Lewis Culture: An Uncivil War of Words

The letters page of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ was always something of a curiosity to me. I remember thinking many times that it was pointless to air debates about religious matters as both sides traded Biblical texts in an entrenched war of words. It managed, somehow, to be strongly-worded without – often, anyway – becoming offensive. People could have a debate about the things which separated them, and then change the subject back to the things which unified them.

Now, however, people get offended so easily. Which would be fine, if they didn’t then act as though being offended is a terminal illness. My advice if something offends you, is this: ride it out, bottle it up and wait; because as parents up and down the land used to say before the thought police put an end to such child cruelty, you’ll soon be given something to really cry about.

Using much the same logic as I once did, the editor of the ‘Gazette’ has decided not to allow any further letters on matters of faith.  I have some sympathy with her motives because, I’m guessing, she has given up hope of moving the debate on. It has probably become tedious, repetitive and circular, to her way of thinking, and liable to scunner the readership.

Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, though, the correspondence page of that newspaper used to have a great deal more religious content. I am tempted to say that the letters provided the only really lively content in the whole publication. People would read them and roll their eyes, or read them and have a healthy discussion over the dinner table, or just skip past them to the obituaries; but they didn’t cause the ripples any kind of faith-based debate seems to be causing in Lewis at the moment.

While the ‘Gazette’ circulation is nothing like it used to be, with the paper now being local in name only, it was at least available as a forum for sharing and debating anything which islanders cared about enough. Once an editor starts censoring the permitted topics for correspondence, however, I think we have to accept that the tide of intolerance is indeed lapping at our feet.

We have sleepwalked towards this state of affairs. What was once a mild and usually polite disagreement has become something unpleasant. Anything that has the merest hint of Christianity about it is sneered at as ‘Wee Free’ bigotry. The critics of ‘What The Church Has Done To Lewis’ (no, I don’t know either) are so well-informed that they don’t know what any of us believes, nor what it means to be a Christian, though they are quick to flag any  apparent lapses in ‘true Christian’ behaviour.

They pride themselves on their commitment to truth and are rigorous in applying their own belief system to everything they do. And, yes, they do have a belief system. It even appears as though they are following a pseudo-presbyterian leadership structure, with their agenda driven by anyone who has internet access.

However, if they would permit me one wee piece of advice, I’d say: don’t let your leaders in Glasgow and Edinburgh dictate how you interact with your local community. Like it or not, they are patronising the secularists from the sticks, and assuming that you can’t handle things on your own patch without them. Say what you like about us Wee Frees, but at least we do our own oppressing, and rarely get the Moderator involved.

It is from this kind of outside interference that we get the sort of poorly researched nonsense which insists that Lewis is in thrall to the Calvinist patriarchy. What I don’t understand is why none of the local chapter of secularists is offended by suggestions that this is a community without the capability of original thought or, indeed, sincere belief. Where, in the midst of all their supposed care for the Western Isles, is the one dissenting voice that will oppose these kinds of slurs? Why is ‘brainwashing’ by the church so offensive, but the secular mantra of, ‘there is no such thing as Lewis culture’ goes unopposed from within their own ranks?

I’ll tell you why. The de-localising of culture in Lewis, the nay-saying and the outside interference from those who will not have to live with the consequences of their meddling is part of a wider stategy. You see, Christianity has informed and shaped these communities for so long that it is fused to the local way of life. And no, I am not claiming that every Lewis person is a Christian, nor even that every Lewis person is a churchgoer. Sadly, there are those in every generation who decide that the truth of the Gospel is not for them. But it has influenced them, because it has helped make this island what it is.

Generations of self-styled island atheists have talked of Christianity as a foreign creed and of the Bible as a hotchpotch of Middle Eastern fairytales. ‘Fragments of the philosophy of Geneva’ was how the poet, Derick Thomson derided the sort of Calvinism which his home island embraced. They despised what they saw as alien intrusion into Gaelic culture.

Which of them, now, will call for the tone of debate to change? Who among them is truthful enough to say that this is a conversation that can continue in a civil manner between believers and unbelievers in Lewis, just as it always has – robust, but never strident.

I think that the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ has made a mistake. If this debate is going to be played out only on social media, directed by the scions of the National Secular Society, what, then, of local culture? Who will speak up for it against malign and alien influence now?

The Sofa & the Ghost of Christmas Past

Sometimes, you know, church can be uncomfortable. Oh, I don’t mean the pews: Calvinists are genetically adapted to fit those. If anything, the addition of those pesky cushions has interfered with nature. No, I mean more of a spiritual discomfort – the kind of thing that starts like a niggling little itch, but finally develops into a full-blown ache.

We like being uplifted by the preaching. Then, we can sing the psalms with gusto and pray fervently along with whoever is leading. And we go home feeling good and optimistic. When everything comes together and reaffirms that Jesus is everything and you are His, yes, of course, who wouldn’t be happy? Sometimes, you can actually see on people’s faces – their eyes shine – that this has worked on their hearts.

