A Silent Voice And The Stronghold Of My Life

Three months after my husband died, I was mildly surprised to find myself sitting under a tree in the grounds of the Cabarfeidh Hotel, meditating upon Psalm 27. It was an unexpectedly special moment in the midst of what was an awful time.

I hadn’t just randomly decided to do this – whatever else I may be, I am still a strait-laced Wee Free. It was an activity in the program of events at a Christian conference for women. And I think those thirty minutes of peaceful contemplation did more for me than the rest of the day put together.

It was against my better judgment I was there at all. Closed in with Christ, but not yet ‘out’ as a Christian, I had been persuaded into it by a lovely friend who has done more for me than she can ever know. She has been to me what her namesake was to Mary: a trusted and comforting presence in a time of change and new life.

When I arrived at the hotel in the morning, feeling like a fraud, the first people I saw were nurses from the hospital. I wanted to turn and run. It had not been long enough. The wound still felt raw and I was vulnerable.

But then, there was psalm 27, and silence.

It was already my special text. God is the stronghold of my life, He is my light and my salvation. How often I had prayed those words, knowing in the midst of my grief that this much was true.

And then, it was as if He had reached down and placed a comforting hand upon my shoulder. Here was my psalm; our psalm. In the midst of all these women, here I was with my Father.

Silence. I needed it and had not realised. The long battle with cancer does not make room for this kind of silence. There are so many words you do not want to hear. And when there are no words, there is no peace – just anxious waiting and that knot of foreboding. And then, after death, a different kind of silence. It is an absence of something in your home and in your heart. For years, I had lived for Donnie. And for months, I had willed Donnie just to live.

In the last week of his life, I spent every night on a recliner by his bedside. I wanted to hear his breathing and I wanted to be there if it should stop. Nothing could make me go down the corridor to the room that was ready for me. My mind recoiled from the idea of leaving him, and even more from the thought of being sent for.

That last silence came gently. He was just no longer there. It was many things, but it was – most of all – an end to his pain, and if not exactly the beginning of mine, a step-change in it.

Sometimes, I feel my widowhood most in the evening when I wish he was here to read and pray with me. I don’t want to be the head, and the whole household too. In my darker moments, I have ceased praying because I am fed-up of my own voice.

But He is the stronghold of my life and, somehow, even when I’m by myself, I am not alone.

There is silence, though not because I feel that God has gone away. In fact, I am aware of His presence constantly in my home. If He is silent, it is because He is waiting for me, or because He is drawing breath, about to speak. And I have learned to let Him.

It is always in my expectant quietness that He has spoken. And when He speaks, He speaks peace. Hearing His voice only deepens my desire not to utter a word, but just to listen. This, I always feel, is real prayer: His heart speaking directly into mine.

That is one of the reasons that I do not, as a Wee Free woman, feel deprived that I cannot pray aloud at public worship. What can I ever say with my lips that my heart cannot tell Him more honestly?

Last year, the Free Church held a national day of prayer. It remains a special memory for two reasons.

The day began for us in Stornoway with an early prayer meeting. For me, to share my morning devotions with others was beyond beautiful. There is something about the morning and prayer, anyway, but this was so lovely.

Our evening meeting closed with five minutes of communal prayer. I don’t know how many of us there were, but to have every heart joined in that way was moving and powerful. And it was silent.

I have come to the realisation that God does not need to hear our voices, or the words we try to say. We, on the other hand, should learn to simply be quiet sometimes, and let Him speak to us.

Only in the stillness can we hear Him.

Silence for the believer is not mere absence of noise; it is the presence of God.

 

Adoption, supper and the empty chairs

Although my mother repeatedly told me that I had been left on their door-step by some passing tinkers, I always knew I was a MacLean by birth. There is my more than passing resemblance to the said lady, and that hereditary seam of cynicism, sarcasm and general badness which has come down through many generations (on both sides, alas). But, when I made my profession of faith for the first time, I developed a new awareness of what the word, ‘adoption’ truly means.

On the dread night of ‘going forward’, the minister said to me that I was now part of the family of God. Then, he corrected himself, ‘in fact, you were before now’. You are, of course, adopted when you give your heart to the One who created it anew within you, not when you tell everyone else. But I feel he was, in some ways, right the first time.

I think something important happens when you make your love for Christ known to other believers.

The first time I went to the Lord’s table, I was accompanied by another woman’s husband. Despite the fact that he is a deacon in our church, he was not actually some Kirk Session-issued escort, there to keep me in check; he was a friend, making sure that I did not have to take this momentous step alone. While I waited for him at the church door on Sunday morning, knots of people – twos and threes – I didn’t even know, approached to say how pleased they were. A lovely group of ladies asked if I wanted to come in with them.

The previous day, after the service where communion tokens are given out, I was met outside church by hugs, kisses and handshakes. There was real, open joy on the faces of these men and women.

