Health Warning – Being Offended Kills

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

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

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

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

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

Knowing the Great Physician: Jesus Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Singing my Sorrow in a Strange Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Better a Bible in the post than being post-Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Free speech? What free speech?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, I questioned transgenderism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bovril, brokenness and adoration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evicted by an Elder and Other Open Doors

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

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

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

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

That is to say, anywhere and everywhere we go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May I Speak to Whoever is in Charge?

When I was a teenager, I used to ask my father questions about God, many of which were greeted with, ‘Ist, a Shàtain’. After one such conversation, I overheard him telling my mother that my ‘atheistic streak’ worried him.

But I remember it differently. I was actually trying to better understand this God who, whatever my parents may have thought, was always real to me. So, when people question and criticise Him publicly now, I flinch and fear for them, but it also causes me to hope.

For myself, I was never further away from Him than when He was totally absent from my thoughts.

So, it doesn’t do to dismiss their challenges out of hand. If we disregard people’s concerns as foolish or wicked, there is a risk that we detract from the seriousness of the argument, or fuel the notion tha He is just a fiction and not worth defending . We may say that it is wrong to challenge God – which it is – but it is equally careless of us not to take the opportunity to increase another’s understanding of Him.

Last Sunday, in passing, I heard the familiar verse from 1 Peter ‘always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you’. Those were the same words ringing in my ears when I professed faith for the first time. In the final analysis, it all comes down to confession. I knew in my heart and soul what the Lord had done for me, and I could no longer deny it before others.

Equally, then, when someone takes it upon themselves to accuse God, am I not required to gently say, ‘no, you have that wrong’? If they are maligning Him, should I not interpret that as an opportunity to defend the reason for the hope that is in me?

When a person walks into a church (or a school, or a park) armed to the teeth and bent on murder, I do not believe that God is behind him, spurring him on. This is sin, and our Lord has nothing to do with, can have nothing to do with, sin. We are in possession of free will. If, every time I was about to commit a sin, God reached down from Heaven to stay my hand, I would no longer be free, would I?

Yet, if my fellow human being commits such an atrocity, does that not mean that I also have the same capacity for sin? What has stopped me from doing what this man did in Texas? Why do I choose to take a seat among the worshippers instead of turning the full force of anger and murderous intent upon them?

Is it my innate goodness? My kind-heartedness? My immunity from wickedness?

Of course it isn’t. It is nothing in me. Remember that old-fashioned saying, ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’? That is the reason: His grace. You have it too, even if you don’t believe in Him, you have benefitted from His grace, just as surely as you bear His thumbprint.

After all, if this God is really a despot, why has He not already struck you down for your unbelief?

And if He really is God of all, why would you not speak to Him about what troubles you in the world?

There is a reason why the Christian response to the events of last Sunday was, ‘pray for Sutherland County’, and it isn’t anything to do with ducking the arguments about gun control. These same Christians are, in fact, praying all the time. They pray for themselves, for their families, for their friends, their colleagues, their communities – they pray for this broken, tragic world.

Even if you don’t pray yourself, there’s a good chance that someone else is doing it on your behalf. Someone who cares about you is holding you up to God’s attention and saying, ‘have mercy on them, and open their eyes’.

I could try to tell you who God is and what He is, but you wouldn’t believe me. He isn’t a cold, careless egomaniacal deity, randomly pushing people off cliffs, or sweeping them to destruction. God loves this world, and He sorrows over what we have made of it. Our purpose is, and always has been, to worship and enjoy Him. Sin, however, has so warped that relationship that we commit evil against Him daily and have the temerity then to blame our actions on Him.

If He exists, that is.

So, please, if you don’t already know, find out for yourself who He is. Talk to Him. I promise you this: He’s waiting for you to speak His name. Ask Him to reveal more of Himself to you. Pick up the Bible and read it prayerfully.

You won’t ever get to know Him by alternately denying He exists and calling Him names. And, if you’re a reasonable person, you won’t denounce Him as a fiction whilst trying to hold Him and His people responsible for all the ills of the world.

