Closed minds and open Bibles

I really think that my boss should sack me. If, that is, what I’ve just read about myself online is true. According to the scions of the Western Isles ‘Secular’ Society, I am teaching students about the links between goblins and the Reformation. Yes, goblins and the development of the Protestant faith, if ever I applied for Mastermind, would probably be my specialist subject.

Exactly where this would fit into the BA Gaelic Language and Culture syllabus, I’m not sure. Somewhere between St Columba and the Pixies, and Fairies and the Clearances, perhaps. Why let logic get in the way of an opportunity for righteous indignation, though? These so-called secularists have me down as a fantasist of some kind, evidently.

They’re not too bothered about that, however . It seems that they’re happy for me to teach the students whatever lunacy I want, because the real star of this story is not me at all:

It is the pulpit Bible, open upon a lectern in the College library which has them coming over all concerned.

No mention of a be-pumpkined display of books next to it, proclaiming the impending festival of Hallowe’en. Nothing upsetting about a skeleton wearing a pointy, black hat. Books of folktales and accounts of how our ancestors summoned the Devil (roasting felines alive, as it happens) are nowhere near as offensive, it seems, as the Word of God.

The Word of God, which many people died to give us in our own language. Now, some people so filled with hatred as to count that nothing think it should variously be closed, removed,or – rather tellingly for a group which claims to be ‘secular’ rather than anti-Christian – replaced with the Torah, the Talmud, or the Quran. Anything, really, except the Bible, isn’t that it?

But the fact is that the Reformation happened, and it is still pertinent now, in 2017. When William Tyndale vowed that the ploughboy would eventually be better acquainted than a priest with the Word, he really meant it. In fact, he died making it possible.

If only this rather negative wee group of people would think about the irony inherent in this.

The ordinary Europeans were once denied access to the Scriptures in their own language, in order to refuse them spiritual autonomy. They were dependent upon an elite who ‘knew better’ to tell them what they should believe. Sound familiar?

Before the Reformation, the church kept the truth from the people by shrouding everything in a language they did not understand. Kings and queens could read, as could princes of the church: but not the ploughboy of whom Tyndale spoke.

Perhaps it is the legacy of the Reformation that makes me suspicious of an ‘open-minded’ and ‘tolerant’ group which wishes to suppress the truth.

Of course, they would argue that it is NOT truth, but mere legend. Then again, if they really believed that, the open Bible would not have offended them any more than Popular Tales of the West Highlands, sitting on a parallel display in the same library.

They don’t believe it, though. If they did, they would leave it alone. The enormous pulpit Bible – which belongs to me, in fact, and not the College library – would be no more offensive to them than the folktales piled high a few feet away.

One offended, though, and one went unnoticed.

The Word of God has always offended. Or, frightened. People frequently fear what they don’t understand. Surely, though, the rational response is to learn more, not to lash out, not to put it from you, like a terrified child who doesn’t want to see the thing that lurks under his bed.

If this wee insight into the ‘secular’ mindset does nothing else, it confirms that you cannot be indifferent to the Bible, because – fundamentally – it is not just a book like Carmina Gadelica or Scottish Traditional Tales. It is breathed out by God, and has about it the savour from life unto life, or from death unto death, depending on how things are between you and Heaven.

I’ve often been frustrated by the kind of people who call themselves ‘secular’ or ‘atheist’, yet can’t seem to leave Christianity alone. After all, if it’s an irrelevant fantasy – like unicorns – why waste so much energy on denouncing it?

But perhaps that is wrong of me. Isn’t it a good and encouraging sign that they are not indifferent to the sight of an open Bible? Saul of Tarsus was not indifferent either, and see who he became.

In fact, if they would care to step closer to the offending lectern, my ‘secular’ friends would see that the Bible is open at that very Paul’s second letter to Timothy. The magnifying glass is purposely laid to draw attention to this text:

‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’.

May they, one day, feel its reproof and profit from its teaching, even to the point of righteousness.

Ask not what your church can do for you

Last time, I wrote of how the church in its Christlikeness, has stepped into the breach left by my husband’s death. My goodness, they take it seriously – one of the elders even nagged me about my driving on Sunday. All it needs now is for one of them to ask me periodically how many pairs of shoes a woman really needs, and they will have fulfilled their role entirely.

