The Power of Love . . . Or the Love of Power?

The first Baron Acton believed that power corrupts and that the tendency of absolute power is to corrupt absolutely. He was right, as we have almost daily proof. Our national politicians find themselves at the centre of scandals which would put a soap opera script editor to shame. It sometimes seems as though they consider themselves above the law – or at least immune to its effects.

I don’t fool myself that the local scene is any more decorous. It is simply that the stakes are lower and the local media is . . . not. Catch any  journalist off guard or in their cups and they might tell you things to make your hair stand on end (disclaimer: I said ‘might’). But you won’t catch any of them reporting it. Island politicians are not beyond reproach, but they are – largely – below the radar of public interest. Social media, of course, will do its thing of rumour, innuendo and downright lying, but what sane person believes the ramblings of a stranger on the internet anyway?

Power is, itself, a funny concept, especially when you link it to democracy. As an electorate, we basically play a game of chance in casting our votes, and let the cards fall where they may. Those selected by fickle voters are then left to simply get on with running things. Or they used to be. Nowadays, their every move is scrutinised by keyboard pundits and found wanting.

But they still have the last word.

From the other side of the ballot box, though, as one such elected person, what do I consider the nature of power to be? Bearing in mind I’m not exactly Chancellor of the Exchequer, that is. Well, I think living by the old adage that ‘knowledge is power’ may well be the only way to avoid fulfilling Baron Acton’s dark prediction. Power that is given, whether by divine right of succession or through the ballot box (rigged by the Wee Frees or otherwise) is something I have little interest in for my own part. The power to exercise positive change, however, through a proper understanding of your brief . . . well, now, that is something I can aspire to.

The worst thing any elected person can do is believe their own hype. Simply winning an election doesn’t necessarily mean you know what you’re doing – but it does mean you ought to find out sharpish.

This is true, I think, for anyone who puts themselves forward for election, but especially true for a disciple of Christ. Our defining trait is surely the daily realisation that we are nothing without him. If we seek to serve the Lord, then, by taking up office, we have to do all we can to avoid the corruption such power might bring. Now, before you get too excited, I’m not saying that the Stornoway Trust is a hotbed of intrigue and scandal. Corruption can assume many forms and, for a Christian trustee (or councillor, MSP or MP), the danger is that we become worldly, and start to rely on our own so-called ‘wisdom’ to make decisions.

That wisdom often consists of people basing their conclusions on feelings rather than facts. We are all guilty of it. You’re asked for your take on something and you have a gut reaction, so you go with that. Hunches are a lazy and destructive basis upon which to run anything, though. For Christians, we are back to that justified sinner thing again – we sometimes think that, because we are believers, all our actions will be righteous. And so they might well be, if only we trusted every one to God.

But, I hold up my hands here and confess that I have not done that nearly enough. It is probably painfully evident to those who scrutinise such things, anyway. Yes, I have tried to remember prayerfulness, and I have certainly attempted to learn the ropes of my role – but I have also relied on my own puny strength and my own inadequate wisdom too often. Those are all the times I have gone wrong; those are the days when my motivation is not what it ought to be.

I initially stood for the Stornoway Trust because I felt God was asking me to stand up for his cause, which was being shamefully set low in our community. He didn’t put me there, though – or any other Christian who holds an elected position – so that he could leave me to my own devices. His own know that is not how he works.

Why? Well, because he loves us, and he knows us. God doesn’t walk away from creatures so deluded that, despite Christ having to die for us, we can still be persuaded that there is something of worth in ourselves. He cannot trust us not to ruin things all over again – and so he goes with us.

Abraham Lincoln said that adversity was not a true test of a man’s character – his handling of power was. Sometimes, I have felt that, in my own small experience of (very limited) power, God is testing, not my character exactly, but my faith. Where I have taken my concerns to him, it has gone much better than when I have too much faith in myself.

Politically-acquired power is dangerous. It panders to our narcissism by telling us that we are popular, chosen. What every Christian must remember is this:

‘None is righteous; no, not one’.

It is a truth that those of us who believe in Christ need to remind ourselves of every day. If we wish to work for him in serving our communities, then the servant spirit must set self at naught.

Only, as Gandhi observed, when the power of love eclipses the love of power, will the world know peace. And that has to start with the people of God.

Politics, prayer and my inner Pharisee

Last Saturday, I had coffee  with an incredible young Christian who, less than a week later, would find herself presenting the Scottish budget to Parliament at very short notice. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman and all that.

We talked about the challenge of being female and Christian in any kind of public role. I think it’s safe to say that she has demonstrated that these need not be obstacles to acquitting yourself well. While the jury (including the one in my own head) is still out on me, even in my much more local role, I struggle with the big questions, so any believing politician of national stature certainly has my sympathy and – much more usefully- my prayers.