Other times, though, the sermon can prick your conscience. I had one of those moments this week when the minister accused me of worldliness, right in front of everyone.

Now, in case you’re imagining this is some archaic Wee Free thing where the black clad and be-collared minister fixes you with a fiery glare, and shouts, ‘woman, ye are a worldly sinner’, think again. That isn’t how it works in the real church, only in films and newspaper articles by people who have never actually been inside one.

In fact, when a minister is preaching, we are not really hearing the man. Yes, it is his physical voice, and words that he has chosen, but we are to believe that this is God speaking through them. Faith comes by hearing the Word preached and, as the Bible itself tells us repeatedly, faith is not of ourselves.

For me, a warning against worldliness was very timely. I cannot do the whole sermon justice here, but the counsel was not to become too attached to the things of this world, as John warned in his first letter. These things are, as we know, transient, and it’s a very bad idea to tether your life and soul to them.

Now, don’t laugh, but the reason I squirmed at this was because of my sofa. It’s a chestnut brown, soft leather chesterfield. I have had it two years and I have been very careful of it, gently vacuuming it each week, and wincing at the mere sight of people actually sitting in it.

Well, I don’t know who would want to sit in it now. Last Saturday, I trustingly and naively, left Mr Roy in his basket in the sitting room while I went to church. I came home, made a big fuss of how good he’d been, fed him a steak bake and then actually went into the room. There was a large puddle on the seat. Oh, he’d very thoughtfully chucked the cushions onto the floor (presumably so as not to ruin them), before urinating on the one seat in the room least able to cope with such an assault.

And I was livid. You know, in that unreasonable way that disregards the fact you’re addressing a dog and not a person who has done this to annoy you. I told him it was no wonder he’d had so many different homes, that he was unloveable, ungrateful, smelly, thoughtless (!) and even, with unwarranted hyperbole, that he was a ‘menace to society’.

It was several days before I could bear to look at him. I forced myself to pat him and speak civilly, because deep down I knew he had no idea what was wrong, but I was still very upset.

About a sofa. Yes, I do realise how shallow that makes me sound. By Wednesday, I had actually got over it, more or less, having started enquiries about getting it professionally cleaned. I knew that once it was clean again, I could forgive Mr Roy.

That’s why, on Wednesday evening, God accused me of worldliness. Well, not just because of the sofa, but it serves to represent everything else that gets too much place in my life. I recalled what Thomas a Kempis said in a book that has been a favourite since my teenage years, ‘The Imitation of Christ’:

‘To triumph over self is the perfect victory. For whoever so controls himself that his passions are subject to his reason, and his reason wholly subject to Me, is master both of himself and of the world’.

There is no one harder to conquer than yourself because there is no one more likely to allow you moral latitude. But I have begun an important lesson. Perhaps I need to see Mr Roy’s intervention like the visit of Scrooge’s first ghost who, frustrated with the old miser’s lifestyle, called him, ‘man of the worldly mind’.

It is fine to have nice things. And, it is good to take care of those things, being grateful to God for providing them. I do thank him for my comfortable home, and more so when I read of the destitution often faced by widows in the past. But, there is a disconnect between my thanksgiving and my attitude. My house, my furniture, my possessions . . . none of those should come before obedience to God, and trying sincerely to imitate Christ in a life of holiness.

Besides, I love Mr Roy for himself, as much as for the fact that he was Donnie’s faithful companion till the end. He is irreplaceable. And his little misdemeanour reminds me of something I must never lose sight of:

God loved me, even before the stain had been cleansed. If His forgiveness had been predicated on my being clean, I would have been beyond hope forever.

 

Wee Frees and Wise Men – Not Mutually Exclusive

When the Calvinists of the Free Church in Stornoway are not busy oppressing the people who want to exercise their free will by swinging a golf club on Sundays, we like to sit around, oppressing one another. Old Christians try to prevent young Christians from enjoying themselves, men keep women in their place (the kitchen), and, I suppose, the ministers whack the other elders on the knuckles with a wooden ruler if they overstep the mark. Our times of fellowship are an endurance test, with the first person to laugh put outside by the bins.

It is remotely possible, though, that we are just harsh and humourless by nature. I mean, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame everything about us on Calvin. The atheist intelligentsia has been doing that for a long time – they blame him for destroying Gaelic culture, for taking art and music from people’s lives and they blame him for stealing Christmas.

John Calvin, a.k.a. The Grinch.

There was, it is true, a tendency among the Reformers to distance themselves from these holy days which had been so much a feature of the Roman Catholic church. Nonetheless, Luther permitted its observance and Calvin . . . well, Calvin’s position was not exactly as it has been portrayed.