We know that there is much rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents. Here on Earth, though, there is also much gladness among God’s children when another joins their ranks. It is like a second layer of adoption. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not suggesting that there is any deficiency in spiritual adoption. However, for myself, I feel that the Lord has heaped extra blessing upon me by placing me into such a wonderful spiritual family.

This family – like any other – can only truly be understood from the inside. What the world may see as odd, eccentric, or downright bizarre, makes perfect sense to us. It creates bonds which are completely pure, between people of the opposite sex; between people of different ages and backgrounds. In meeting together, there is real affection, and genuine enjoyment in one another’s company.

We may greet one another with the holy kiss mentioned by Paul in four of his letters, or we may opt for a hug, a handshake, or a smile. These things signify our delight in each other. The original holy kiss is reckoned to have been especially valued by believers who had been cast out by their people as a consequence of following Christ; it represented belonging to the family of believers.

I have experienced the warmth of that acceptance. One precious relationship in this life ended for me, but He replaced it with many more.

All of this enhances, but does not supplant, what God has done in adopting us to Himself. We love Him, but also each other, because He first loved us. He is the great Father, who adopts us and who in making us ‘joint heirs’ ensures that we have the comfort of fellowship with one another, in addition to the indescribable gift that He has already bestowed upon us.

When I sit at His table, it is because I need Him: His grace, His mercy, His love. I remember His sacrifice in the person of my Saviour. And when I look at my brothers and sisters in Christ, I give thanks for them too.

We are His family. There is joy, love, laughter. And there are tears sometimes too. We may weep a little because we miss those who have left the earthly table and gone on ahead.
But the sorest weeping of all is reserved for those who will not sit with us. We want them here, but they prefer not to come. It isn’t about numbers, or filling empty seats. It’s just that, when we are fed, we want those we love to share it with us. And when He feeds you, those you love are not just those you know.

That is the spirit of adoption brought to life in us all. If you are reading this and you don’t understand ‘Bible-bashers’ or ‘God-botherers’, that is the closest I can get to explaining it.

He brought me in out of the cold and He feeds me; but my adoption is not diminished by multitudes more receiving the same gift. In fact, the joy and benefit is multiplied to His glory with every one who pulls up a chair, sits, and remembers that God so loved the world.

 

Don’t Be Backward At Going Forward

There is very little about Stornoway Free Church which could accurately be described as mysterious . Unless you count the way that the preacher seems to suddenly materialise in the Seminary pulpit, that is. Or the perfect roundness of the pancakes produced by the lady of the manse ‘without a mould’.

It is a definite case of what you see is what you get. Any passer-by who cared to peep round the front door would see at a glance what the building is all about. It is self-evidently not a library, or a nightclub, or a doctor’s waiting-room, but a place of worship.

It isn’t secret, it isn’t an impenetrable fortress – it is a solid, no-nonsense Victorian pile, and anyone who wants to can stroll through its front door.

But, as I may have mentioned before, it does have its wee codes. We need not revisit the inelegant language used to describe regular church attendance, nor the ambiguous way that one’s first appearance at the prayer meeting is described. We have a committee of politically-correct elders (yes, they’ve been on a course and now we don’t have ‘bachelor buttons’, we have ‘happily unattached genderless clothing fasteners’) and they’re working on creating new, acceptable terminology.

Meantime, though, what about ‘going forward’?

Susan Parman, an anthropologist who visited Shawbost in the 1970s, described the orduighean as ‘a dominant symbol’ in our communities. And so, I think they are – but one that is terribly misunderstood, and still shrouded in mystery.

People outside of the church think that going forward is for those who have attained an impossibly high standard of conduct in their lives. I believe that they have the impression that only when a Christian is ‘finished’ can they consider such a move.

But here’s how it really is. Or how it really was for me. I was NEVER going to do it. Believe it or not, I’m pretty shy, and the thought of going to that room filled me with horror. Wall-to-wall men in suits catechising me to the point where I probably wouldn’t even remember how many persons are in the godhead, never mind what man’s chief end is.

Besides, once I realised that I was relying on Christ and had been for quite some time, I didn’t think it was necessarily anyone else’s business. My relationship with Him had been secret for so long, I saw no reason why it shouldn’t go on that way forever.

And so it did, for a while. Just myself and Himself, no need for anyone else. But then there were people in my life who were in various kinds of need – illness, bereavement . . . I remember writing a sympathy card and really wanting to encourage the recipient as I had been encouraged. I wanted to tell people I was praying for them. Seeing real emotional pain, I wanted to be able to say, ‘There’s a way through, there’s someone who understands, who will always be with you, even when He goes ahead of you.’ But I couldn’t do that, because no one knew that I loved Him.

The comfort I had found in God was becoming a burden. Following Christ, after all, wasn’t about making me feel warm and fuzzy. And He bore with me for a time, gently allowing the truth to dawn.

There was a sermon which spoke irresistibly to me. I walked out of church that night having tried with limited success to push the tears back into my eyes: it isn’t enough to be healed, you have to tell who has healed you. And I was determined to tell.