His grace has given you every chance to see Him as He really is: take it, please. We are praying that you will.

Pan pipes in the pulpit and Wee Free Flower Power

An alternative lifestyle is not the kind of thing one expects to hear advocated from the pulpit of Stornoway Free Church. You imagine that, suddenly, the sober suits will be swapped for tie-dyed cheesecloth, and vegan sandals; or that there will be crystals hanging on the vestry pegs where once there were Homburg hats. Will the cailleachs be unwrapping pumpkin seeds instead of bachelor buttons? And, rather than a precentor . . . pan pipes?

Well, no. That does tend to be our image of an alternative lifestyle, though, doesn’t it? Something a bit way-out, a bit hippyish? But I can’t see us downsizing from manses to yurts, or getting the ministers to do their pastoral visits in a VW camper van. Changes like that would be – in one sense – easy to make. You just dress differently, adopt a new vocabulary, and affect a laid-back demeanour in your dealings with people. Maybe utter the odd ‘peace’, or ‘far out’. Add a CND badge or two, and a Greenpeace bumper sticker to the VW and people get the message: you are not like everybody else.

The alternative lifestyle that was spoken of is something way more radical than deacons with joss-sticks, or ministers with henna tattoos, however. It is following Christ wherever He leads, whatever He asks you to do, and however that changes your circumstances and priorities.

And the change does not begin with anything as superficial as your clothes, or your diet: it begins with your heart. Christianity does what we used to believe of microwave ovens – it warms you from the inside out.

You don’t pick the Christian life from a catalogue. Whatever right-on secularist parents say about letting children ‘decide for themselves’, that is not how this works. No one is drawn by the clothes and the traditions. This isn’t steampunk, or goth, or hipster. I doubt very much if anyone looking dispassionately on says to themselves, ‘yeah, I was just drawn to the whole culture of, you know, prayer meetings, and soup and puddings’.

You don’t have a change of heart – you have a whole new one created in you by the Holy Spirit.

And then you become one of these peculiar people. From the inside, that means you are united to all the others in unbreakable bonds of love for Christ. You all have this knowledge of what He has done – is doing – for you, not because of any cleverness on your part, but because the Spirit has shown you. What He wrought in your life causes you to adore Him, but seeing Him do as much for others does not cause envy; instead, it makes you love them also.

Christians are commanded to lead a different life in the world, and they do so because they see it differently to everyone else. This world is not the point. Restoration to a right relationship with God for all eternity is. And that relationship begins when you are saved by grace. It changes you, and it turns your life into something lived for the Lord – which makes certain that it will also be something that those outside of Him do not comprehend.

From outside Christ, from that cold, cold place, what must Christians look like? Strange, undoubtedly. Spiritual bonds create friendships which the world finds odd, to say the least – and which some will try to taint by looking through a lens of sin. But the world is not our judge: it made that same mistake with our Saviour two thousand years ago, and has been repeating it ever since.

Yet, we are responsible for our conduct before the world. If I greet another Christian with a holy kiss, I should not care if onlookers try to warp that into something unclean. Much more serious is my being heard to slander other Christians before the world, or my failure to offer them the hand of friendship in their need. That is where I may harm the cause of Christ.

If our behaviour is reprehensible to the world, but defensible before God, there is no charge to answer. But if we fail, as Christians, the least of His, then we have failed Him also. That, then, is where our eye should be: upon Him. As Thomas a Kempis wrote in ‘The Imitation of Christ ‘:

‘If God were our one and only desire we would not be so easily upset when our opinions do not find outside acceptance’.

His life is the pattern for ours. If we follow Him faithfully, doing as He would have us do, the world can lay any charge it wishes; but we will be found righteous in the highest court of all.

 

Hallowe’en is coming, and the Clocks Are Going Back . . .