The feedback I get from writing, however, often provokes me to further thought, and this was one of those times. I have always believed that Jesus’ words to Peter,’this is for me and for yourself’ are meaningful. Indeed, the comfort of the text, ‘this sickness is not unto death’, which my mother kept getting throughout Donnie’s illness, did not depart when he died. It simply took on its full and – I believe – intended meaning. Our situations are surely for ourselves to learn from, for the benefit of others and, most importantly, for the glory of God. If we see ourselves in the context of eternity (as best as our finite minds can discern it), then it becomes easier to see the trials of this world as a light, momentary affliction.

And we owe it to our Saviour to follow His example. Who suffered more than He? It is not just the reason for His suffering, nor the extent of it which often strikes me, though: it’s His conduct in His unimaginable affliction. He bore it in order to redeem His people; and those of us who would seek to sincerely imitate Him are surely never more like our Saviour than when we suffer. But to be like Him, or as like as we can be before our sanctification is complete, surely how we suffer matters too.

So, it follows that there is a flip-side to the question of what the church should be doing for widows. And that question is surely: what can widows bring to the church?

The starting-point for answering that has to be a reminder of whose church it is. I’m not speaking here of any particular denomination, or congregation, but the wider church of Christ. When the Holy Spirit changes our hearts, then we are on a journey of becoming like our Redeemer. We do as He requires and take up our cross.

But that is not all. We are to have a spirit of service for Him, treating the least and the greatest the way Christ would have us do; giving of time and means; being generous, and not grudging anything .

I will hold my hands up readily and admit that I don’t do enough, and I don’t always have the right spirit. That’s something I need to work on, to pray over.

But it’s also worth remembering that serving the Lord takes many forms.

I remember many years ago hearing the story of a woman, newly-converted and full of zeal. She attended every service, every meeting of the church, and still thirsted for more. One day, she spoke to the minister, and said that she wished she could do more for the Lord. ‘He has given you a family to care for’, the minister replied wisely, ‘and you serve Him best by attending to what He has blessed you with’.

He gives us all a role in life; He gives us talents; He gives us responsibilities. As Christians, we are who and what we are for a purpose.

There is no point in denying that I am on a path I would never have chosen for myself in life. I would certainly not have elected to be a widow.

Then again, left to myself, I would not have elected to be a Christian either.

But I do believe that this is what I was made to be. God is good, and He doesn’t inflict unnecessary suffering. So, what is my grief for?

Well, of course, many things are not revealed to us. However, I think that, much as it goes against my selfish and egotistical nature, I have to realise this: it isn’t all about me.

Every Christian has a story – or stories – of the way that God has worked in their lives. Each account is different, but for one common denominator: the Lord.

So the story that we are all part of is about Him. We are, if you like, minor characters, all pointing to God through our individual experiences of His grace.

The logical outworking of that, therefore, is that my suffering is not my own. In Christ, as I have said elsewhere, I have not been left to get on with it alone. My Saviour and His people shoulder it with me, and sometimes for me. It is theirs as much as mine, because we belong to the one body. It is theirs to learn from, and gain blessing through if I share it as I should.

That is, I think, what grief and loss may be for. I have been blessed through it, learning the absolute truth of the verse in Ecclesiastes that says it is better to go to
the house of mourning than the house of feasting. Hard though this journey is, what companions it has brought me along the way! It isn’t, however,their job to be comforting me incessantly.

It is my job to share what God reveals to me in my situation, that it might somehow be a blessing to others. And it is our job, together, to see that no sickness is unto death, but that all our afflictions would be to the glory of God.

It is His church; He is sovereign. Trials are not for breaking us, but for binding us closer in Him.

Status: in a relationship – and this one’s for keeps

I am hoping to be busy this Hallowe’en, if I’m spared, speaking in North Lochs about the supernatural world. It is an engagement which was made on the very doorstep of the manse, though I should stress that neither the Rev nor the First Lady had any knowledge of it. Nor do I regularly meet Lochies in the manse garden to discuss things that go bump in the night.

Not that I think we should fear the night. It certainly doesn’t bother me that, after an evening spent talking to – let’s just assume there will be an audience – folk about ghosts and witches, I have to drive back to North Tolsta. In the night. In the dark. Through the glen. Alone.

Gulp.

Except, not really on my own, of course. The Christian is never truly alone. Christ experienced that complete desolation so that we wouldn’t have to. Without doubt, the greatest privilege of my life is to be able to say that He has never left me, nor forsaken me. I cannot actually recall what it feels like to be alone.

There are still, however, some things which frighten me more than they should. Spiders. Mice. Exam boards. The minister’s wife when she’s recruiting for the soup and pudding. Or when she finds out I’ve been making odd arrangements with Lochies outside her front door. .