Satan had other plans. He always does, of course, and will often use the most unexpected means to execute them. I went to the meeting where our congregation would sign the call for our new minister. Communicant and non-communicant members of the congregation were seated separately. As I looked around at the other adherents (which always makes me think of ‘there’s Klingons on the starboard bow’), I realised something. Older, better, far godlier people than me had not gone forward. Who did I think I was? Five minutes after coming back to this church, was I going to leapfrog these good people, and barge my way into the Session room, declaring my perfection?

No, indeed, I agreed with Satan: that would be arrogance of the most unforgivable kind.

I still went to the opening meeting of the communion. I felt a little flat and distracted. And then, the minister spoke the familiar words of 1 Peter 3:15 – ‘but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you’. There it was again: Christ, my hope.

It isn’t about being ‘good’, it’s about knowing that you are not good, and that the only place you can go for that kind of healing is Christ. He takes us as we are and ultimately makes us as He is. If only perfect people went forward, the cobwebs would have grown across that Session room door long ago.

Going there, you are not claiming anything for yourself except the free gift of salvation. And the people who meet you there are kind beyond words because of two things: they know what it is to come in fear and trembling; and they are pleased to hear another’s love for Jesus.

This public profession, this nailing your colours to the cross, is all you can do for Him, and it’s all He asks. But if you love the Lord, and want to follow Him, that’s all there is. You don’t have to be a great speaker. I’m normally reasonably articulate, but I believe my tongue actually stuck fast to the roof of my mouth that evening. It didn’t matter. He was with me there too.

Besides, you aren’t required to make a great speech, just to trust in the one that He made on your behalf a long time ago:

‘It is finished’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Corncrake, the Medium and the Message

I have a lot of sympathy for the corncrake. For years and years, it was just there, rasping its way through hot summer nights. If I was sleepless, I harboured mildly hostile thoughts towards it which were always forgotten by morning, but otherwise, it was just part of the soundscape of my youth.

And, now, the corncrake is endangered, and needs to be protected. Changes were proposed which would make it feel more welcome in the Outer Hebrides. Bewildered crofters agreed, although it required little or no actual alteration to their traditional practices anyway. Now the corncrake is scrutinised, discussed, counted.

Like the Gael, in a way. I don’t remember having any real concept of myself as part of a Gaelic-speaking family, or a Gaelic-speaking community growing up. We just were. But, like the corncrake, unbeknownst to some of us anyway, we were in serious danger of extinction.

The reason, in both cases, is more or less the same: our habitats had altered and become hostile. A language is not, in and of itself, a terribly precious thing. It only makes sense within a particular set of circumstances, and this is especially true of a minority language. Gaelic worked when there was a Gaelic community to speak it.

This is where the conservationists got it right and the linguists got it wrong: preserve the habitat so that the way of life and everything else falls into place.

The schools, at one time, were bent on homogenising the Gael: making him an English-speaker and a useful member of society. They desired, in short, to destroy his habitat. In church, however, it was the message that counted. They were communicating the Good News in a language that the people could fully understand: their own.

Church was simply reflecting the community in the language that it employed because, ultimately, the medium used is a matter of little importance, as long as the message is faithfully delivered and clearly received.

That community has now changed. Fewer and fewer people are opting to worship in Gaelic; consequently, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so.

Even more worryingly, though, fewer and fewer people are worshiping at all. Christ’s name is not revered in our midst as it once was, and that makes me much sadder than any decline in the language through which I first heard His name.

If Christians too are an endangered species, then, perhaps we could learn from what was done for the corncrake.

The needs of that bird centre around two essential elements: it requires a safe resting-place, and something to screen it from harm.

Not unlike the Christian.

Our resting-place is in Christ, and it is Christ who will also cover us when there is danger abroad. That is how it has always been.

The corncrake likes a managed habitat, where it can safely nest, but where there is also tall vegetation in which it can hide. Those have always been its conditions. When crofting declined – and with it the traditional management of grassland – the corncrake began to retreat also. When the habitat was restored, however, the corncrake began to return.

Success in the world of conservation is frequently governed by statistics, and the world equally loves to crow over the declining percentages of church attendance. What they don’t seem to understand is that it was never about numbers.

It has always been about the glory of God. The church I go to has not lost sight of that fact. At every assembly there, the Lord is front and centre. I have heard preaching in Gaelic and English, I have participated in praise and prayer in Gaelic and English, but His glory is in it all, shining through.

Like the church of the Disruption and beyond, which faithfully spoke to the people in a tongue they would understand, ours must also adapt the habitat somewhat to the species it hopes to attract. Then, it was, Gaelic-speaking crofters and their families; now it is the digital generation of (mostly) English-speaking but frequently Biblically unaware people.

This might mean that our habitat will include more than just our lovely 19th century church; it may mean that Stornoway Free Church – amongst others – has to expand into cyberspace, out into the digital highways and byways, where the people are. What must change was never that important in the first place; what stays the same is Christ because He is foundational to it all.