The celebration of Christmas had already been abolished in Geneva before he went there, and it was later reinstated during his temporary expulsion from the city. By the time he returned, Calvin had either mellowed somewhat, or had not been strongly opposed to it in the first place, but he stated his intention to allow Christ’s birthday to be marked as the people had become accustomed to doing.

Knox shared Calvin’s reservations about the celebration of a day not explicitly prescribed in scripture. Christmas was eventually banned in Scotland by an Act of Parliament in 1640. Despite its repeal 48 years later, it continued as a very low-key festival, not becoming a public holiday until 1958.

Now, however, more and more Presbyterian churches in Scotland are tentatively marking the religious significance of Christmas. In what looks like a binning of the rule-book, the dour men in black are decking the halls. Or something similar.

Well, what does the rule book say about the matter?  The Westminster Confession of Faith says that, in addition to the Lord’s Day, there is room for. ‘solemn fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner’.

It is the manner of the celebration that matters: the spirit in which it is done and the intention behind it. If the primary objective is to point to Christ, to glorify God, then the marking of Christmas is entirely compatible with the ethos of every Calvinist church.

Of course, the Westminster Confession of Faith is itself based on Scripture, and it is back there we must go if there is any doubt about the rightness of such a move. One of the objections levelled by people like Knox himself was that the Bible does not offer any authority that December 25th is the birth-date of our Saviour. Far be it from me to call poor Mr Knox a pedant, but . . . Surely the material point here is not when the Son of God was born, but that He was born. Only last weekend, we reflected in church upon the startling fact that, in the storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee, it was God who slept, in the person of His Son. That was the real miracle – that God, as John Betjeman wrote, was man in Palestine.

He was born, then, and we have several accounts of how this came about. In John 6:38, He Himself addresses the why, ‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me’.

From that incarnation stems everything that we have as believers, starting with hope. Hope was born the day He came into the world, and gathered in strength towards the cross and finally the triumph of the empty tomb. It is because of God incarnate that we have been redeemed from the bondage of our own sin and the certainty of death.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I cannot think of anything more worthy of celebration.

Not celebrating as the world celebrates. The bloated excess of Christmas as it is marked and commercialized these days would turn the least sensitive of stomachs. In that feast of self-indulgence, all that remains of Christ is the name – and there are those who would expunge even His name from the proceedings.

Last year, Christmas Day coincided with the Lord’s Day and we concentrated in church upon Mary’s Song, and upon the importance of unwrapping and making our own the gift which God has given us in His only begotten Son.

This is the message of Christmas when told properly. The world took Christ, it beat Him and abused Him, and it finally crucified Him.

Now, it is doing the same with His very name.

It was appropriated, and all the meaning with which Christmas is redolent has been leached out, to be replaced by a consumerist frenzy.

Advent is all about waiting. It is about silence. And it is about anticipation of the greatest event our world has ever known. This year, I am grateful that I will be able to draw aside with God’s people, singing His praise for what He did all those Christmases ago:

Sacred Infant, all divine

What a tender love was thine

Thus to come from highest bliss

Down to such a world as this.

Advent, òrduighean and the return of the King

This Sunday, I hope to be doing two things at once. In Stornoway Free Church, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will be dispensed. Those who sit at the table – and, I think, many who don’t – will remember the death of Christ. They will think back to Calvary, and they will begin to measure His love towards them.

But the service does not last long enough for anyone to finish that calculation. His love is the very definition of immeasurable.

Sunday also marks the beginning of Advent. It is the beginning of the waiting, the anticipation. There are four Sundays between now and Christmas Day, counting forward to the date which marks the birth of Jesus Christ.

Was He actually born on December 25th? Does it matter? Like the Creation, it is the same miracle, however and whenever it took place. Those who try to punch holes in the details of timescale and location are guilty of a very human smallness. They try to shrink God to fit their limited vision also, but He will not be contained. It’s the Devil who lurks in the detail, after all.

God is in the greatness, the unparalleled truth, the soaring wonder. He became one of us in order to show how we should live. And to die so that we would not.

We eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of Him. It is not a forlorn ritual, but a meaningful act which brings before us the always remarkable fact that He was perfect, and sacrificed Himself for sinners because He was perfect. Everything about Him is eternal, an unbroken circle without end or beginning .

So, because that is true, we have to look at communion as more than just an act of remembrance . He did not stop at dying, so we should not stop at commemorating His death. We are to mark His death only until He comes again.

It is fitting, then, is it not, that we should partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of Advent? We are remembering, but we are also waiting. This is not a counting down to the lowly birth in a stable which ends in the horror and ignominy of crucifixion: no,it is something far more wonderful.

Christmas is not something we have traditionally marked in the Free Church. At home, yes, but not in church, not the way other denominations might. Historically, there were no hymns sung, and so no carols either. We do not light candles, nor bring greenery in from outdoors, nor set up nativity scenes in front of the suidheachan mòr.