The Bible is full of people in leadership roles who walked with God and still went wrong. So, if Solomon in all his wisdom could have his heart turned to idolatry, then I’m pretty sure that should serve as a warning to all Christians in public office today. How much easier, indeed, for the devil to get his way when believing leaders are in the minority, and apostasy is the norm. Anyone might succumb to following that particular crowd with the greatest of ease.

And how do you avoid the pitfalls of being a Christian in a democratically-elected position? Here in Lewis, organisations like the Comhairle and the Stornoway Trust customarily open their meetings with prayer. Whenever this comes up in conversation with other believers, they react positively. For the Christian, there is a view that anything of the slightest importance should be put in God’s hands, where all things rightfully belong. Beginning the business of local government in this way, therefore, reassures them that leadership is as it should be, deferring to the Lord.

So, local Christians breathe a little more easily.

Except, I’m a local Christian and it doesn’t do a whole lot to reassure me. Not even considering my own position as an elected member of one such group.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I am not opposed to prayer in the Trust or anywhere else. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I DO worry that those of us who are Christians in elected office, and those of us who are voting Christians, tend to content ourselves with very little. ‘Prayer’ can end up being as formulaic as any other standing item on the agenda.

And the prayerfulness often ends with ‘amen’. I speak from personal experience here. There have been many occasions where I have gone seamlessly from bowing my head in contemplation, to venting my spleen in exasperation. My thoughts, my utterances, my conduct, my motivation often fall short of what they should be.

But never mind: at least we’ve said the words. Who’s to notice when they get stuck on the ceiling and rise no further?

I am not criticising the people who pray; not at all. What I’m saying is that we cannot content ourselves with opening petitions, if our subsequent conduct doesn’t testify to our faith. We cannot keep on expecting God to bless our endeavours if we aren’t really giving them into his keeping at all.

Recently, I was party to a conversation about a public servant whose conduct had been dubious to say the least. ‘But he’s a Christian’, someone protested. Their subtext was not that we should, therefore, expect better of him, but that he was actually beyond reproach.

There is a real danger here, that Christians will fall into a trap of thinking their faith guarantees all their actions to be righteous. We are at risk of the arrogance displayed – albeit to fictional extremes- in James Hogg’s ‘justified sinner’. If I call myself a Christian, if I pray in public and speak out for Sabbath observance, well, I’m doing my bit for the cause.

And that’s my challenge. I worry about becoming a Pharisee if I haven’t already. Many people voted for me in the Trust election, I am quite sure, purely because they knew where I stood on ‘The Sunday Issue’.

Here’s the thing, though: I want to keep the Lord’s Day myself because I love him. I want other people to want to keep it for the same reason. Is it the role of Christian trustees, councillors, MSPs or MPs to impose such things on an unbelieving people? Or is it our responsibility to earnestly pray for guidance ourselves, to show forth the love of Christ in everything that we do, and give it all to God?

We often hear complaints that there are too few Christians in public life. That may well be true, but God has placed some there. Instead of worrying about packing the debating chambers with more believers, let’s pray for those who are already in place, that they would learn to act in his wisdom and in his guiding. And God, I am sure, will give the increase.

No medium required: Gaelic is alive

When I was in primary six, our class teacher asked who among us spoke Gaelic. I regarded the unexpected question with suspicion and decided not to put my hand up. He wasn’t so daft, though, and fixed his eye on me, before asking several questions, all of which I answered fully . . . in Gaelic. There was no denying it after that. So, three out of his thirty pupils were labelled ‘native’, a category which has long since fallen into disuse because of its supposed ‘ethnic’ connotations.

Having progressed through primary school to the point where I was staring down the barrel of my penultimate year, here was someone asking me about my first language. I hadn’t thought about Gaelic as belonging in the classroom, any more than I would have welcomed the sight of my father with a deamhais in the GP’s surgery. It was a peculiarity of my home life, nothing more. And, in a house where your mother plays the bagpipes and your father insists that someone named Bodach Brùgan lives in the cavity walls . . . well, you can understand why this example of their craziness manifesting in school was unexpected to say the least.

The reason we were suddenly being asked about our fluency was with one eye on preparation for secondary school. I realised this many years later but, at the time, I merely obliged the teacher by doing as I was told.

What a funny way to realise that your mother tongue is a relevant part of your identity. Six years of education and not one mention of its existence, far less its influence on my life and, ‘next thing, suddenly, this change of mood’, as Seamus Heaney once wrote about the power of education.

Education HAS power, and as with every other tool of its kind, there is potential for misuse. Over several centuries, education was used to teach the Gaels of their inferiority. Don’t believe those who tell you that Gaelic was beaten out of the population; it wasn’t – it was taught out of us. We so equated the acquisition of English with progress, with the fabled ‘getting on’, that anything tying us to the traditional way of life was . . . well, a bit embarrassing, frankly.

As I was being asked that question by my teacher, however, a bit of an ar-a-mach was taking place in the unlikeliest of locations: Breasclete. There, for the first time, primary school children were beginning to be taught entirely in Gaelic.