After all, let’s not forget that where the people are, that great predator, Satan, also will be prowling.

Surely, then, it falls to us to tell them of a safe habitat, one where there is cover more secure than they can imagine, and a resting-place so safe they can never be plucked from it. And we must tell them of its complete suitability for their needs.

What does it matter what our habitat has or lacks, what it encompasses or excludes, as long as it has at its very heart the covering shelter of Christ in all His glory?

 

 

 

I can’t feel your pain, but I know a man who can

Recently, I read a blog post by the late Rev.Dr. Iain D Campbell, in which he reflected on his own father’s death. As a minister, he said he felt that he owed an apology to many families for having failed to fully appreciate the pain of parting with a loved one. I rather think he was being a bit too severe upon himself.

You cannot feel someone else’s pain for them. No matter how much you empathise, it can only go so far. If I ever complained to my late husband of an ache, a pain, or a bad day, he would make all the right noises and then say, ‘but, look on the bright side, at least I’m ok’! Of course he was joking, but there is some measure of truth in it.

My father passed away at the age of eighty-one and, when the minister came to visit my mother tried to play down her situation, mentioning the death of a young man that had happened the same week. ‘But’, the minister said, ‘everyone’s loss is painful to themselves’.

There is a limit to how much of another person’s burden we can shoulder, because we are not them. In the moments after the news was broken to me that my husband would die, the nurse said that, were it possible, she would take it from us. I think on that often; I’ve probably written about it elsewhere. But, of course, she couldn’t take it from us. We had to carry it ourselves: first, both of us together; and then, just me.

I had prayed, of course, that God would heal Donnie in a dazzling miracle, and restore him to me. God is unfailingly merciful, though, and doesn’t play with people’s emotions. He didn’t put false hope in my heart. Instead, He opened my eyes to what healing really is.

But my desperate petition reminds me of something else. Our Saviour also asked that the bitter cup of sin and death should pass from Him. In His very humanity, He flinched in the face of what was to come upon Him. And small wonder that He should.

What a uniquely lonely situation He was in: only He knew just what a weight there would be in the sins of the whole world; only He understood what it would mean for us to be parted eternally from the Father; He alone knew that the hope of salvation rested squarely upon His shoulders. And, of course, He alone has viewed death from both sides.

Although Jesus knew that He would raise Lazarus from the dead, He still wept with the man’s grieving family. And although He knew that He was fulfilling God’s redemptive plan at Calvary, He still experienced fear and pain. No one could take that away from Him either.

We have to remember that He was also wholly God, which makes Him uniquely capable of understanding our pain. And totally human, which made Him desire to be freed from His fate.

That very fact means  He is weeping alongside every person going through a difficult time – through family troubles, through loneliness, through illness, through death. He wanted to push it away from Himself, but still drank that bitter cup to its very dregs for us. This is no well-meaning, aloof God, patting our hands and saying, ‘there, there’. Jesus has experienced all the horror of death so that we never have to.

I would be lying if I said that the bereaved Christian does not suffer. Of course they do. There is a sentiment I hear expressed in prayer for the bereaved from time to time in church which, I feel, sums up the great emptiness of it. ‘We pray for those who have lost loved ones – how difficult that a familiar voice is gone and that the home is now silent’. That is unendingly hard, it’s true.

Throughout Donnie’s illness, my mother kept getting the same text: ‘This sickness is not unto death’; she and I both clung to that promise. We forgot something, though. Our understanding of death, and God’s meaning in these words, are simply not the same.

After all, it doesn’t end there – it continues, ‘but for the glory of God’.

My home is a lot quieter these days, and a much-loved voice is gone. I would have him back, but I also know that if there are bolts on the doors of Heaven, they are sure to be on the inside.

I have nursed my husband when there was hope he would recover, and when there was none. And I have done many things I had believed were years away – cleared his wardrobe, stopped his mail, picked his headstone – but I cannot feel the pain of other widows doing the same things. Of course I empathise with bereaved people, and yes, probably more now than ever, but I am limited in what I can take on of their suffering.

Jesus is not limited. He is limitless. Our Saviour weeps with us, binds up our broken hearts and gives us not only the one comfort to be had, but the greatest comfort that could ever be: death shall have no dominion.

This Jesus, on the brink of a savage death, was afraid. He suffered unimaginably, but He went through it. My prayer for anyone whose home is silent because of death, is that they would speak to Him. Speak and He will answer. He will not leave or forsake you. He knows what you are feeling – better even than you do yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wee Free Fantasy (Here be no dragons)

It must be a drag, heading to the prayer meeting on a sunny evening. Imagine having your everyday life restricted by a list of don’ts as long as Psalm 119; a list that has as its heading, ‘don’t have fun’. And what about bookending your day with readings from the Bible, and conversations with an imaginary friend? What kind of fool submits to all that, and crowns it off by sacrificing their Sunday in order to sit on hard seats, listening to dry, dusty sermons from dry, dusty men?

