Last Sunday, I heard two sermons. This is not unusual. Like generations of Lewis folk before me, unless I’m ill or off the island, I go to the searmon in the morning and to the coinneamh at night. The distinction is an historical one because, actually, it’s the same building, same format and – frequently- the same preacher at each service. It is the revered ‘da cheann-latha’, which is unfortunately expressed in English as being ‘out both ends’. And, I know that, to my atheist friends, this is a devotion too far.
I know, because when I’m tired, or below-par, they will tell me to give church a miss. ‘Don’t go to the evening service’, they’ll say. No one ever suggests that I should do less housework (perhaps because they’ve been in my home), or less studying, less going to the cinema, or dog-walking. And I know why.
They think, as I once did myself, that all that church-going must be a strain. Surely I need to switch off from it. Wouldn’t I love to break the routine? Don’t those two trips from Tolsta to Stornoway get tiring, and tiresome? And here is where I wish that I had a better way with words. These Sundays are far from tiring; they are wells of living water which irrigate the whole week. I’m not going because I have to, or am expected to, or would be talked about if I wasn’t there. Nor is there a black-hatted elder keeping a sederunt book (and if there was, it jolly well wouldn’t have a Latin name anyway).
I want to be able to say why I willingly leave the comfort of my own home to get in the car and drive for 20 minutes, twice a day, but I just haven’t the words. Only, it occurs to me that there, right there, is the reason: I am NOT leaving the comfort of my own home. In fact, much of what is attractive in the gospel of Christ is its familiarity, it’s very home-ness. And for me, it can be summed up in three precious phrases.
In the coinneamh last Sunday, we heard how Jesus deals with us in our trials; He says – as he said to Peter – ‘this is for me and for you’. This, in other words, you do not have to face alone because I will go through it with you. And He does.
These were such beautiful words, so simple and yet conveying so much of the Saviour’s love, that they caused me to think of other words that bring Him near. A few months ago now, in the searmon, the minister spoke of the disciples, frightened by a storm at sea, until they were joined by Jesus. ‘It’s myself’, He said to them. Intimate, familiar and reassuring: ‘it’s myself’. The storm hadn’t ceased, but it didn’t matter because He was there, Himself, Myself; and He might have added, of the storm, ‘it’s for Me and for you’.
My own father is the reason that I had a positive image of who God the Father might be. Sadly, not everyone understands the concept of a benign, loving paternal figure, but I was blessed in that respect. One of my abiding memories of him is how he used to carry me, as a child, down our steep staran in the winter frost. Safe in his arms, I knew nothing bad would happen to me.
When my father died, and four years later when my husband did, the minister came to our home, the same minister both times. And when he suggested that he might pray, on each occasion, he used the same lovely phrase, ‘we’ll just have a wee word’. God is so close by that this intimacy is not just possible, but somehow right.
One of the worst pieces of advice I was given after my husband died was not to ‘over-spiritualise things’. I think our tendency is, rather, to under-spiritualise. When my friends see that I’m tired, they mean to be kind and to show concern by telling me to take a break from church. They see the outward ritual, but not the inward refreshing. I can’t make them see that it wouldn’t be a rest, but a punishment to stay at home. And when I try to give a reason for the hope that is in me, they smile and say, ‘yes, but we need proof’, as though I’m a credulous child. How can I bridge that divide? Is there a way to tell them, in words that will make them understand, that I have proof? How I wish there was. Is this enough:
When I am about to be overwhelmed by fear, or sadness, or fatigue, He says, ‘this is for me and for you’; when I feel that I am alone, or abandoned, He says, ‘it’s Myself’, and whenever I need Him, I can simply say, ‘I need a wee word‘. He is not far away, but very near, and very familiar. Like home.