And this week, the news began to filter out that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is taking the momentous step of making Gaelic the default language for new enrolments. In other words, the ‘GME’ box is pre-selected and, if your child is bound for an English education, you will have to untick ‘Gaelic’. AS Donald Dewar once said about something else entirely, ‘I like that’.

It doesn’t materially change anything. If you don’t want GME for your child, you will simply have to say so, like Gaelic speakers have done since its inception. I’m a little puzzled by the objections I have read to this small administrative change, but not remotely surprised.  We have to remember that what may be one small administrative change for the Comhairle, is one giant shift in mindset for the electorate.

See, I can’t have been the only one whose identity was largely ignored by the education system until 1985. Indeed, I know I wasn’t.

So, we struggle now to comprehend the fact that we are accepted. The perverse types among us even object to it – how dare the Comhairle make Gaelic the default choice for enrolment.  Bring back the glory days of persecution, of the maide-crochaidh, of the ignominy and shame at being labelled a ‘maw’.

Sometimes, I have to confess to that mindset myself. When Gaelic is talked about in terms of percentages, and of cost to the taxpayer, and even when its champions cite the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, I just want to snatch it out of their hands and run for the hills.

For me, Gaelic is my home, my parents, the laughter at one liners no English monoglot could get. It is the distinctive clipping sound of the sheep shears, and the smell of the freshly-shorn fleece. Gaelic is psalm singing and kind-faced bodaich and cailleachan who looked at you with the sort of Christian love that your soul can feel, even if your tongue cannot name it. Lewis Gaelic for me is warmth and security and humour. This Gaelic so derided by parliamentary committees and small-minded unionists, is the umbilicus linking people like me to a place and a people we love so much it defies description . . . even with two languages at our disposal.

The time of which I write here is gone and many of the people with it, though the place remains. I cannot capture for you what Gaelic means to me because it is elusive, beautiful and fragile as a soap bubble. But I can say that Comhairle nan Eilean has finally lived up to its name with this decision to normalise Gaelicness in the heartland.

No child in Lewis – or Harris, or Uist, or Barra – should wait ten years to speak to a teacher in their first language. And now they won’t have to.

 

 

 

Storm-proof Your Heart

Lewis has been battered by gales over the past week. Even as I write this, snug in my bed, the wind is raging around the house. Up until a few years ago, I would have slept on, oblivious – but this has woken me and will not let me sleep. You see, I am the householder now, with all the responsibility that entails. If a slate goes, or a window comes in (it’s late, I’m a bit hysterical), I’ll be the one looking for a tradesman.

Yet, I cannot really claim any anxiety. In fact, in the last few weeks, I have been experiencing a period of unexpected and – it rather goes without saying – undeserved blessing.

And that also began with something of a storm.

It isn’t something I want to go into too much, because to do so might draw the wrong kind of attention. Sufficient to say that I experienced a cowardly and insidious attack on my beliefs at the end of last year, days before Christmas. Someone, masquerading as a proponent of tolerance, sought to undermine my peace and my reputation with lies. Nevertheless, while I continue to live rent-free and, indeed, Wee Free, in their troubled head, I am enjoying a tranquility that can only have one source.

Initially, and for a short time after learning of this latest onslaught, I was troubled. But, God bless that anonymous stranger, because what they intended to harm me actually brought me ever closer to the throne of grace.

See, like every Christian, I imagine, I pray not to be a conduit for evil. I don’t want to be the door by which the enemy enters the sheepfold. Every time I suffer these attacks, however, I wonder whether I am doing more harm than good. Sometimes what keeps me wakeful is not the weather outside, but the storm of doubt in my heart.

The days following this latest were no exception. Prayer was giving me no peace either way. Finally, exhausted by my own feelings, I decided to do serious business with God. I prayed in a way that I always think of as ‘putting my shoulder to the wheel’. Was I, I asked him, misguided in my attempts at witnessing. If he willed it, I told him, I would put down my pen forever. All I wanted was for him to be glorified; and this just didn’t feel like a great stride towards that aim, I said.

Of course, God doesn’t always answer immediately. He did that night, though. This is the text I got:

‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name’.

And there it was. So much of him in that little verse. He was reassuring me that my liberty comes from him. Yes, he was saying, the enemy could crush you in a heartbeat, he could use you to work his will – but he is not dealing with you; he is dealing with me.

These words are precious, but I believe I already knew their truth.The gold for me was really in those first four: ‘I know your works’.

They have been the balm to my soul in the early days of 2020. If I focus upon glorifying him, then it only matters that he recognises it. Whether my witnessing has any effect is ultimately not my business anyway,  but his. After all, if I do with might what he gives my hand to do, then I am glorifying him in obedience. Results are the department of the Holy Spirit. It is certainly of no consequence that the enemy despises my work. Indeed, it doesn’t even matter that some of the brethren disapprove. What is any of that to me, if I am following him?