At least, that’s what I used to think. Church was good in bursts, but then, for the least reason, I would excuse myself from going. A long lie was often more beguiling than the Gospel. Whenever I thought that perhaps I belonged with the people of God, another thought would follow on its heels, ‘live your life first’. And when I would see them going midweek to sit in church, on a lovely July evening, I would breathe relief that I was out in the fresh air, and free.

I’m glad that I can remember these thoughts, because it may help me understand church-avoiders a little better. You see, during these periods of church-going, I had no problem with what I was hearing, indeed I was frequently very much affected by it. The repeated, central message of salvation made complete sense to me.

But, sooner or later, the world would lure me back – I’d miss a service here and there, then a whole Sunday, then the next one. And, before I knew it, I was someone who wasn’t a churchgoer anymore.

People will say – I saw such a claim only this week on social media – ‘I don’t need to go to church to believe in Christ’. No, but it certainly helps. Perhaps not everyone is as weak-willed as me, or as prone to sin, but I think that there is a huge danger to anyone in staying away from corporate worship. We know that it is not a good sign in the Christian; but it can prove fatal in one who has not yet professed faith. Like the prodigal son, before he eventually ‘came to himself’, if you are away too long from your Father’s house, you are liable to forget what it can offer.

Nothing I say could make church an attractive proposition to those who feel as I once did about it. When you are not there, the world puts you under an enchantment until you forget that it has anything to offer. Instead, you listen to Satan telling you that you’re the wise one, using your own time as you see fit and not listening to what some narrow-minded miseries think you should do. Yes, you start to believe, they are enslaved, and I am utterly free. I can go to church if I want, you think . . . or not, if I prefer.

And then, you get drunk on your own wisdom – quickly, because it’s been spiked by the Devil with lies. All of that stuff about Jesus and salvation, that can wait. Live a decent life and deal with God later.

But, what if God chooses to deal with you now?

No, you can dismiss that kind of morbid thought from your mind. That’s just Christians with their doom and gloom, their scare-mongering. Really, most people don’t die young. It’s exasperating that people still feel that way. No wonder you don’t feel like going to church when they’re all so out of touch with reality.

A friend suggested this week, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, that a sermon series from our church could not compare with ‘Game of Thrones’ for boxset entertainment value. The television series is a mediaeval fantasy with swords and dragons. It seems that most people would choose to stay home and watch this of a Sunday evening, while the black-hatted drones obediently trot off to church.

One group is immersed in a realm of darkness; the other group is praying to get them out of it.

Many of those who prefer ‘real life’ to Christianity would tell you that they don’t want your prayers, that you are simply speaking to an invisible friend.

It would be easy to give up hope for them, and it’s heartbreaking to see Christians weeping over their children, worried that they are moving further from Christ all the time, not closer.

Well, to them I will quote Aslan, hero of another great fantasy series, ‘Courage, dear heart’. What unites these two groups, unbelievers and Christians alike, is that they each forget the power of the Holy Spirit.

I didn’t suddenly find the company of the Lord’s people appealing of my own accord. Left to myself, I would probably still be at home, watching implausible television, happy in the knowledge that these dragons aren’t real. Because of the intervention of the Holy Spirit, however, my eyes were opened.

Heading to the prayer meeting on a sunny evening is now one of life’s greatest pleasures. You see the Creator’s work at its best in weather like this, and then you are with His people, who are also your people. Best of all, you get to meet with Him.

This is no fantasy. There are two kingdoms, but only one monarch. Pick your side – but pick the right side. Choose the realm of darkness and you have no king, only a pretender; choose light and there you have a King whose throne is not subject to any game.

OCD Fairies & Fellow Passengers

Whenever the fairies took a child, it was an act of straightforward covetousness. They admired the beauty of human infants and, in a very practical measure, would effect a direct swap with an elderly personage of their own race. It was a way around care in the community: guilt-free residential homes for their cailleachan, and a pretty, gurgling baby into the bargain.

People took all kinds of measures against the felonious pixies. Oatmeal might be scattered on the floor to repel them – I’m unsure whether they were OCD about a clean floor, or if they just didn’t like the feel of it underfoot, but it was deemed efficacious in keeping them at bay. Another, more revolting remedy for fending off thieving elves was . . . well, there’s no polite way of saying this, really: daubing stale urine on the door jambs and lintels. This kept fairies and, I would imagine, any other semi-civilised person out. And remember, a lot of the race of little people had only the one nostril, so if it bothered them, what must it have done to everyone else?

Nowadays, stories about changelings are deemed to be a kind of folklore of disability – a way of explaining the kinds of ailments and conditions which are either not present, or not apparent, at birth. A seemingly ‘normal’, healthy child suddenly appears to have ceased thriving. Of course, today, we would take him to a GP, be referred to a specialist. In the days long before the NHS, though, when the path between cradle and grave was frequently much shorter, people looked to the supernatural world for answers.