These, though, are only the outward trappings of Advent. They make a pretty enough show, but are not in themselves Christmas. It may be a festival of tinsel and lights and ‘tissued fripperies’ as John Betjeman put it, but if it is to have any meaning for us, it is not to be found in any of those details.

Bring together, though, the remembering of the Lord’s Supper and the waiting of Advent; then you have something.

Remember Jesus, the baby born into a world already unwilling to accommodate Him. Think of the danger this tiny, helpless child was in. Imagine the hope vested in that infant Jesus, and the wonder of those wise men from the East.

It is lovely to dwell on that Christmas long ago because the people who were walking in darkness suddenly saw a great light. There were angels, hosannas and everything was suffused with hope.

We love that, as human beings – a happy, hopeful story. No one wants to see the dark figure lurking, just in the edge of the frame. Our world has captured the baby Jesus and placed Him in amber, forever a golden hope for mankind.

Remember, though, that He came to die. Remember that first Christmas as something which was always destined to culminate in crucifixion thirty-three years later.

But remember also, that was not the end. In fact, for believers, that was the real beginning in many ways.

So, we should certainly look forward to Jesus. When He comes again, it will not be as a powerless infant. All of that, pretty though it is, is done with. This time, we await our King.

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine

 

Health Warning – Being Offended Kills

‘Sinner, not singer’, the minister said reprovingly to me. I thought this was a bit much, seeing only a few days before he’d been emphasising the need for us all to join in the psalms, regardless of vocal ability. And then I realised he was merely pointing out a typo I had made, not suggesting I stick to what I do best.

Oh well, another opportunity to take offence goes by the wayside. Although, if he had been calling me a sinner, it’s only what half the country imagine goes on in Wee Free churches up and down the land every Sunday anyway. Ministers, jumping up and down, frothing at the mouth and thumping the pulpit, castigating all before them for a stiff-necked people, mired in sin.

Don’t get me wrong, sin is mentioned quite a bit. They would be somewhat failing in their duties as pastors not to mention the one thing which stands between mankind and God.
A minister may tell a congregation of two hundred believers that they are all sinners, and they will not flinch. But say this to two hundred unbelievers and there is an outcry.

The first group openly admits that they believe in the existence of sin, while the second says sin is a social construct, invented to keep people in their place. Yet, those who don’t believe in sin are more offended to hear it mentioned.

How come? What’s the difference between the two groups?

Knowing the Great Physician: Jesus Christ.

Because Christians have a saving knowledge of Christ, they know that they are sinners. Sinners saved by grace, but sinners nonetheless. They are more offended by sin than anyone – but by the reality of its hateful, destructive power; not the mere mention of it.

Unbelievers, meanwhile, hate the word being levelled at them, yet, with a fearful irony, take no issue with the reality of sin in their lives.

Why, then, do these people who claim no belief in God, or the Devil, in heaven or hell, take such offence at being told they are sinners? This had puzzled me for a long time, until I experienced something of an epiphany in church recently.

In the context of a sermon, the minister addressed the objection raised by many unbelievers against hell – that God would condemn someone to eternal damnation for living a ‘basically decent’ life. It is an argument echoed by Stephen Fry’s famously blasphemous description of God as ‘mean-minded and capricious’, and it is a device which has flummoxed many would-be apologists in their armchair fights with a would-be Dawkins.

And, like so much else, it is built on a staggering foundation of ignorance. In this case, the minister pointed out, their argument betrays their misunderstanding of the nature of sin.

Sin is not something mean we do to one another. The bad things we do, feel, think, and say, they are the fruit of sin. But at its root, sin is our state of being at odds with God. People are looking at it from the wrong end, so to speak.

In recent weeks, in various conversations – mostly online – I have had to point out the same thing repeatedly: God’s creation was made perfect in His own image. We dismantled it and remade it in ours. Now, standing in the half-built wreckage of the world, we point accusingly at Him, the God of all Creation. And what do we say? What great arguments have Fry and Dawkins, and others like them given their disciples?

Why, the same two excuses that children caught out in misbehaviour have been using since the Fall:

‘He made me do it’, and, ‘It was already broken when I got here’.

It’s pathetic in the absolute, deepest sense of that word. I pity them in their failure to see that God does not condemn them to eternal damnation; they condemn themselves. They listen to false prophets like these blasphemous men who are lauded as clever, erudite, and incisive, and whose great argument against Christianity is ‘your God doesn’t exist, but He’s wicked and cruel’.

The hypothetical two hundred believers who do not flinch at being called sinners are not hardened in their hearts. They do not balk at the diagnosis because they have already begun the cure. I think the devastating news of sin would be impossible to bear if we did not always receive it simultaneous to the remedy. Yet another of God’s great kindnesses to us, though, is that we only feel the pain of being at odds with Him when He has already begun the work of restoring us to life.

But the great question for all such sinners saved by grace is: how do we persuade the afflicted to hospital when they don’t realise they are ill?