Someone – and I’m not prepared to say who – created a bit of bother in Stornoway Free Church last weekend. They posted a flippantly captioned meme onto the church Facebook page, featuring a photograph of our two ministers. This flagrant misuse of the image was bad enough, but to compound the felony, it was heavily implied that one of the reverends could not be trusted to put the clocks back.

Which is ironic, really, because we all know that the Free Church has been setting this island back centuries since its foundation in 1843. What would one hour more have mattered?

I am a little bit obsessed with time myself. In the normal course of things, I like to be early. Sometimes ridiculously early. This is why I don’t like going to things with my less punctual friends and relatives. Walking into an early morning prayer-meeting once, after the door had been shut almost caused me a nose-bleed. It is my uptight side coming out. And there’s not a lot I can do about it.

On Hallowe’en night, I was due to give a talk on the Otherworld. So, I duly press-ganged my sister into accompanying me, and she wrong-footed me by being at our appointed meeting place early. We both arrived at the Leurbost Community Centre a good forty minutes before I was expected to utter a single word about witches. As we sat in the car park until a more respectable hour, hordes of children dressed as ghosts and witches (well, I assume they were children) rushed past. It brought back many happy memories of similarly dark and cold evenings, when a crowd of us would go from door to door, singing for a donation to the party fund.

And nostalgia was the tone for the whole evening. There was something about it . . . talking, as people did long ago, about superstitions, about mysterious lights and unexplained noises, and women who were suspected of being a bit uncanny. Woven into it was Gaelic, and genealogy, and laughter, and scones. My more eccentric granny was from Achmore, and the previous generation from (inevitably) Ranish. All North Lochie genes seem to emanate from Ranish. And there were lovely ladies there who had worked with my parents in the Old County Hospital, or knew my mother, or were related to a neighbour.

It was an old-fashioned evening. People wanted to ‘place’ me, and I in my turn had to figure them out. There was darkness, cold and an atmospherically howling wind outside. Inside, though, I felt like some magic had indeed taken place, and that, in talking about the tales of da-shealladh and taibhsean, I had unwittingly conjured up the past.

The tea and baking that followed my rambling was preceded by a grace. It makes me glad to know that some communities still continue with this, and some still open all their meetings with prayer.

But it makes me sad to think of the people who would see this humble gratefulness to God for His unwarranted goodness to us as just so much more superstition. There are those who would place the dignified words of blessing and thanks in the same category as charms to ward off the evil eye, or rituals to protect a child from felonious elves.

People are interested enough to come and hear about Hallowe’en, and the things that our ancestors believed. They were, I think, afraid of what might come out of the darkness to harm them. It wasn’t really spirits of the dead, or witches bent on evil that threatened them at all, but the nameless fear of things they could not comprehend. Illness, infant death, loss of all kinds . . . if these come at you unexpectedly and without explanation, perhaps you just have to create your own framework in which to understand them.

And people who dismiss God as superstition are just the same. They have built up their own version of the Otherworld, just a lot less plausible than the one populated with fairies and witches.

Their imaginary realm is the one they inhabit now. And they think it is all there is. The atheist thinks that when he closes his eyes on this world, he simply ceases to be. They do not waste time speaking to an imaginary deity now, because they do not expect to meet him later.

But they will. We all will.

I don’t like to dismiss the beliefs of our forefathers as mere superstition. They believed the things that they did in good faith, but also at times out of ignorance. Some of our good old Highland ministers (not at all the sort to forget to wind the clocks) believed that second sight may have been an example of hierophany – God communicating directly with a rural population which was largely illiterate and unable to read Scripture for itself.

The truth is, however, we don’t know. There are indeed, as the Bard (nope, not Murdo MacFarlane, the other cove) once said, ‘more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.

‘Philosophy’ here might well refer to all of learning – whether that is astronomy, biology, or some daft creutair from the local college who has learned a few things about witches and wise women.

But the really wise women are not waiting for revelation in dreams or visions. They are setting their clocks to spend time with the Lord. His book is better than magic, and in His presence you will find more things than are dreamt of in any philosophy, I’m sure – even in the fondest prayers of the Christian.