Frailty of either the physical or mental variety was much more difficult to accept. A limited life meant that person was dependent on others who all too frequently struggled to provide for themselves. Small wonder that an explanation had to be found.

In a recent sermon, something was made very real to me, something that I perhaps knew already and yet, didn’t know, until I heard this: the Lord’s love for, and valuing of us is not dependent upon our physical or mental abilities. It is our life which is precious to Him, regardless of the earthly tent in which that is contained.

This set in motion a veritable cavalcade of thoughts. Not the kind of thoughts we can all sometimes have in church – how does her hat stay on, not that tune again, at what point in their training do ministers learn to pronounce ‘wholly’ as ‘holly’ – all of which are totally irrelevant. No, these thoughts were more productive because, suddenly, as can also happen in church sometimes, it was as though God had revealed yet another wonderful truth about himself. A palpable truth.

We know, as Christians, that this world is not our home. Our humanity, however, clings to it, and loves to play by its rules. If we accomplish anything, if we are praised, we revel in the credit. Yet, if we follow Jesus,we do know that He does not want us setting all our store by achievements in this life. Our treasure is to be in Heaven. This doesn’t mean being what the old folk used to call being too heavenly-minded to be any earthly use. Of course, we do have to live here for a time and engage fully with the life God has ordained for us.

But we do not walk the road alone. In ‘A Christmas Carol’, Charles Dickens spoke of the need for us to treat other people as what they are in truth: ‘fellow passengers to the grave’. Sometimes, I think that I concentrate a bit too much on my own feet along this route to ever notice whether the man beside me has shoes on his, or whether he might be lame and in need of my arm.

Last week, I saw people rummaging in bins for food, right here in Stornoway. There is vulnerability of every kind – people are poor, hungry, addicted, mentally ill, struggling financially, psychologically- on our very doorstep. God loves every single one just the same as us. We have also been commanded to love those people, whom we have seen, or to accept that we cannot, therefore love Christ, whom we have not seen. To love them, that is, not their circumstances, or their problems, or their sins.

In that same sermon, we were told ‘Poverty does not make people look up to God. We have to take that into account as we deal with them and pray that God’s power will turn them to himself and bring that hope that this world can never bring’.

When we meet with human frailty in all its forms, we must do what our forefathers did and turn to the supernatural world for answers. Not the fictitious realm of fairies and superstition, but to the Heavenly realm and the God whose thumbprint is on even the most despised of these.

 

 

So Good I Thought It Was Dead

The thing about Ness is its unpredictability. It is the sort of place where Dr Who’s Tardis could very well choose to land. After all, no other district of Lewis manages to tread that line between loyalty to the past and faith in the future with quite so much aplomb. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be, ‘authentic’. On the other hand, if I had no such restriction imposed upon me, I’d also add ‘crazy’ and ‘unpredictable ‘, but would be forced, on balance, to include ‘fabulous’ and ‘inspiring’ too.

Last Wednesday, I visited. Or, I should say, revisited. It was there I had my first proper, grown-up job as development manager for Iomairt Nis, a community-run company. For four years, I worked in the wee office behind the stage at Ness Hall.

When we held our millennial Gaelic-Gaeilge link event, Ceilidh san Iar-Thuath, my office served as a dressing room for Danu, a young Irish band.

Another day, a man breezed in and introduced himself to me as, ‘Wylie. I’m a photographer’. I gaped stupidly at him. ‘N-not Gus . . . Wylie?’ I stammered and, when he answered in the affirmative, I responded with, ‘you’re so good I thought you were dead’.

You never really knew what was going to happen from one day to the next in Ness. Inevitably, it was there I got my first taste of infamy.

When I agreed to rent the community hall to the newly-formed Free Church (Continuing), I naively failed to foresee any hassle. I don’t think I’ve ever been called ‘silly’ by quite so many different people in such a short space of time. Even the media wanted to know why I had done something so ‘controversial’.

If it was now, I would probably agonise, consult, pray . . . but I was young and could only see in black and white. I had the management of an underused and decrepit community facility; here was a community group in need of a temporary home. To me, there was no need for fuss. Nor was there any call for me to side against a group of people who simply wished to gather and worship God in much the same way that I was used to doing myself.

It turns out that I was right, though my method of dealing with the situation might have been less than sensitive. Eventually, the dust settled. Those who spoke against such use of the hall probably also regretted doing so. We are human, we all do things in the heat of the moment which we might wish undone a second later. The thing to remember is that our feelings, our opinions and our egos are not all that important in the grand scheme of eternity, or even in the small scheme of community.

True community is resilient, like family. There may be disagreements, hurts and rivalries but ultimately, when the chips are down, everyone clings together. Ness was like that.

And it’s still the same.

