Humiliated, redeemed, thankful

I was born on Thursday of the Stornoway communion, which is a day of humiliation. It certainly was for me. Whatever test it is they perform (or used to), on newborns, I scored a mere nine out of ten. An under-achiever from the beginning, the pattern of my life was set.

At this communion service, though, forty-two years on, I was struck by something that the visiting minister read from the book of Isaiah:

He saw that there was no man,

and wondered that there was no one to intercede;

then his own arm brought him salvation,

and his righteousness upheld him.

No man. Absolutely no one. I imagined how it would feel for God to scan the Creation that He had made in His own perfection, and find it so damaged that not one person was adequate to be an intercessor. Every last soul was shot-through and warped with sin to the extent that none could stand for us; each and every person was a spiritual under-achiever, a nine out of ten at best.

It is the custom in our church that communicants, on arrival, go straight to the area marked off with white linens, but are only said to be at the Lord’s Table when certain warrants have been read and the table ‘fenced’. This practice has been – like much else that the Calvinist churches do – subject to misunderstanding. People have thought of it as exclusive and as somehow compounding the fallacy that those who take communion think themselves, quite literally, holier than thou.

Consider, though, what a ‘fence’ achieves: it contains and it protects; it keeps in that which is precious. The Free Church, in complete accordance with Scripture, requires baptism in Christ’s name and a profession of faith before believers in their own denomination are admitted to the sacrament. It follows, then of course, that some sort of fence is necessary. The alternative would be to have open communion in which anyone could come, unexamined and potentially unbaptized, to the table.

Sitting there, I can assure you, I was not thinking smugly of my own perfection, nor do I believe that anyone else was entertaining such erroneous thoughts either. We were hearing that of all mankind, even the best person was far short of the mark, and that God’s ‘own arm brought him salvation’.

God is perfectly holy; God created mankind perfect after His own image; mankind sinned; mankind required redemption; God became that Redeemer.

In that whole list, there is only one thing that mankind has actually done: and that was to fall into sin. What would I – or any Christian – possibly feel smug about?

But God’s infinite mercy does not even permit us to dwell too long upon our own shortcomings. Even as we sat there, at what would soon become the Lord’s Table, we were led to muse upon the salvation He supplied in our deficiency. I recalled what our own minister had preached, the previous week, in preparing us for the sacrament. He said, that the Lord’s Supper is not primarily about witnessing to God – it is for us to feed off and be encouraged by.

Those who are not yet communicants watch as their friends who have already made their profession partake of that meal. In the ordinary sense, bread and wine nourish: they give us energy, and are necessary to the sustenance of life. But this meal is spiritual, and the elements consumed are symbolic of the much greater nourishment received when we dwell upon Christ.

It is not always easy to focus as you would wish. The first time I took communion, I was nervous and slightly overawed in human, rather than spiritual terms. This time, though, something about the calm and unhurried delivery of the minister, and of the peaceful spirit pervading the table, was conducive to fixing my mind upon the Saviour.

I rose from that table, fed but – crucially – not sated. Later, I shared a meal with others from the church, and we dined royally. Still, there came a point when we had all certainly had plenty. It is not so with the Lord’s Supper; it is not so with anything about Him.

On the closing evening, which is for thanksgiving, we heard about those who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and how their hearts had burned as he spoke to them. They could not stay where they were, they could not sit on the good news that they had received, going immediately to Jerusalem to tell how ‘he was known to them in the breaking of the bread’.

I was born on the day of humiliation, but this year I marked my birthday on the day of thanksgiving, and I had much to be thankful for. As I stood outside the church on Monday evening, wondering what – or who – it is the minister writes in that little red book from time to time, I was subjected treated to a tuneful rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ from some of the most enthusiastic singers of the congregation.

The really happy birth day for me was not forty two years ago, though, when I only scored nine out of ten; it was that other day, much more recently, when my competence had nothing whatever to do with the matter.

God’s unwanted gift is one of His greatest

Death, in case you’re under any delusion, doesn’t wear a long, black coat, or carry a scythe. Nor does it only happen in Lewis, although we are remarkably good at it. I don’t mean that facetiously. Actually, I think we have always handled the business of dying with considerable aplomb, and that has somehow earned us the reputation for being a bit, well, morbid.

I don’t have any statistics on this, you’ll be glad to know, but I am fairly confident that the average Leodhasach goes to more funerals than his counterpart anywhere else in the country. Although I’m a wee bit away from pension age (and, unlike previous generations, actually getting more so the older I grow), I could not begin to estimate the number I have attended.

The book of Ecclesiastes says, ‘It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting’. While few of us would opt for the former over the latter, there is – unsurprisingly – the wisdom of Solomon in this.

God draws us closer to Him in the times when we are broken. I think, like any parent seeing their child in pain, His infinite heart goes out to us. He knows what it is to grieve and although He knows our end from before our beginning, He also knows our limitations. Our Heavenly Father knows that we are going to have all tears wiped from our eyes ultimately, but He also knows how our faith can waver. Although we always have that truth to comfort us, we don’t necessarily remember it as we should.