But other fears, I’ve left behind. One, fortunately, is public speaking. It used to terrify me; the very thought of getting up and talking in front of people gave me a dry mouth and a blank mind. Everything had to be written down, just in case all I’d ever known flew out of my head.

Recently, I feel I’ve been doing my best to scunner the Wee Frees of Lewis with my ubiquitous presence, answering questions about my experience of coming to faith. It’s a tough gig to get right – a bit like writing your testimony, where it’s an account from your point of view, but you’re not actually the main character.

And the fabulous Mairiann, who questioned me on behalf of our own congregation, has a great way of putting you at ease. She exudes calmness, which makes you calm. Because she was relaxed, I relaxed. Then, she utterly flummoxed me.

‘God has a particular heart for widows’, she said, ‘what could we, as a church, be doing, to fulfil His desire that we should care for them?’ It’s incredible how much ground your mind can cover in a few seconds. I glanced at the assembled people. How to answer that question? What advice could I give; what request should I make on behalf of the widows among our number?

I believe my poorly expressed response was something like, ‘keep doing what you’re doing’. This is surely not the answer anyone was looking for. Nor, in fact, was that the answer they deserved. Not from me.

The day my husband was buried, the presiding minister prayed that the church would now be a husband to me. Donnie was not a tall man, but, nonetheless, these were big shoes to fill. How could an institution like the church ever hope to be what he was to me? One of my friends, an atheist, actually repeated this sentiment afterwards, and laughed. In that strange fog, which accompanies bereavement, I registered her scorn, but had no reply.

Now I do, though – for her, if she chooses, and for the congregation who got no very adequate response to a reasonable question.

Love. Safety. Friendship. Care. Compassion. Identity. Closeness. Laughter. Acceptance. Freedom. Respect. Generosity. Trust. Protection.

These are the gifts I got from Donnie, as his wife. Since becoming his widow, I have felt moments of fear, of vulnerability, of pain that is almost physical, of lostness, of loneliness. I am no longer one half of a couple; I am simply one half. In the weeks and months that followed his death, I’m sure that was writ large on my countenance.

But always, Christ was at my shoulder. He never left me; He never will.

And listening to His voice always, His bride. Not that I’m suggesting for one minute that Stornoway Free Church is the whole church of Christ; just that it is one lovely limb. It has accepted me, flaws and all; it has supplied all that I need and more.

A church is made up of God’s people. Why should anyone mock the notion that they could be a husband to me? They are in-dwelt by the Spirit, and are moved by grace. To be a widow in their midst is a privilege not afforded to everyone. Unlike Donnie, wonderful though he was, Christ’s church does not love me for who I am, but for who He is.

And that, I am certain, is a love that will not let me go.

 

Doing everything by the Book

In the last, difficult weeks of Donnie’s life, we spent a lot of time on planes and in hospitals. I say, ‘we’ because, although he was the patient, I went through it all in my own way too. My way involved reading. Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ were satisfyingly bleak and waiting-room long; they suited the mood, and they passed the hours.

And for a while, I thought they were going to be the last books I would ever open.

After Donnie died, I could not read. At first, it didn’t matter, and I barely noticed. There were other things to fill my time, other concerns to occupy my imagination. But, gradually, it started to worry me. I had already lost what felt like the greater part of my identity. The months and months of anxiety and nursing had ended abruptly; I was no longer a wife. Now, it seemed like reading had gone too – I simply had no appetite for it any more.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a big deal, especially in the context of my loss. But reading had always been part of me. I remember being endlessly chided for trying to bring books to the dinner table, and for walking from room to room, book in hand, nose buried in a story. Once, hilariously, my father watched me bring home yet another purchase and said in exasperation, ‘surely you have enough books now!’

Yet, some of my most treasured volumes are the ones he bought me because he knew how much I wanted them.

I think I worried him enormously by insisting on finding a new home for the bookcase full of theology texts I’d amassed while doing a short course with the Free Church. He must have despaired when I kept saying, ‘I won’t need them again – they should go to someone who will use them’. And although I’m not sorry that they joined the fledgling library of a now newly-ordained minister, I am sorry for the anxiety I must have caused my father in the process. Did he think I was turning my back on God?

Yes, books have played an important role in my life. I wish I had told my father about the devotional I read as a child that caused me to kneel and ask Jesus into my heart. It may not quite have been a conversion, but He never quite left me after that either.