He, himself, was able to sleep in a boat at sea in the midst of a storm. That is, God in human form slumbered, while the God of all Creation continued to rule the universe.

When we know with all our hearts that this is the God in whom we trust, what on the earth of his making should ever steal our peace?

I have been feeding this unrivalled sense of calm with his beautiful songs of praise. Every morning of this young year, I have been reading and praying through the psalms. There is nothing, I think, in the whole of Scripture, that comes closer to painting him as he is. As surely as God spoke the world into being, these psalms sing a wonderful image of him.

He is my Father. He is my Lord. He is my hope and confidence. He is the stronghold of my life. He is my high tower. This God knows me, he knows my heart; this God knows my enemy, and yes, he knows my enemy’s heart. He is mercy, grace, love, truth, justice. From him, the Father of Lights, all these blessings – and more – flow down. This is the author of my providence, the keeper of my fate, and there are no safer, surer or better hands than these.

This year, it is my prayer that those who are blind to his beauty would have their own storm stilled. It only takes a moment in his presence to become aware of  your smallness. Yet, when that realisation comes, it is also accompanied by an awareness of his greatness.

His greatness is in his name. And his name conveys all the attributes that make him God. Rest on that, and no night will be too long, no storm too savage.

‘He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler’.

I will never stop witnessing to that.

Full Moon Fever

The moon – and particularly the full version of it – has come to feature in my life more than I might have expected. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but I rather think that the Kirk Session and Balaich an Trust all get a bit hairier and a bit howlier round about this time of the month. It definitely used to be that my social media presence agitated more folk while Luna was waxing than at any other time, but that’s all quietened down as they find other ways to spend their time: sharpening sticks and piling up stones, or whatever it is trolls do when they’re not trolling. Writing letters of complaint, possibly, in the case of those who fancy themselves a bit ‘educated’.

I don’t exactly know why, but in my pre-Christmas book buying frenzy, I ordered myself a copy of the 2020 Almanac. Perhaps, on reflection,  I am spending too much time with bodaich. But, no, it has a very practical application for someone who lives in North Tolsta and needs not only to know the lunar phases, but also which herbs make a good poultice to see off the effects of the evil eye. This is the sort of old wives’ lore a person can find in an almanac.

It is, of course, from the Latin, ‘luna’, meaning ‘moon’ that we get the word ‘lunatic’. This application of the term stemmed from the belief that mental illness manifested more extremely when the moon was waxing and full. My husband used to scoff at my suggestion that it had such influence, but I’m not entirely convinced that people who grew up in the witchcraft capital of Lewis are best qualified to pronounce on what might be considered erratic behaviour.

Actually, I do believe it has a part to play. Get your green crayons out now, ready to write letters of disquiet to the Session, because I’m about to tell you my reasoning.

We know from that great and infallible god, science, that the moon has a good deal of influence on tides, on gravity and on the forces that move the world generally. People do not dispute this; it is what we lovingly call ‘a fact’.

I know from my actually great, actually infallible and definitely God that he created the moon and everything upon which it pulls. Yes, the seas, the rivers, the animals, the seasons – all of these are subject to the lunar force. An integral part of the Creation too, though, is your common or garden human being. We are not apart from it, separate from it, distinct from it; we are a piece of the entire complex jigsaw that God called into being.

Therefore, we too are governed by the forces he instituted. Including the moon.

There is a school of thought in modern society that talks a lot about going back to nature, of getting closer to the low-intensity way that our forefathers used to live. People are drawn to the idea of making things, craftsmanship and following the seasons. I know my Harris seanair certainly liked to grow his own quinoa, and my granny was the first woman in Achmore to embrace shabby chic, but this new movement goes deeper than that. It’s as if people are looking for something simpler; as if they want to shed the complication and burden that modern life has placed upon our shoulders.

Look at the Greta Thunberg phenomenon. That a young girl and, indeed, a whole generation, is traumatised by the threat of environmental apocalypse testifies to our broken-down relationship with nature.

But it speaks of something else too, as does this whole shift to downsize, to reduce your carbon footprint: it’s all a symptom of the fact that we are looking the wrong way.

What is it we’re seeking in all of this greening? Listen to what people are saying. They want the environment to be safe for their children, they want to know that the food they eat and the water they drink is unpolluted by chemicals, they want to stop losing species at a rate of knots. It is the same instinct that drives us back to our almanacs and that causes us to feel better if we predict tomorrow by looking at the moon instead of a television screen.

We know that we are responsible for the state of the environment. God gave the one part of Creation crafted in his own image stewardship of the rest – and we blew it. Indeed, we blew it so badly and so early that man had to leave the garden he was made for. Man, in his own befuddled way is now trying to find his way back.

Because we are wise in our own sight and have been since the moment that precipitated the Fall, our map for getting to Eden is one we drew ourselves. It’s a tacked-together affair, made up of environmental policy and recycling bins. We think we can save ourselves, but the reality is that what we are seeking in all of this is the Creator himself.