 

 

Singing my Sorrow in a Strange Land

The night before my public ordeal by presbytery last Tuesday, I got a message from a friend saying they were praying for me. They didn’t know that I was nervously facing my first gig as a male impersonator (well, you know, sort of), but that only makes it lovelier in my eyes, that these Lochies would pray for me, while I was miles away, sitting by my stove in Tolsta.

On Thursday, after a moving and thought-provoking service of thanksgiving, I went off to Isles FM – our local community radio station- to do a live show, called Glow. It’s a mix of Christian conversation, music and readings. The host is an easygoing Siarach with a pleasant, laid-back style. He manfully endured my ramblings about the Reformation for the entire show, and we parted company late on a very wintry night.

The midnight drive home over freezing white roads was unpleasant. I registered with surprise the unfamiliar sensation of being glad to see Tolsta: I was home. Back within wi-fi range, my phone pinged out messages. Laid-back Siarach doing his ‘mum thing’ and checking I’d arrived safely. A very dear friend reminding me of something so lovely from that evening’s sermon. And a new friend joking that I seemed to be everywhere, but that he’d enjoyed the show.

The road home had been a challenge, but there was light and warmth and kindness at the end of my journey.

It caused me to reflect on other things that had happened this week. Someone who is researching for a documentary about loneliness called on Monday to discuss it with me. And, just yesterday, a friend very perceptively said that she realised how difficult it must be to have no one to talk to about my day when evening falls.

Yes, that silence has got a particular quality to it. There is no one asking about how work went, or telling me I look tired. Donnie was a generous man and gave of his love and concern liberally. He cared in a very practical way because his heart and his conscience were both larger than was sometimes good for him. And, just when I was most tired, or at my lowest ebb, he would do something unexpected. Our life together was one of small kindnesses – and great ones – which I miss very much.

But, even this is something from which I can learn. I know that this life I find myself living is part of something intentional in God’s scheme. So, with His help, I am trying not to follow it as though it’s some kind of plan B.

By extension, then, the inherent loneliness that accompanies my widowhood is something of which God is aware and which He knows will be the lot of anyone in my situation. He supplies much which alleviates it. I am blessed in having a supportive and loving family, good friends and no shortage of activity to keep me distracted.

Which is fine if all I’m supposed to do is survive. One of my initial thoughts after he died was to wonder how many years I might have to ‘get through’ alone on this earth. But that was transient, something borne of the acute despair I felt at the thought of living without him.

Until I remembered that my strength had never come from Donnie. That was a mistake I had made many times before. When it really mattered, though, God gently showed me who it was that had taken me through.

Three things occur to me, then, inspired by what I have heard and where I have been this week. First of all, I believe that being distracted from grief and loneliness is not what God wants for me, nor is it why He has placed so many incredible people along my path. I think he wants me to see my widowhood, and yes, even the loneliness, as a gift through which I can experience more of His love. That was one message in last Sunday evening’s sermon.

And on Tuesday, discussing the Reformation solas, we were reminded that soli deo gloria, or ‘to God’s glory alone’ may sometimes be overlooked. It is a personal challenge to remember in everything I do and, though I try, of course my efforts frequently fall far short. After all He has done for me, how can I even think of keeping the smallest bit of credit for myself?

Reflecting on all He has done was the theme on Thursday as we gathered for a service of thanksgiving on an icy cold evening. Even in sorrow – perhaps especially in times like these – the minister said, God wants His people to sing their sadness to Him. In singing to Him, they remember His name; His name is wedded to salvation; and so in the midst of their sorrow, they remember all that His grace has accomplished for them.

That song of desolation becomes a song of praise and thanksgiving because they are no longer looking backwards at the night, but forward to the eternal daybreak.

It has been a busy week, one in which I have rarely been alone. Now that I am, my mind does not dwell on the silence, but on all the love He has shown me in these last few days. How can I sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? When I think of all He has done – His steadfastness, His forbearance, His mercy, His love towards me – how can I be dumb?

 

Better a Bible in the post than being post-Bible

The local patriarchy of the Free Church this week played a blinder: they allowed a woman to share a platform with actual men. She was asked for, and allowed to express what can only be described as opinions.

Of course, it was a safe enough move – they probably know that they have brainwashed her so thoroughly that whatever she says is really just furthering their agenda.

But what is their agenda? Well, that depends on who you speak to.

The people of superior intellect, the ones who really know where it’s at, they say it’s about hanging onto power. That’s why these men want Lewis to be a six-day island, why they want folk going to church and reading their Bibles. It’s about maintaining status and holding sway.

My dizzy wee brain has been working on this problem for a while now, but I can’t for the life of me figure out the nature of their power.

Some of them have a strong handshake. And there are others who can lift a pretty flat rendition of the psalms out of the doldrums. Is that the power?

Or maybe they mean something a bit more, well, mysterious.

On communion Sunday, I’ve seen a few elders do a deft, wee trick in which they simultaneously shake your hand and take your token. That?