In the Comunn Eachdraidh cafe, people breeze in and out. Gaelic is spoken, patronymics are used. Casual conversations take place, and are often about who such and such a person’s family is, or what someone did for a living in Swainbost in 1922. They are comfortable and easily confident in their identity as Nisich because they know and value their roots.

Annie MacSween, who founded Comunn Eachdraidh Nis – the first of its kind – in 1977, is once again its chairperson. I wanted to use the adjective, ‘irrepressible’ in front of her name, but everyone who knows her will mentally insert it anyway, so I needn’t trouble. She told me that their meetings are still conducted in Gaelic. This is not an organisation which commemorates or even reenacts something which is gone, but one which is naturally and easily protecting something very much alive.

The wee dispute of 2000 did not break the palpable sense of community that one gets in Ness. It was, like all family rifts, weathered and then absorbed into the mythology of the place.

In the few hours I spent in Comunn Eachdraidh Nis last week, I spoke to blog readers from Dowanvale – fellow Christians, indeed fellow Wee Frees whom I had never met. Annie received a phone call while I was there from another gentleman I have also got to know through the blog, though we have not yet met either. We spoke, and I agreed to get involved with a pilgrimage he is organising. To Ness, obviously.

I emerged from my day in Ness, blinking in the light of reality, like Lucy tumbling out of the wardrobe from Narnia.

This is a district for which the past is not a foreign country at all, but part of the here and now. Those who died in the wars are not commemorated as names on a stone tablet, but remembered as vital links in the patronymic chain.

And Ness’ secular and Christian heritage co-exist unselfconsciously. For me, this is Lewis at its best: unadulterated by alien notions about identity and inclusivity. There, being a Christian and a Gaelic-speaker did not make me feel odd; it reminded me that I belong to something with roots and longevity.

Community is so good I thought it was dead. Ness proved me wrong.

 

 

 

Who Stands at the Door and Knocks?

As I ascended into the pulpit, I wondered nervously whether anyone would come through the door today. Turning, I looked across the expanse of empty pews. Not one solitary soul. And no bodies either. Still, it was early.

So early, surely – you’re thinking – that I was still asleep and dreaming. What was a woman doing in the pulpit of Stornoway Free Church, if she didn’t have a can of polish and a duster in hand? Well, the truth is that I was taking a photo from the finest vantage-point in the building. It was the first of many times throughout the day when I would stand there. We have opened our doors to visitors this weekend again, inviting them to come and see the building and learn about the history of the congregation and its mode of worship.

Even the visitors were a little taken aback when offered the opportunity to stand in the pulpit. One lovely Danish lady gasped, putting her hand to her chest, and asked, ‘Really?’ Mo chreach, I thought, maybe she misunderstood and thinks I’ve offered her some sort of permanent post. But no, it’s just that she was making the same mistake that we are all inclined to – thinking of the bricks, mortar, wood and glass as sacrosanct; thinking of them as the church.

Culturally, we have been long attuned to the idea that worship can take place anywhere. One does not need to be in a church to pray. Church buildings are wonderful for corporate worship, but private devotions are just that. When the Lord was instructing His disciples how to pray, after all, He said they were to go into their room ‘and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who is in secret will reward you.’ Yet, throughout our programme of open days, I have witnessed the way in which people interact with our building, and it has been very revealing.

So many comment on the simplicity and the absence of distraction. This being the work of dour Wee Frees, there is no gilding, no ornamentation, lest we lose our heads and give our lives over to the worship of idols.

Others have remarked on the cleanliness, which shows how well cared for the space is. And now that we have interpretive boards, the questions about our history have become more challenging. My favourite so far this summer was, ‘So you guys believe that salvation is by faith, it says here, not by works – but you’ve got a cafe raising money for charity next door, so how come?’

It was a better question than ‘when was the church built?’ because it allowed me to talk about not only the Christian hope of salvation, but about the transforming power of the Spirit, who motivates good works.

Many of those who come, though, simply want to sit in a pew and listen to the recording of Gaelic psalm singing, which we have on a loop. Some stay only a few moments, others a bit longer. Perhaps they pray, or contemplate God; it is hard not to when the place is so . . . expectant.

On Friday morning, I entered through the side door and into the church. There in the loveliness of a July morning, this was a place of tranquility. It made me want to linger, to be in God’s presence, just myself and Himself, for a wee while.

Good Calvinists have not traditionally venerated buildings. But that isn’t what I mean, anyway. Think of the generations of worship which these walls have witnessed, the souls moved for Christ in that place. Sit there in the beautiful stillness of the morning, and the very air seems to whisper His name.

I did stop to contemplate. How many prayers had been uttered here, how many verses of psalm? The very grain of the wood must have been nourished with tears: tears of sorrow at times, but so many tears of joy too as the Saviour’s incomparable love became real to one soul after another down through the decades.

The Lord brought people to us this weekend who had need of kindness. This is not an advert for Stornoway Free Church, nor a boast of any kind. It was His work that they came, His provision which supplied their needs – it is all of Him. But He wasn’t, I believe, just speaking to them.