And yet, in our own perverse way, we are going to try every other method to fix ourselves first. I don’t need an almanac to tell you how that ends.

No Sting in this Tale

Everyone is looking back. It is not just the turn of the year, but the close of a decade also. Photos abound, comparing faces from ten years ago with their present-day counterparts; and there are the inevitable lists – what we wanted to achieve over against what actually transpired.

If I do the same, the change in my life looks seismic. At the start of this decade, both my father and husband were still living. I was quietly going about my business: work and home and family were the boundaries of my small world. My face was considerably less wrinkled, my eyes less baggy, and that generally shopworn look had not yet settled on me. It was still possible to stay up all night at election counts and do a full day’s work afterwards. In short, I hadn’t started to think I might be mortal.

That all changed when we experienced a break in our tight family circle. With the death of my father came the real, heart realisation that this world is not forever. I felt that some door to eternity had been flung open and I lived in a state bordering on terror that death was not yet done with us.

It wasn’t. Yet, when it came again to claim Donnie, I was so blessed to be able to see it as what it really is: the last enemy.

I had heard the term, of course, many times – which death-fixated Calvinist has not? But I hadn’t properly understood that such a gloomy phrase could convey much spiritual comfort.

See, as an unassured Christian, I took it to mean that we all need to accept the fact that there is always that last hurdle at the end of our lives. No matter, I thought, how easy or difficult things are in this world, no matter whether you are atheist or believer, there is this dragon guarding the exit. It was a lurking, crouching, dark form, waiting to blight my life by removing loved ones and, eventually, to claim me too.

‘Well’, you’re thinking by now, ‘am I glad I started to read this – she’s fairly cheered me up. A blog by PTL is like the last enemy at the threshold of the year!’

I refer you to Naomi’s advice for her daughter in-law, Ruth; advice I often have to give myself: ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out’.

I haven’t finished yet.

Death being the last enemy is not a threat to me anymore; it’s a promise. You may say that this is all very well because, yes, it is the ‘last’. Nonetheless, it is also still the ‘enemy’ and that is something, surely, to fear.

It used to be. That’s why my father’s death left me feeling persistently exposed and vulnerable. Eternity was speaking to me, laying before me two options. There was the broad road, which looks so easy and attractive. Parallel to it was the narrow path, winding, steep and – in places – dark. Standing at the entrance to these it seems simple to pick which journey to take.

If I had chosen to be seduced onto the broad way, I would be facing the last enemy alone. Instead, by God’s infinite mercy and grace, I was drawn down the narrow way. It isn’t straightforward and I have stumbled so often. There are even many days when I look wistfully at that parallel track, and even stand on the verge that separates the two, wondering where I belong.

The last enemy waits for me, some way ahead – near or far, I can’t be sure.

But, because I walk, limp, and crawl in the company of Christ, the knowledge that death is the last enemy is a sweet one. It doesn’t loom ominously because my wonderful Saviour vanquished it for me long ago:

‘I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless; Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.

Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?

I triumph still if thou abide with me.’

So, yes, on the surface, and even somewhat deeper, this has been a hard decade. Over the last year, indeed, and even the past fortnight, there have been many attempts by the devil to make me fear, so that I will regret the way I have taken. It is difficult to hold your nerve against such onslaught- which is why I don’t; I give it to someone else to hold for me.

The bags under my eyes, the tired face . . .  don’t be fooled; inwardly, I – like every man or woman who calls upon the name of Jesus – am being renewed.

At the start of a new year and a new decade, then, I pray for that perspective on the last enemy to be the lot of those I love. More challenging still, I pray that it will also be the lot of those of you who hate me for Christ’s sake.

Journey into the Known

‘For unto us is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’. These are well-known words – so much so, in fact, that I didn’t even have to check my quotation for accuracy, despite being a Christmas-eschewing Wee Free.

It was actually while driving to work this morning that the power of these words struck me afresh. I was, in a most un-Free Church way, listening to Chris Tomlin’s rendition of ‘Silent Night’. Halfway through the track, Luke 2: 11 is read by an Irish lady and maybe it was her intonation, or where she placed the emphasis, but it spoke so powerfully to me on this otherwise humdrum Wednesday morning.

Everything in that one sentence is glorious. It is, first and foremost, the news of a birth. Many carols deal with this astounding news and we are led to think that the child, humbly born in Bethlehem is primarily a new beginning. He is, of course, all of that. But for something to begin in this world, another has to end – and that is at least half the triumph of this verse and the entire Christmas message: the birth of Christ signifying the beginning of the death of sin.  

We have all, through the great medium of television or internet, witnessed world-changing events: the death of empires; the capture of dictators; the outbreak of war and of peace. Yet, somehow, these things are remote from most. It is possible to see the coronation of a monarch you will likely never meet. All that pomp, the ermine and the jewels, they are not for the likes of us. Look, by all means, but don’t touch; pay for it, but gain nothing in the process.

