeth' but I want to remind us that we have been brought through by the grace of God.

In Psalm 116 the writer, who knows that the grace of God has brought him through, makes three resolutions to live by.

Having been brought through, he chooses to live - to live with thankfulness; to live without bitterness; and, above all, to live.

:: He chooses to live with thankfulness.

One reason I chose this Psalm was because of verse 12: "What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me?"

This is the motto of our city of Belfast. This thankfulness to the Lord is hard-wired into our city, and those who founded Belfast gave us this verse as a gift.

They didn't know what our beloved city would go through, but they wanted us to live with our eyes looking up, thanking God for all his goodness towards us.

We acknowledge that things are not perfect, but things are thankfully a lot better than they were in 1993 and the decades before.

The writer of Psalm 116 says he wants to live with thankfulness to the Lord for bringing him though death, distress and sorrow.

It is true that having been brought through so much, many still bear the deep scars; some physical scars, deep in the skin; some emotional scars, deep in the heart; families bear the scars of empty chairs and places at family events; our city bears the scars on the landscape and in many ways deep within communities.

But in Psalm 116, the writer speaks as a survivor - a survivor who has come through a lot and lived to tell the tale.

He bears the scars and gives thanks to the Lord, the God who brought him through.

Praise the Lord that he has brought us through - Belfast people have great strength and resilience; thanks be to God for He has given that to us.

Let us choose to live with thankfulness

:: He chooses to live without bitterness

In Psalm 116:10-11, the Psalmist writes: "I trusted in the Lord when I said, 'I am greatly a?icted'; in my alarm I said, 'Everyone is a liar.'"

Here the writer speaks about the battle that he had to fight as a survivor, that battle against the temptation towards bitterness.

Whatever it is he has been brought through, it would have been easy to write everyone o? as liars, to push people away and dwell in his own a?iction.

But he doesn't - he trusts the Lord.

The temptation to live as if we can trust no-one is a temptation for all of us.

But let us follow the lead of the survivor in this part of the Bible and seek to live without bitterness, without suspicion and without fear.

Do you see how they overcame their bitterness? In verse 10 he says, "I trusted in the Lord."

He refuses to give in to the bitterness. It seems that his trust in humanity has been stretched but he refuses to write off everyone.

He continues to trust in the grace of God and look for the work of God's grace in all people; he resolves to hope that the Lord is at work.

As we have been brought through a lot, it would be easy for our community to live with bitterness and suspicion, to pull up the drawbridge, to stay behind the walls.

But we must not do that; let us continue by God's grace to seek the peace and prosperity of this city and this land.

Let us seek to work together without bitterness for a better future; let us not live with bitterness, dwelling in our own afflictions.

Those who lost loved ones in the Shankill bomb have, over the years, shared in the grief of others who lost loved ones in those days of madness that followed in 1993.

So let us be like the writer of Psalm 116 who chooses to live without bitterness and to live with thankfulness.

:: He chooses to live

Having come though a lot, the writer of Psalm 116 chooses to live.

"For you, Lord, have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living," he says in verses 8-9.

He refuses to be bitter and chooses to be thankful; he refuses to sleepwalk through the rest of his life, and as a survivor he wants to live and he wants to thrive.

The grace of God has brought him through so much and he wants to make the most of it - he wants to live in the land of the living, he wants to use his life to make a difference.

I think that's what verse 15 means: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." He want this life and death to count.

As we have listened to the grieving families speak in these days, we have heard you speak loud and clear of your great loss.

Thank you for sharing your stories. We do not underestimate that loss.

We have also heard you say loud and clear, 'We do not want to go back.'

We have heard you say that you do not want anyone to go through what you have gone through. You do not want your loved ones to have died in vain.

Isn't it right that we should try to honour their memory as we make a difference each and every day?

We want to see our country not just survive but thrive going into the future; we want to live, as we remember and grieve together, but we want to put the violence and destruction behind us. We beg our politicians to lead us on.

By the grace of God, we have been brought through so much. Let us choose to live in thankfulness of that grace.

Let's choose to live, making a difference each and every day in memory of those whose innocent lives were cut short.

Let us cast bitterness aside, seeking peace and prosperity together.

The call to live, and to live with thankfulness and without bitterness, is easy to say - but it's hard to do.

To do it, we need God's amazing grace. Thankfully that amazing grace is available to us in the person of Jesus - the tender mercy of our God, who has come to us from heaven.

He has come to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has come to guide our feet into the path of peace.

In His tender mercy the Lord Jesus came from heaven, and through his life, death and resurrection he promises to bring light into the darkness to all who trust in him, he promises to bring comfort in the shadow of death, and he promises to bring peace to all who are restless.

The Lord Jesus shares in our tears and leads us to triumph. His message is the same, yesterday, today and forever.

Turn to him today to find the joy, peace and strength that we need to live with thankfulness and without bitterness.

:: The Rev David Clawson is minister of West Kirk Presbyterian Church on the Shankill Road in Belfast. He was speaking on Tuesday at a service to mark the 25th anniversary of the IRA bomb in which nine people died. One of the bombers was also killed.

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