by Rachel Campbell
‘He has told every lightning bolt where it should go’ seems to slip mellifluously off most tongues. But not mine. I struggle with this lyric from the popular worship song ‘Indescribable’ It triggers a further round of wrestling with the theology of God’s sovereignty. Does He really direct every lightning bolt where it should go? And what about every bomb or bullet? Are they too directed? Or misdirected?
The city of Bath is considered architecturally the finest in the UK. Its sophisticated Georgian facades offer enduring evidence of how it attracted the elite of society in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is a city forever associated with Jane Austin who not only lived and wrote there but also made the city a primary setting for two of her novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.
The attraction of this elegant city expands beyond Georgian architecture. Bath Abbey stands in Gothic magnificence, a testimony to centuries of Christian heritage. And in the shadow of the Abbey lies the entrance to the subterranean splendours of another of the city’s attractions, the Roman Baths. These remarkably preserved baths utilised a sacred spring dedicated to the Celtic goddess Sulis, from which the Roman name for the city, Aqua Sulis, is derived. In 2019, the Roman Baths alone attracted 1,325,085 visitors.
Such historical bounty has bestowed upon Bath the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While it is a city shaped by waves of invaders that over millennia have claimed the British Isles as their own, it appears deceptively unscathed by more recent conflicts, superficially at least. But a closer look at some buildings in the city centre reveals walls pitted with shell case fragments. These indentations have been left deliberately unrepaired as a memorial to the horrors of twentieth-century war.
In April 1942, when the Second World War had been raging for two and a half long years, my Dad was just four years old and living in Bath with his parents and his older brother. My grandfather was employed in a ‘reserved occupation’ which meant he was directly contributing to the war effort and so was not called up to fight. Like other Bath residents they would have grown accustomed to the German Luftwaffe frequently flying overhead towards the nearby strategic port of Bristol. Hitler’s reported respect for history has been suggested as the reason that Bath, unlike so many other cities in the UK, had been protected. Elsewhere, when the hum of Luftwaffe engines was heard the population of towns and cities across the UK fled to the nearest air raid shelter, but in Bath, residents remained behind the black-out curtains of their own homes.
The RAF’s destruction of the German city of Lübeck in March 1942 changed all that. On three consecutive nights, 25-27 April 1942, Bath, with its suburbs perched upon steep sided hills, was devastatingly targeted.
My Dad’s family lived in a quintessentially British house that sat on the crown of one of those densely populated hillside suburbs. This house and its identical neighbours were clustered around a small green space which in war accommodated water tanks to put out incendiary bomb fires. On the second night of what has become known as the Bath Blitz this entirely residential suburb bore the brunt of the bombing.
Dad’s family home took a direct hit that spilt the main roofing beam. The beam landed on my uncle’s bed. He was ill that night and so was sleeping in my grandparents’ room. Though he was saved, the house was destroyed, the windows shattered, the balustrade and roof blown off.
Dad’s family were forced to find shelter elsewhere. They picked their way down the stairs, through shards of glass, emerging into an almost apocalyptic scene of destruction and death, and started to make their way down the helter-skelter of roads towards the train station in the city centre. Their hope was to catch a train back to North Wales where my grandmother’s family lived.
What they encountered along the way traumatically imprinted my Dad’s very young mind. Smoke clogged air and lungs as air raid wardens pumped water from the tanks to put out the fires caused by incendiary bombs. Bodies littered their route. My Dad vividly recalls seeing the dead body of his little school friend.
My grandfather rescued an exhausted young mother who was holding the weight of her bombed home on her back, her two young children nestled beneath her. When the air raid sirens had gone off she had followed government advice and ushered her two young children into the cupboard under the stairs but they had been trapped there with their house destroyed around them.
When my family eventually got to the railway station the track had been blown away forcing them to continue their evacuation by bus. At one point the bus brushed past some heavy, low-lying tree branches and my Dad can still recall my grandmother’s scream as she thought the bus had also been bombed.
After settling his young family back into the relative safety of North Wales, my grandfather, who I called Taid (‘Tide’ – Welsh for Grandad), returned to Bath where his work colleagues were aghast to see him. The family’s names had been recorded on a list of those ‘Missing – presumed dead.’
Each one of us is here today because our ancestors survived similar wars, or famine, or pestilence. I owe my existence to my Dad’s escape but what about his little friend who like so many others perished? How does this knowledge of the past shape us in the present, and formulate our theology of eternity?
What prevents me singing ‘Indescribable’ is not a questioning of God’s sovereignty. No, I firmly believe that God is sovereign. What silences me is the way we sing and preach about such depth so glibly. For us as believers, if history teaches us nothing else it should instil within us that God’s sovereignty is something that we should never treat superficially. God’s sovereignty, as revealed in our own fragile existence, demands a lifetime of weighty wrestling and consideration.
Note: Cover image is not the house described in Rachel’s post.
Rachel Campbell is from the UK; she is married to New Zealander Grant and they have three children. In recent years she has undertaken a ministry course and an MA in Theology. Rachel believes God’s gift of life in all its fullness is found in family, friendships, community, and God’s wonderful Word and world. Her Twitter feed is linked here, and her Instagram account is here.