Whereas, the birth of this King, within the bounds of a royal city, though in the lowliest accommodation there, brings to us an unparalleled message of hope and inclusion. Here, it says, is ultimate Royalty, prepared to humble itself for our sakes. This is true kingship that does not rely upon the outward trappings for its sovereignty.

I had a lot on my mind this morning as I made the journey to the college. It always seems to be in the car that concerns rise up to greet me – marking, Christmas shopping, what’s in the diary, have I forgotten a deadline, where am I meant to be this evening, did I feed the cat before I left, what’s that niggling feeling that I’ve forgotten something important. And always, as we make the descent into this particular holiday, I remember Donnie and how much he loved coming home for Christmas. Memories of these times are woven into everything else and they can sweeten or salt my vision, depending on the moment.

Yet, even that thick fog of concern was not impenetrable today. Two words shone through it like a beacon of hope: ‘unto us’.

Separated by some two thousand years, the birth of Christ the Lord in the city of David is far less remote from me than the coronation of Queen Elizabeth sixty-six years ago. The reason, of course, is that, while she may well have been born to be Queen, he was born already King, no need for accession or for a crown and sceptre. Furthermore, she was born to rule the Commonwealth and to maintain the distance that permits human government to be carried out with a modicum of fairness.

The government that is on his shoulders, however, is of a very different kind.

It is meaningful to everyone who has a relationship with Christ, because it is personal to each one of us. This Saviour was not just born: he was born unto us. From the very beginning, then, it was clear that this event in the city of David was intended to be foundational. Here was something that changed everything, not simply for the world entire, but for every individual  in it who accepts the gift of life. Unto us, that Saviour was born; unto us that only begotten Son was given.

So, today, driving south on an Atlantic island, to work, with a head stuffed with myriad concerns, that birth spoke loudly once more. Unto me, in that faraway city of Bethlehem, two thousand years ago, was born a Saviour. He isn’t – as some would have it – a character from an Eastern folk tale. Indeed, he travels regularly with me on this trip to the college; I talk to him in the privacy of my car – something I almost never do with Ealasaid the First of Scotland.

Read those precious words, especially if you don’t know him – ‘unto us’. He was and is and will be your Saviour if you’d only see past the familiar story to the truth it reveals. There never was such a man; take him and the gift he offers to yourself and you will never again travel alone with your cares.

 

 

We Are Covered With Shame

In a country that seems to be in a permanent state of electoral campaigning, it is comforting to remember that there is a Saviour coming whose government shall be eternal. As a Christian, I feel dejected by the absence of God-honouring leadership, of moral representation in our land – and then I remember something else very important: I did this. My faithlessness, and prayerlessness, my insistence in going forward on my own wisdom and strength . . . these things have broken the society of which I am part.

The society of which I am part, incidentally, is one where some children sleep in their outdoor clothes at night, because their families are too poor to afford heating. Men and women bed down on cold, hard pavements because a rich nation like Scotland cannot provide them with a roof over their heads. And then I, and people like me, assuage our guilt by donating money: tiny, tiny drops in an ocean of need.

Yes, I pray for them, lifting them up to God – when I remember to. Do I weep over them, though? Beg him to intervene? The truthful answer is: not often enough.

As political manifestos go, the Bible is as radical as it gets. So radical that it’s uncomfortable. Do people like me want to be told that our wealth is an obstacle to our entrance into the kingdom of God? Are we prepared to love our neighbour as ourselves? That’s what Christ expects of us, not because he is unreasonable, but because he went so much further himself.

We’re supposed to be impressed when we see the Prime Minister in a high-vis jacket on a building site, or an MP prepared to ‘sleep out’ on a December night to demonstrate solidarity with the homeless. They are perceived as forsaking their dignity in ‘coming down’ to our level.

My Party Leader relinquished his godness to be born into the humblest of circumstances. He was ridiculed, persecuted, and hunted for speaking the truth. This world rejected him and nailed him on a cross to die. We crowned him with thorns and gave him sour wine to drink. Then he was goaded to prove that he was indeed the Christ by coming down from the cross and saving himself.

He stayed exactly where he was and, when the moment was right, surrendered his spirit into the hands of God.

Why? Was it for votes? For power?

There was no advantage in any of this for him, if we assess his actions in political terms. Christ had nothing to gain, for how could he ever be greater than he was?

So, that leaves only one logical explanation. It was all motivated by love for us.

Right at this moment in time, are you not beguiled at the thought of a government founded on love, and led by love? I know I am. That’s why I follow him, why all my hopes are in him, and why I would dearly love to see things run his way, to his glory.

Then, however, I don’t act as though this is what I want. Instead I get diverted by my own ambitions. The inner control freak tries to bend everything to her will, forgetting that submission is the first rule of this particular party membership. If I’m not being led by Christ, then I’m being led by my own sin, and by the leader of the opposition in his bid for power. Satan, the master of spin, can get me to do just what he wants the moment I strike out for myself.