After my father died, six years ago, I felt as though a door had been opened up into eternity – a door through which death might very well come again. Despite my job, I am not much given to premonitions. Nonetheless, I had a very strong impression that death had unfinished business with me. Within two years, my husband was undergoing an operation and treatment for cancer: the illness that took his life a little while after.

I have not written about Donnie’s last hours before now because I supposed no one wanted to know. But I have since read a very brave and honest account by another blogger, who lost her mother to the same disease, of what seeing someone dying can be like. Sometimes, we can handle everything else connected with mortality so well, and yet shy away from the truth of the death-bed.

Before he finally fell asleep, he would drift in and out of consciousness. Every time he awoke, he would look at the clock as though surprised and disappointed to find himself still subject to it. When I asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about, he told me that he would be fine and then, surprisingly, he quoted, ‘I go to prepare a place for you’. Smiling, he added, ‘but you won’t like the curtains because I’ll have to choose them myself.’

He was still his lovely, cheeky self. But better, because although he was being kind as ever, I think his heart had already left me and his family, and gone on ahead. There had been months of pain and sickness, even flashes of fear and irritability. Here, though, in his final few hours of alertness to this world, it comforts me that his eyes and his soul were already looking to eternity.

The body is frail. He was strong and healthy until this sickness came. In the last hours, as I held his hand, the infection in his chest made a noise like several pots boiling at once. Despite this he – himself – seemed to be in total peace. And then, he was gone. Never one for great shows of drama, his death was typically quiet.

Watching him go, knowing the spiritual significance of that moment, you expect something more.

Why, though?

Physical death, after all, is separation of soul from body. The battle in his lungs had nothing much to do with the peace of his inmost being. What I and that lovely nurse were witnessing was simply his body closing down, no longer needed, for now.

His soul, on the other hand, had gone on. We who had felt so much pity for him in his suffering, and who feel so much sorrow at his loss, are actually the more to be pitied and sorrowed over. Donnie is where he would certainly never want to return from.

After he died, I was troubled by the verses in Matthew 6 that urge us to store up treasures in Heaven, ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. I worried that the treasure I was thinking about was my husband and that I simply – understandably – wished to be where he was.

But this is why grief can sometimes be God’s gift to us. It is not something that can be gone through, dealt with, and shelved away. Two years on, I still get waves of overwhelming, almost physical pain. And in those moments, I can go to my Saviour and show Him my bruised heart.

No one else comforts like He does. I can truthfully say that He has been closer to me in my sorrow than at any other time and, for that reason, grief itself can become a strange sort of treasure.

It was through death that He gave us the greatest gift of all.

 

 

God’s unwanted gift is one of His greatest

Death, in case you’re under any delusion, doesn’t wear a long, black coat, or carry a scythe. Nor does it only happen in Lewis, although we are remarkably good at it. I don’t mean that facetiously. Actually, I think we have always handled the business of dying with considerable aplomb, and that has somehow earned us the reputation for being a bit, well, morbid.

I don’t have any statistics on this, you’ll be glad to know, but I am fairly confident that the average Leodhasach goes to more funerals than his counterpart anywhere else in the country. Although I’m a wee bit away from pension age (and, unlike previous generations, actually getting more so the older I grow), I could not begin to estimate the number I have attended.

The book of Ecclesiastes says, ‘It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting’. While few of us would opt for the former over the latter, there is – unsurprisingly – the wisdom of Solomon in this.

God draws us closer to Him in the times when we are broken. I think, like any parent seeing their child in pain, His infinite heart goes out to us. He knows what it is to grieve and although He knows our end from before our beginning, He also knows our limitations. Our Heavenly Father knows that we are going to have all tears wiped from our eyes ultimately, but He also knows how our faith can waver. Although we always have that truth to comfort us, we don’t necessarily remember it as we should.

After my father died, six years ago, I felt as though a door had been opened up into eternity – a door through which death might very well come again. Despite my job, I am not much given to premonitions. Nonetheless, I had a very strong impression that death had unfinished business with me. Within two years, my husband was undergoing an operation and treatment for cancer: the illness that took his life a little while after.

I have not written about Donnie’s last hours before now because I supposed no one wanted to know. But I have since read a very brave and honest account by another blogger, who lost her mother to the same disease, of what seeing someone dying can be like. Sometimes, we can handle everything else connected with mortality so well, and yet shy away from the truth of the death-bed.

Before he finally fell asleep, he would drift in and out of consciousness. Every time he awoke, he would look at the clock as though surprised and disappointed to find himself still subject to it. When I asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about, he told me that he would be fine and then, surprisingly, he quoted, ‘I go to prepare a place for you’. Smiling, he added, ‘but you won’t like the curtains because I’ll have to choose them myself.’

He was still his lovely, cheeky self. But better, because although he was being kind as ever, I think his heart had already left me and his family, and gone on ahead. There had been months of pain and sickness, even flashes of fear and irritability. Here, though, in his final few hours of alertness to this world, it comforts me that his eyes and his soul were already looking to eternity.