Or, perhaps it’s the power to drive cailleachs in minibuses to church. Or the power to visit the housebound. Perhaps it is, when all is said and done, the power to be a stoical presence for you in the worst moments of your life.

I have not forgotten the elder, despite all the hard times I give him, who came to me after my husband’s funeral service, and put a comforting arm around my shoulders. Or the minister, up off his sickbed, to visit and pray with me on my first morning as a widow.

Nor do I forget the moments of real empathy I have experienced from men who had plenty other things on their mind, but still saw how fresh grief for others might reopen old wounds for me.

They are counsellors, encouragers, friends. I see them as what they are – men who love Christ and try to serve Him in an increasingly hostile world. Many of them are husbands, fathers, grandfathers. Some are retired, the rest are in a wide variety of jobs.

Among them are people who can’t hold a tune, who are handless in the kitchen, who can’t match a tie to a shirt, who are hopeless at small talk, whose jokes are a bit corny, who are simply not for turning.

These men are human. Real. But they are making an utter hash of being an exploitative patriarchy.

Not one of them has ever whacked me over the head with the Shorter Catechism (or the Larger, which has more impact). They do hover protectively about the pulpit steps as I pass, but I don’t think they actually expect me to try storming it.

Or maybe it’s all a clever ruse so I won’t spot their real agenda.

The Presbytery event they permitted me to attend marked 500 years since the start of the Protestant Reformation. This was, amongst other things, a reaffirmation of the complete sufficiency and authority of the Bible.

In other words, if you are trying to figure something out and popular opinion says one thing, while the Bible says quite another, scripture gets the final say. It’s well worth being clear on that point – scripture, not ‘the church’, and certainly not individual men within it.

Recently, a shopkeeper in Stornoway was sent a Bible by the Lord’s Day Observance Society/Day One, accompanied by a supporting letter. She, it would seem from all the media coverage, felt threatened and harassed by this, which I would assume was not at all their intention in contacting her. Their motivation I think I can guess at. They were trying to remind the lady that, whatever she thinks is right and acceptable, the Bible says otherwise.

This, to the unbeliever feels like an imposition, like the dark-suited men of the church trying to assert some authority. They are – but not their own. It is not about control; it’s about love.

I know already what the response to this would be: ‘I don’t believe what you believe. Live your life the way you want and leave me to do likewise’.

However, the plain truth of the matter is that, regardless of whether you believe or not, God’s supreme authority as revealed to us in scripture is that: supreme. For a Christian to accede to the ‘leave me alone’ request would be a denial of one of the central tenets of their faith. When you have been plucked out of dangerous waters yourself, you do not sail blithely away, leaving others to drown.

Remembering the birth of reformed doctrine is not just an idle look into history for Christians. The man credited with sparking the birth of Protestantism – Martin Luther – is an example of that. He also felt the weight of unwarranted authority pressing down on him and, like many non-Christians, regarded God as a distant figure, threatening damnation for every misdemeanour.

And then Luther’s eyes were opened, and the chains which bound his heart fell away. He risked his life to bring that same freedom to others – all because he opened scripture and really read it.

Receiving a Bible should not offend you: it means that someone cares for you very much, and wants you to have all the chances they’ve had.

 

Free speech? What free speech?

You won’t be surprised to learn that, as a Lewiswoman of the Wee Free persuasion, there are certain things which I am not encouraged to have an opinion on. These include, but are not limited to: whether elders should wear ties, the use of more innovative psalm tunes, or anything to do with the carpark.

That still leaves me with baking, when to use doilies, and what colour of shirt is most becoming to the ministers. That last one needs very careful consideration if they’re standing against an all-white backdrop, and had a late one at the Session the night before. Peelie-wally face, grey shirt: you see the problem.

However, the restrictions imposed upon my thinking within church confines are as nothing compared to those that society has put my way.

Indeed, the overbearing Free Kirk patriarchy which has repressed my kind for so many years seems positively liberal by comparison. Why, this week alone, they allowed me to press buttons on the recording equipment unsupervised. And when the singing elder ran at me, shouting, ‘who let you loose on that?’ the minister reprimanded him. Progress, you see?

But what happens inside our secret society of Calvinist oppression  is well-known to those who merely look on. They know that the men rule with a rod of iron and the women meekly obey. It is a matter of common knowledge that the minister tells us how to vote, what to watch on television, which newspapers are acceptable, and which horse to back in the Grand National. Well, no, not that last one. Our local intellegentsia are not daft enough to think betting is encouraged; just that their neighbours are robots.

They are particularly good at making those kinds of judgements – what is harmless, what is harmful, what is important, what is not. And, of course, they are well aware that we Presbyterians are strangers to rational thought . It is for our own good that they tell us what to think, what to say, and when to be quiet.

This week, I shared a ‘Spectator’ article on facebook. It was called, ‘Questioning transgenderism is the new blasphemy’.