By the time I was a widow, all these years later, I was also His completely. I had lost the ability to get absorbed in a novel, but was beginning to find a new identity in Christ. Wrestling with mounting concern about my reading mojo being gone, I began to tell people how worried I was that it was never coming back. Privately, I actually thought I was mentally ill. When I would try to make myself read, I could not finish anything. It was like a sickness when food turns your stomach. My sister in-law suggested that it was the result of my conversion, that perhaps I no longer cared for ‘worldly’ books. Okay, but I wasn’t exactly devouring Christian ones either.

Except for one, that is. The One. Morning and evening, and in those still stormy, tearful times in between, I reached for my Bible. Gospels, Pauline epistles, the beautiful Song of Songs, the melancholy Ecclesiastes, the inspiring Job, and the incomparable, endless Psalms. They all spoke to me in their different ways, and in my different moods.

This Bible that had been a dumb thing in my hands for so many years, it was transformed by the power of the Comforter. Now it was ministering to me in all my need. When I wondered what all this fog of pain could mean, it spoke truth into my heart.

The Bible is not just a book. It is the living Word of God and He reaches us through it. If I did not know this before, I know it now. Books, the very things which had once peopled my world, receded from me when I needed them most. They would have been no use anyway.

His Word, though, did the work. It caused me to feel my pain, to regard it through the lens of God’s mercy and justice. For all that people call it folktales and fairy stories, it does not provide a means of escape. We have got our means already; He from whose lips the cup did not pass. But the Bible helps us accept that, it helps us see where we fit into His plan.

It did not always use soft words, nor did it beguile me with pretty promises for this world.

But it does speak absolute, inerrant truth. It comes from the Lord, and it tells us what we need to hear – that is, not what we want, but what He knows is best for us.

Trying to run things for myself, I had begun to panic, and to struggle against what was happening. Actually, though, I see it now: it was as if God had taken the book from my hand, laid it down, and whispered, ‘listen to me’.

The more I listened, the clearer His voice became.

No, the Bible is not just a book. It is a direct line from God. There is no pain, no loss, no heartache, into which it cannot speak. But it’s got to come down from its high shelf first; and so do we.

 

FPs and children and bears – oh, my!

My grandfather’s cousin Maggie was headmistress of a primary school in Uist for many years. Every communion season, she would faithfully shut the school on Thursday morning and trot all the kids off to the Free Presbyterian service of preparation. She did not ask parents for permission, nor enquire as to the nature of their personal belief system. If it was now, I have no doubt that complaints would be lodged, enquiries initiated, perhaps even suspension of duties agreed. Maggie would be seen as imposing her ‘narrow’ views on other people who profess to possess none of their own.

Maggie would be vilified. And that would be wrong. Sometimes, a bit of perspective is what we need.

Recently, I spoke to someone who had been a pupil in her school. He smiled fondly, remembering the two-hour church services, a great alternative to lessons. Meanwhile, he said, the transport delivering that day’s lunches to the wee school would arrive to find the place deserted, neither teacher nor children to be found.

Her eccentric devotion played havoc with the routine. And yet no one spoke against her.

You see, Maggie was respected. She was a very competent teacher, and a good person, with real heart for the children in her care. When news circulated that Hercules the Bear was on the loose in Uist in 1980, she took steps for the children’s safety. Rather than risk anything happening to them, she kept them in after school. For a party.

Who says Free Presbyterians don’t know how to have fun?

The parents were used to her idiosyncratic approach to educating their kids, but trusted her implicitly. She loved children. I know that because the few times I was in her company as a little girl, I could sense it. Genuine affection spilled out of her, and she did not try to contain it, nor repress it. Everyone was addressed as ‘a ghaoil’; and she meant it.

Her former pupil who spoke so affectionately of her to me added something else. There were sometimes children in her school who were in need. They were not allowed to remain that way for long. Maggie acted, you see, not from a merely sentimental view of childhood, but with a practical, Christ-like love.

When He acts through the Maggies of this world, the Lord is not narrow, but expansive. She gave with both hands from a full heart. Hers was a life of devotion – to her family, to her community, to ‘her’ children. By loving them, she was serving her Saviour, and I believe she sought no higher honour than that because she had the wisdom to know there is none higher.

And so, to the present. If she was headmistress now, think of the administrative nightmare that Maggie would be. How many risk assessments and PVGs would it take to curb her enthusiasm? What would the food hygiene inspectors say about the congealed lunches served to pupils late back from the day of humiliation? Most concerning of all, what would the liberal thought police say about the children being exposed to Calvinist extremism?

Well, I’ve heard enough of their po-faced, reactionary hysteria to take a guess. They would suggest that she was indoctrinating their children, abusing her position, being unprofessional. She failed to check which god, if any, the families worshipped, before bringing them along to meet hers.