The body is frail. He was strong and healthy until this sickness came. In the last hours, as I held his hand, the infection in his chest made a noise like several pots boiling at once. Despite this he – himself – seemed to be in total peace. And then, he was gone. Never one for great shows of drama, his death was typically quiet.

Watching him go, knowing the spiritual significance of that moment, you expect something more.

Why, though?

Physical death, after all, is separation of soul from body. The battle in his lungs had nothing much to do with the peace of his inmost being. What I and that lovely nurse were witnessing was simply his body closing down, no longer needed, for now.

His soul, on the other hand, had gone on. We who had felt so much pity for him in his suffering, and who feel so much sorrow at his loss, are actually the more to be pitied and sorrowed over. Donnie is where he would certainly never want to return from.

After he died, I was troubled by the verses in Matthew 6 that urge us to store up treasures in Heaven, ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. I worried that the treasure I was thinking about was my husband and that I simply – understandably – wished to be where he was.

But this is why grief can sometimes be God’s gift to us. It is not something that can be gone through, dealt with, and shelved away. Two years on, I still get waves of overwhelming, almost physical pain. And in those moments, I can go to my Saviour and show Him my bruised heart.

No one else comforts like He does. I can truthfully say that He has been closer to me in my sorrow than at any other time and, for that reason, grief itself can become a strange sort of treasure.

It was through death that He gave us the greatest gift of all.

 

 

Fiery Crosses and Rightful Kings

If you wanted to foment a rebellion today, it would be a simple matter of texting all your supporters the where, when and why. ‘C u @ Gfinnan – B there or die.Charlie x’ . The Jacobites didn’t have Vodafone though, so their technology was rather more primitive, and quite possibly a lot more reliable – the crann-tàra. This was a cross of wood which had been partially burnt and then dipped in blood before being passed from person to person in a kind of relay until all had been rallied.

A scattered population has always presented a challenge to any cause. It was difficult to provide a uniform education system, or equal access to healthcare in all the corners of the Highlands and Islands. And it was difficult to evangelise those who did not live in or near a large centre of population.

That is certainly one of the reasons why the Reformation arrived so late in our neck of the mòinteach. Keeping the effects of the Reformation alive is proving to be an equally great challenge in the present day.

People do not come to church if they don’t want to and, increasingly, they don’t want to. Attendance at the means of grace has dwindled alarmingly across the country and even here in the islands.

There is still a thing or two that we could learn from the Jacobites. They did not sit around waiting for their supporters to show up – they went and demanded loyalty from each one. The symbolism of the crann-tara was that anyone who did not respond accordingly could expect to meet with fire and blood. It was quite literally a life or death proposition.

That, I think, is how the Gospel has to be presented – urgently. All who hear His call must know the truth, that it is a straight choice between falling in with Christ, or dying eternally.

Of course, you have to know where the people are. Otherwise, how can you obey the great commission and ‘go’? We don’t have to trudge across the region, or gallop on horseback, though, to go where the people are.

They’re right here: online.

We can’t assume that methods of communication which don’t work in the real world are going to be any more successful on the internet, however. If people don’t want to walk into our churches, then, why are they going to follow us on Twitter, or click on our Facebook posts?

At Stornoway Free Church we have recently been stepping up our use of social media. This is not in some painful effort to make ourselves cool. (Mo chreach, I’m just not sure we’d know where to start).
We simply recognise two things: Jesus wanted us to go to where the people were with His message; and where the people are, the Devil is always prowling. It is incumbent upon the church, therefore, to bring light into the darkness that can sometimes exist online just as it does offline.

Christ’s church exists to glorify Him, which I think we can sometimes forget, even with the best of intentions. We think it’s up to us to devise the initiative that will be the golden key, the thing that brings people flocking to us.

What will bring people to us, actually, is grace and that is not within the gift of the Free – or any other – Church. We must surely accept the Holy Spirit’s divine authority. So, we ask for God’s guidance, and we continue worshipping and spreading the Good News.

And, we show forth who Christ is, and what He has done on our behalf. That is sufficient. Using social media is just another way of ensuring that people know the truth. We don’t have to do anything more: there isn’t anything more to be done.

If God becoming man, God suffering and hanging on a cross to die for us is not enough; if His defeat of death is not enough, then we are not people who can be satisfied. Gimmickry and hashtags will certainly not impress if His name leaves you cold. But then, if His name fails to rally our heart to His cause, we must be prepared for the consequences.

Like the Jacobites, we should use every means at our disposal to spread the news. But in passing this fiery cross to others, we have to let them see that its terrible beauty and power lie in something not unlike the original crann-tara.

The cross we hold up before them is dipped in the blood of the Saviour, and fired with the power of His salvation offer. How we pass it on hardly matters. He is not willing that any should perish, and so we may be quite sure that it will reach all those who belong beneath His royal standard.

A Silent Voice And The Stronghold Of My Life

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

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

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

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

But then, there was psalm 27, and silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only in the stillness can we hear Him.

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

 

Adoption, supper and the empty chairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Don’t Be Backward At Going Forward

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

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

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

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

Meantime, though, what about ‘going forward’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It is finished’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Corncrake, the Medium and the Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not unlike the Christian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wee Free Fantasy (Here be no dragons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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