And what I want is mostly about me. It comes down to my desires and priorities. The time I give in my thoughts, and in my prayers, to those whom Christ blessed – the poor, the needy, the sick, the fatherless – is shamefully minimal. Do I please him in this? Of course not.

If I spent more time asking myself the right questions, I would probably carry less guilt about the state of our nation. There are really only two enquiries we need make in any given situation: how can I glorify God in this, and how can I experience more of his love? Individual Christians living their lives this way will build up into a church which functions similarly, and a church which shows the world a better route can only lead to improvements in the leadership we elect.

It is because I have not repented enough or prayed enough that the church of Christ’s witness in this world is weakened. I should be demonstrating that I expect more from politicians than to follow their own judgement, by not always following my own. Because I am dumb on these points, the church also is silent.

It follows, therefore, that when the church is silent, the nation does not know any better.

And because the nation does not know any better, it acts on what it is pleased to call its ‘wisdom’. That is what gives us situations like the one in which we currently find ourselves. I don’t mean Brexit particularly, or the prospect of further constitutional flux – I am talking about the fact that the poorest and most vulnerable in our society consistently get forgotten about when we choose our leadership.

Even that, though, is just a symptom. We have taken God out of our reckoning. Whether we accept it or not, he is sovereign over all, and he is looking on at what we do with the free will to choose leaders. And he is wondering why, in all this mess, we still think we can do it with no reference to him.

The Reliable Robin

‘See that cute wee bird’, one of the gentlemen of the Trust said, gesturing in my direction. I preened a little, sitting straighter in the chair. ‘It’s the most vicious, territorial, aggressive thing you’ll ever come across’. A bit harsh, I thought, considering I’m always on my best behaviour at meetings. When I objected to the accusation, though, he claimed to be talking about the robin redbreast pattern on my dress.

It seems (according to the bloke in question who evidently relished labouring his deliberately ambiguous point) that the very attractive little birds for whom we all feel such affection are feathery sociopaths, possessive and territorial in the extreme. At this time of year, their image is everywhere: on mugs, Christmas cards, cushions . . . and even clothing. Hanging on a hook in my porch is a little wooden heart, which bears the legend, ‘robins appear when lost loved ones are near’. This is part of the comforting folklore that lets people believe that stray feathers, friendly robins and even butterflies are a message to them from someone who has died.

Our association between the robin and Christmas may simply be because he is a colourful fellow who appears to good effect against a wintry landscape. However, I prefer to believe that it’s because of the folklore which connects the little bird to Christ.

In one story, Mary has kindled a fire in the stable in Bethlehem, to keep the baby warm. She is distracted by a visitor, and does not notice that she has placed the manger too close to the blaze. A little brown bird comes and fluffs out his wings, shielding the baby’s face from the heat of the flames, scorching his own breast in the process.

In light of this fable, then, the robin is a very apt symbol of Christmas. More importantly, though, he is a good metaphor for Christ’s own love – the love that goes out to others and sets self at naught. The bird who shielded the baby suffered for it, but what a worthy recipient for his act of selflessness! Which Christian would not want to have done as much?

It’s difficult to make the time to reflect upon Christ at this time of year. We have so thoroughly removed him from the festival that bears his name, and filled that void with things that have nothing to do with him – eating and drinking, partying and spending – and that are transient pleasures at best. But then, just as the robin is a suitable metaphor for Christ, the modern ‘celebration’ of Christmas is a vivid reflection of what a life lived purely for oneself looks like.

I am particularly blessed to belong in a congregation that marks the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday in December – the one usually recognised in other traditions as Advent Sunday. There is always something in the communion that I can take away and meditate upon, and that has helped me to think more about the sort of Saviour upon whom I depend. Lately, I have not been able to forget the minister’s words regarding Christ’s thanksgiving on the night he was betrayed; even in that proximity to death, he was looking upwards, his eye upon pleasing the Father.

Since communion Sunday, I have been thinking about what followed on from that prayer. Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, alone and fully aware of what lay ahead. Our humanity gives in to fear because we allow it. Jesus subdued his by being obedient and keeping his eye on God. Indeed, we witness him throwing himself completely  upon God’s mercy, and subjecting himself to God’s will in the fervent prayer that he utters.

In his place, not only would I have begged the cup to pass from me, but I would have dashed it away myself.

And there’s the difference between the likes of me, and the unparalleled Christ. He suffered to the limit of that tension every Christian knows in some respect: to want to obey God, but to be terrified of what obedience to him may mean for us personally. The inconvenient truth is that he is likely to send us places we don’t wish to go, or to suffer partings for which we are unprepared. Almost every time I have sought his will in making a decision, it has cost me something to obey. On the other hand, however, it has earned me much greater peace than doing exactly what I want ever could.