So, I questioned transgenderism.

The response? I was variously accused of being uncaring, ignorant, commenting on something that didn’t concern me and, inevitably, I was told to be quiet.

All of which rather made the author’s – and my – point. You cannot discuss transgenderism rationally. The same applies to abortion, to gay marriage, and to any number of other social phenomena which have quietly been ushered onto statute books in the west, without anyone really talking about it.

The responses are always the same: those arguing against you position themselves as caring, and will use words like ‘hurt’ and ‘shame’ and ‘rejection’. With no evidence whatsoever, they will tell you that generations of islanders suffered shame, mental illness, and even took their own lives as a result of being judged and rejected for things over which they had no control .

And perhaps that is true. But Christians do not mean to add to anyone’s unhappiness. It’s just, no one has asked their opinion. Had there been debate, they could and should have been part of that. Then, an appropriate response could have been discussed – by which I do mean with all sides being heard, not just those voicing the socially acceptable view.

What is not socially acceptable, as I am fast learning, is Biblical authority. People will dismiss it, using words that I find chilling – not because I am offended, but because they are.

They are offended at the idea of submitting to anything that is not their preference, or their will. In all of this, the supreme irony is that they are in chains of their own making. Like Jacob Marley, they have forged them inch by inch, and tightened them further with each half-turn away from the will of God.

There is, of course, another taboo here. You may not talk of sin. In this fruitless online exchange, the opponents of free speech write emotively and scathingly of the shame inflicted on generations of people for their lifestyle choices. While I have no doubt that may be true, and regrettable where there was a want of empathy, the truth has not changed.

So, don’t be offended at the mention of ‘sinner’, because I freely admit to being one of equal, if not greater guilt.

No Christian calls sin into question to humiliate, or judge anybody. That is never the aim.  Yes, we may indeed quote you Romans 3: 23, ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.

That means you, but it means me as well, and I speak to you, not as a would-be judge, but as a fellow convict who has been granted the key for my cell door.

You see, Romans 3 has a 24th verse. It says, ‘ and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’.

That is the key. If a Christian tells you you’re imprisoned, it’s not to cause you despair. They want you to open the door to freedom like they have.

Perhaps, after all, your hurt and offence has nothing to do with hearing the word, ‘sin’, and everything to do with being out of step with the only One who can truly dry your tears.

 

Bovril, brokenness and adoration

This week, I went to pieces over a jar of Bovril. I’ve never liked the stuff anyway, but finding it lurking at the back of my kitchen cupboard was unexpectedly emotional. It wasn’t mine, you see; it was Donnie’s. And seeing it there, knowing I would have to throw it out, and that I will never again buy another jar of the revolting substance brought me to tears.

Every clear-out I have is difficult because, no matter how thorough you’ve been, there is always something. It is like stripping away layers of your life together. When you come across the object – Bovril, a CD, a book – you remember it in its old context. And now you have to deal with it in its new. Worse, you have to decide whether to keep it or not. It would have been ludicrous to keep an out of date jar of beef tea, though, so I didn’t. It was thrust decisively into a bin liner in a single, rapid movement I’ve become very practised at.

It took me months before I could do that with his toothbrush, or his toiletries. There is still a bottle of his aftershave in the bathroom cabinet. Little by little, as kindly as you can to your own heart, you have to make changes.

Two months after he died, I traded my car in for something that had never been parked in the hospital car park, nor sat for a week outside the hospice. I just needed a neutral vehicle, with no leaflets about coping with cancer in the door pockets. But it took more than a year before I could shake myself to give Donnie’s car away.

Grief is a painstaking process – it is like piecing the mosaic of your life back together with a toothpick, after it has been shattered into a billion shards. Some days, none of the tiles fit, and all you can see are empty spaces.

But that is not every day. Or, at least, it is not every day for me.

For a long, long time, I could not bear to sing Psalm 100 along with the rest of the congregation. It was too poignant, there where we married, singing the verses I walked down the aisle to. Every time it was announced, I wanted to flee from the building before the precentor even got to his feet.

But I knew this could not be allowed to continue. It is a psalm of praise to God – it is not about me, or my loss, or my grief, or my very unbecoming self-pity. So I read it again. I read it over and over, trying to hear His voice.

I’m no theologian. In fact, a lot of the time, I worry that I might veer into heresy, or take too much on myself in how I read God’s word. The Bible is not art, or poetry, and it isn’t safe to interpret it just how you please. But this Psalm speaks to me very clearly. It says ‘come into His presence with singing’, and it says, ‘enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise’.

It does not say, ‘come into His presence and sing’, or ‘enter His gates and give thanks’. We are surely to come into His presence already doing those things.

But, more than that, as I have found out – we are to come into His presence by doing those things. Praise Him, bless His name for all that He is and all He has done, and He will draw very near.