I think we can all understand the need for rules, for standards, and for guidelines. But does no one else long for those days when we didn’t rely on them quite so much? A time when kids came home in the boot of a neighbour’s car because he was giving so many a lift in bad weather. Or when teachers could hold your granny’s displeasure over you as a threat if you didn’t really feel like going to Scripture Union that week.

We didn’t have an obsession with health and safety, nor with political correctness. Yet, we were more tolerant, more caring, more . . . real. There was community, and there was respect. No, we didn’t talk about it half as much as people do now, but we practiced it a lot more.

Maggie had retired from teaching before all of this, and I’m glad. She would not have understood why progress and coming into line with the hallowed land of ‘everywhere else’ had to mean the death of community. There would have been no place for her in this brave, new world.

That alone tells me that we are on the wrong path – one where our children are bound to meet something much more terrifying than any bear.

 

 

 

A Chain that Makes Us Free

I inadvertently insulted our entire Kirk Session last Sunday evening, by referring to them as thirty odd men in suits. Of course, I intended to say thirty-odd men in suits, but these distinctions only really work on the page. One of them was even in the room as a witness, but he was busily trying to prise the tambourine from his wife’s hand, so he probably didn’t hear. He needn’t have bothered, anyway, it was a youth group meeting, so I think percussion would have been acceptable.

It was my first time at a Christian youth group, and I’m forty-two. I am glad that such gatherings still take place, and more than a little regretful that I left it so late to attend one. The feeling that I had on Sunday, the feeling that I am increasingly aware of every day now, is that we really need each other. We need to be supporting each other, and loving each other, and simply being community.

We are God’s portion in this world. Already, we are a peculiar people, set apart by Him, and redeemed by Christ. The Christian knows what it is to be a guest in this world; more and more, the Christian feels an unwelcome guest. His liberties are being eroded, his right to speak from the heart, his right even to think freely – all these are being infringed. This temporary home of ours is in a self-proclaimed ‘tolerant’ society where everything is permissible. That is, everything that chimes with a Godless, liberal agenda. Oppose it and, well . . .

Lot lived in a place like that too. He made his home in a city so depraved that its very name has become synonymous with immorality: Sodom. Earlier on Sunday evening, I had heard this text preached on.

There is an element in our society – and yes, it’s here in Lewis too – which despises Christ. It wants Him, His Word and His followers eradicated. Oh, they would protest that, I know they would. In fact, I can tell you what they would say: ‘We don’t mind what you do, just stay out of our schools, our government, our public spaces. Let us do as we want, and don’t interfere’.

But that is not possible. That wouldn’t be Christianity; that would be Pharisaic, walking by on the other side. Christ did not come into this world for His followers to be silenced by political correctness.

We will not be silenced at all.

I realised something afresh this very day. Speaking to our Scripture Union at work about the woman with the issue of blood healed by Jesus, it struck me that everything He does for us and in us is for ourselves, but for someone else too. That was at least part of the reason why He arranged things so that she would have to talk of her healing.

He used the woman’s story to compel me to talk of mine.

And I remembered something else the minister said on Sunday – Christians are a chain, each one linked to the rest. When one receives a blessing, they share it with the others; when one receives a burden, the others help carry it. We are to be mutually encouraging and supportive. By this, the world will know that we are His, that we love one another.

It is difficult to be a Christian in Lewis right now, because there are such attacks directed at the Lord. Everything that bears His mark is despised by the world.

And it was a real challenge for Lot to be the only righteous man in Sodom.

Before God removed him to safety, He allowed Lot’s sojourn amongst those sinners to continue. I had never thought of this before until I heard it preached on Sunday night; my focus had always been on Lot himself.

God was giving the inhabitants of Sodom a chance, by placing Lot in their midst as an example of a better life. They didn’t take it, of course, but the opportunity was there.

And this is, therefore, a solemn thought. The God that atheists want excised from our world, He has His people. They are precious to Him, and He will not harm them. As long as they are present in the world, the Lord stays His hand from striking against His enemies.

Atheists, don’t despise your Christian neighbours. Their presence in this world might be helping keep you safe.

And, do you know what else? These Christians are praying for you so very earnestly. While you try to pull down the edifice of God’s teaching built so faithfully by your ancestors, the Christian community in Lewis is buttressing it by bringing you before the throne of grace. It is not a prayer for vengeance, nor even rebuke: it is a prayer for your hearts to change.

It is a prayer that, even now, God is forging you to be the next link in His chain.