Even as we hold our broken world up to God in prayer, I think He sometimes confronts us with it too. Today, I met some people who have nothing much to their names. I was glad that our church was not covered in gold and draped in velvet; and I was glad it was open.

The same man who asked me about the relationship between faith and works also asked me about Sunday Christians. You know, the kind who ‘put in the time’ once a week, attending services faithfully, but forgetting all about it in between. As I reflect upon that now, I wonder whether the starting point might be having our doors open a little more often.

We have a lovely, clean building, of which we’re very fond; and we use it to worship God for something over two hours a week. Yet, as soon as we opened up on each of these two days, He sent us strangers in need.

How long might others stand at our door and knock, only to find it firmly shut? And aren’t we worshipping Him by helping the least of these?

This afternoon, an Australian visitor said something quite simple and yet so profound that they might have been Jesus’ own words: ‘I have gone to many churches, hoping to find them open, but I am always disappointed by a locked door.’

Our hearts were locked against the Lord for so long; will we grieve Him more by barring the door to His church on those who need it most?

If You’re Happy & You Know It . . .

There was a time in this island when, if more than three cars were parked at your house simultaneously, reports of your demise would soon follow.

Get two Leodhasaich together, leave them for long enough, and they will eventually start talking about death. One Leodhasach by himself is probably contemplating his own mortality. And a big crowd of Leodhasaich? Well, that’s most likely a wake – why else would a lot of maudlin Teuchters gather in the one place? A couple of hundred years ago they might have been suspected of plotting to put a Stuart back on the throne, but all that kind of fight was knocked out of them along with the Catholicism. No, if Leodhasaich are gathering, it’s probably just to look on the black side as a group.

But why do Christians, and especially those bearing the Calvinist stamp, have such a reputation for misery? I was speaking to a gentleman recently who recalled seeing the order book of a well-known Stornoway draper from some years ago. It consisted of hundreds of pairs of ladies’ shoes, stockings, hats and coats – all black. No style was specified for any of these items. The only requirement was that they should be of the soberest hue so that church-going women could be decently clad on a Sunday.

And it got me thinking: what do we look like from the outside now? I mean, we Wee Free women no longer go out in Presbyterian uniform, so it is not so easy to spot us in a crowd. Yet, though we are dressed in the outward garb of the world, more than ever we are a peculiar people.

Theologically speaking, of course, it is right that Christians should be in the world, but not of it. We must, therefore, expect a certain amount of estrangement from others. But we also want to be faithful witnesses for Christ, and it’s incredibly hard to communicate with people if all they see are barriers between us.

So what form do these stumbling blocks take? What is it in the church that puts people off? And I’m not asking why the world appears to hate Christians – we know that it ever was and will be thus. No, I’m trying to piece together what it is in our conduct that hands the world another excuse to ridicule the cause of Christ.

Well, there’s the misery. Don’t get me wrong, I think we’ve moved on from the stereotypical Calvinist who was only ever happy when he was suffering. And we’re reticent Leodhasaich, so it might be too much to suggest that our hands should be in the air during worship, or that we should pepper our service with hallelujahs. There is nothing – in my opinion – wrong with the form, or substance of our worship.

It’s more, perhaps, our demeanour. If you are a Christian, you are freed from the burden of sin and the tyranny of death. Really, if that isn’t a reason for the deepest joy, what is?

We’re telling the world that we have been given the greatest gift and that if they follow Christ, they will know true peace and freedom as we do. And the world is responding, ‘Aye? Tell your faces’.

Then there’s the ‘s’ word: schism. We have had some silly spats over the years. There is no point in averting our eyes from it, or airbrushing it out of our story. I think it’s high time we explained ourselves to the onlookers, so that they can’t excuse themselves with it, saying, ‘why would we want any part of it – you’re no better than the rest of us’.

And that’s the truth. Christians are not better than anyone else, nor should we think of ourselves that way. The church is not, as a far wiser person than me put it, a museum of saints, but rather, a hospital for sinners. We are exactly like everybody else, but for one important detail: we know what our biggest problem is, and we’ve taken the cure. It doesn’t make us anywhere near perfect, but it should help us see when we go wrong, and wish to make amends.

Unjustifiable splits in the family of the church are the result of fallible human beings thinking that their point of view is sacred and unassailable. We are all guilty in this regard. There is no value and no dignity in apportioning blame. In reflecting on such incidents we need to pray for forgiveness, humility and hearts that would focus upon Christ.

At a time when the church seems encircled by enemies, Christians need to fix their eyes on the Lord. If we are reaching out to the unchurched, we do have to make sure that there is nothing off-putting in our conduct; we surely don’t want to be guilty of giving them any more excuses. It means doing what we are asked, but what I for one find so challenging – dying a little more to self each day.

We are His portion and His witnesses in and to the world – let’s try acting like it so the world realises what it’s been missing.

‘No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us’. 1 John 4:12