There are many shattered lives in this world. People see their plans unfulfilled, their hopes and dreams broken before their very eyes. The world is a place of brokenness and has been since the end of Eden. We were intended for perfection, yet we chose sin. If God was the cruel, remote entity unbelievers would have Him be, the story would end there and the atheists would be right: this world would be all there is. After all, we made our choice. Knowing and living in perfection, our first parents still rejected it and left us this legacy of grief, of doubt, of corruption and all the manifold horrors that sin brings in its wake.

God has not dealt with us as we deserved, though, has He? He offers us the beauty we rejected. In Jesus, He has made for us, not a mosaic from the pieces of our old life, but a perfect, new creation. I see it, even as I fit my life back into some semblance of order.

What I thought were spaces in the picture, are simply those things which are unseen. They are what will endure, just like His steadfast love.

Asked last week to write a short piece on ‘adoration’ for the forthcoming Free Church Day of Prayer, I had no hesitation in basing it on psalm 100. It does not represent loss to me any longer; but the only gain worth counting.

If we are His people indeed, ours will be a song of praise without end.

Evicted by an Elder and Other Open Doors

Twice in the space of a week the same elder has attempted to have me removed from meetings. In the first case, he simply objected to my presence; in the second, I think it may have been something I said.

It is encouraging, though, to realise that the objection centres on my person, rather than my gender.

That, surely, is progress for womankind, and especially the subjugated Hebridean truaghag of the Wee Free variety – when people start dismissing you for your objectionable personality, and not simply because you are, well, a blone.

At the first of those gatherings, our work SU group, the same elder gave a very interesting and thought-provoking talk on the work of the Gideons. It is an organisation I have always been dimly aware of, but knew little about, and it was good to learn more about the valuable work that they do, placing copies of God’s word into the very situations where people most need Him.

That is to say, anywhere and everywhere we go.

Here in Lewis most of us grew up in homes where there would be not just one, but a good many copies of the Bible. Yet, this man in his work for the Gideons spoke of meeting people who were beyond delighted to be given their very own New Testament, never having possessed one before.

I own a lot of Bibles. There are two pulpit tomes which Donnie bought and lugged home from second-hand bookshops. And the one I gave him when we got married, as well as the Bible presented to us by Stornoway Free Church on the same occasion. We also have a family Bible, which I have not yet had the heart to write Donnie’s death into.

There is the one I use every Sunday, tastefully covered in blue tweed. And the handsome leather-bound study Bible, a gift from my brother, which I use daily at home. By my bed, there is a journaling ESV, with notes on many of my favourite passages; in the car is the pink version I use with my Sunday School girls.

And there is a desperately battered Gaelic Bible in the glove compartment too. I would love to replace it with something less fragile, but you just can’t buy them anymore.

At work, I keep a minuscule New Testament, an even more battered Gaelic Bible, and Donnie’s ESV. Oh, and a Gideon New Testament that all staff received shortly after I started in the college. I even have multiple translations on my iPhone.

No excuse, in other words, to be unacquainted with what my Father wants of me. But simply owning a Bible – or 100 Bibles – will not help, if I never open any of them. They are not holy relics, or sacred objects in and of themselves. God intended that they should be read, and their truth applied. That was what Luther and Tyndale and other great Reformers won for us: the privilege of having the Word of God at our fingertips, in our own language.

The one that I love best, though, is not the beautiful journaling volume, nor even the familiar Sunday blue tweed. It is a well-thumbed KJV Study Bible, stuffed with post-it notes and place markers. I had not picked it up in many a long year until recently, but it is my old friend because, through it, I think I came to a better understanding of the Lord’s plan for my life.

After hearing the elder speak about the Gideons, I came home and took the old KJV down from the shelf, and leafed through it. Seeing what I had marked and written notes on, I can almost trace the development of my relationship with the Lord. Including this, in Romans 15:4:

‘For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope’.

Reading it painstakingly for myself, trying to get closer to God, I must have marked that passage in hope. I struggled to understand anything that I had not heard explained in church, but I’m glad now to see this passage highlighted.

Elsewhere in Romans, Paul tells us that those who believe in God will not be put to shame. As I look back over this very long road, strewn with Bibles that mark every stage along the way, I can acknowledge the truth of that.

Now, as I look at the beloved KJV full of post-its, I realise how very like Gideon I have been. God was speaking to me in every one of those texts. When my heart swelled for joy at the words ‘those that are BEING saved’, didn’t that tell me something? Every word that I marked, I knew in my heart to be His truth.

Yet still, yet still, I needed another reassurance that He was speaking to me.

It did not once occur to me that I would never even have picked up the Bible, far less opened it, unless He had something to say to me.

And no matter how crammed with notes it is, how dog-eared, how tattered, or how pristine, God speaks the same message through your Bible as He did through mine:

‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me’.

Please don’t follow my example, lingering  too long on the threshold between life and death. Pick up your Bible. Hear His voice. Open the door.