Jesus knew that being obedient would result in his death – and he also knew that it was necessary that he drink the bitter cup to the very last drop: not, crucially, to save himself, but to save us. In reflecting on this, it’s hard not to feel how far short I fall of the ultimate pattern of obedience, and of making my will subject to that of God.

In another tale, the robin was said to have landed on the head of our crucified Saviour, and plucked out of his brow a thorn from the crown that had been placed there in cruel mockery of his kingship. The little bird’s breast was stained red by the blood of the last, perfect sacrifice.

I am like that particular robin. All I had to do was alight upon Jesus and be sprinkled with his blood. The amount he has asked me to suffer, in proportion to his own agonies, is less than that one thorn – and even when I am injured, it is his blood the enemy draws, not mine.

What better time than Christmas to fix our hearts upon these truths? And how apt to remember, every time we see the robin, how Christ went against his human will so that we could accept his gift of life.

 

Religion, politics & doing your bit

If you don’t want to fall out with people in the pub or on the internet, you should steer clear of religion and politics. So, that’s cleared up why I’m so unpopular, then. According to one of my Stornoway Trust colleagues, I actually enjoy getting in the middle of arguments. Although I can see why some people might think that, it isn’t strictly true. Like most non-sociopaths, I certainly do not relish confrontation, but neither am I content to let lies spread unchecked, if they relate to a cause of any importance.

These days, as far as I am concerned, there is only one cause that fits into the aforementioned category, and that is the cause of Christ.

This does not mean, however, that I’m going to restrict myself to reading, speaking and thinking only of theological and spiritual matters. My understanding of what is required of me as a Christian is a little broader than that. In fact – and yes, I know I’ve said it before – I think that believing people have a duty to bring their faith into the orbit of their fellow human beings, whether that is at work, in the community, in public life, or on the internet. Indeed, we cannot leave it behind anyway, even if we wanted to.

At this precise moment in time, I don’t think we can ignore politics either, however much we might wish to. I know that Christians are having a particular difficulty in deciding how to cast their votes, because the reality is that none of the mainstream parties are saying what we would like to hear. If you consider the issues that matter more to believers than to the general public, there is no party out of the big four with policies a believing person can approve. I hear most about the party of which I am a member – the SNP – and their tendency towards support for unbiblical policy.

That is true. But it is also true for the other main parties as well. Neither Labour, the Conservatives nor the Lib-Dems could satisfy scripture in terms of their view on abortion, same-sex marriage, gender reassignment, or LGBT education in schools either.

So, what do we do? Tear up our polling cards and sit at home on December 12th? Or flounce off in high dudgeon and create our own party? That would certainly be in keeping with the Presbyterian way over the last two centuries. We have turned ‘schism’ into a verb, after all.

I have made no secret of the fact that I have wrestled with this issue myself. As a lifelong nationalist and member of the SNP, I have been disheartened by the direction of travel my party has taken of late. Nonetheless, I still believe in self-determination for Scotland and that – regardless of what some of my more overbearing brethren tell me – is not a point of view inconsistent with my adherence to the faith.

The reason, therefore, that I have remained a member of the SNP is that I am still a nationalist. I choose to vote positively, for what I do approve, rather than negatively, against what I do not. Withholding my vote from the SNP because of their stance on abortion, for example, would be somewhat hypocritical if I then put my ‘x’ next to any of the other big hitters – because their record is no better.

More importantly, I do not believe that we can legislate for morality. Nor, really, as Christians, should we want to. Our nation (however you choose to interpret the word) already suffers from the delusion that if people are ‘basically decent, law-abiding citizens’ then they have no need of Christ or his church. What do we achieve by imposing outward morality, then, on a country in state of spiritual decay? I don’t want Scotland to be a whited sepulchre; I want it to obey God’s law because it knows and loves the author.

Early on in the pre-election speculation, I am aware that a wee rumour circulated about me standing on a ‘Christian’ ticket. Despite atheist propaganda to the contrary, I didn’t even stand on such a platform for my election to the Stornoway Trust. I happen to think that it is not a ticket upon which a politician at any level should stand. Be a Christian, and let that speak for itself; let it inform your decisions and guide your behaviour, but never expect that anyone will cast their ballot your way simply because you follow Christ.

Far better for Christians to be part of the electable mainstream parties, and to be a force for change within, than impotent protestor without. It is not an easy matter, to be the lone voice for Christ in any situation – and that is why I fundamentally believe that Christians everywhere have to be tuned into the possibility that God may be asking them to serve him in a different way. We are not all bound to be ministers, or elders; they also serve who only stand for council . . . or parliament, or the grazing committee, or the community trust. Imagine these organisations transformed by the presence of genuinely God-fearing people, elected because they are able and conscientious, and for their personal integrity.

Now, stop imagining it. This is one of these situations, I’m afraid, where you have to quit looking around, quit expecting ‘someone to do something’.

Have you ever thought that someone might be you?