A Woman’s Place is Wherever God Wants Her

Ever since Coinneach Mòr reminded me that I’m a woman, I’ve been thinking about whether it matters very much. In past blogs I have made myself subject to misunderstanding because I have played down the importance of my gender, especially where my faith life is concerned. But I wouldn’t want anyone to run away with the idea that I don’t care about that category of things loosely termed ‘women’s issues’.

Nor, for the record, do I think we’re getting it absolutely right. If I said we were, people might suspect me of being manipulated by men . . .

There are two contexts here which must be considered – my relationship with God as an individual Christian, and my relationship with His church as part of the believing family.

My personal interactions with God consist of conventional prayer, continuous prayer, and the reading of His word. In all these cases, I come to Him as myself, whether I want to or not. He knows who and what I am, regardless of the veils I may – even unconsciously- assume. Part of that self surely consists of my womanhood: it is who He made me to be.

But I don’t believe that He hears me differently simply because I’m a woman; rather, he hears me differently because I am uniquely myself.

Christ,for example, did not favour Mary over Martha, or vice-versa, but He did take cognisance of their different personalities and respond to them accordingly.

He lets us be who we are; any obstacles in the way are of our own making.

Our relationship with the Lord is untrammelled by worries about gender. I do not doubt that He loves the supplication of women as much as the petitions of men. We are all His beloved children and the blood ransom He paid had the same value for every last one.

It is really only when you take that relationship into the church visible that problems arise. I have never gone to God in prayer and wondered whether what was on my heart was alright to mention, what with me being a woman. But I have been conscious of my gender in – amongst other things – writing this blog.

Let me be clear: no one from within the church has ever said to me that I should keep my opinions to myself. For all my joking, none of the men has yet suggested I stick to teaching Sunday school and leave the thinking to them. That is not the root of the problem.

I am the root of the problem.

In my own treacherous heart, there is a constant battle with doubt. Every time I go to publish an article, I worry that this will be the one where I really offend someone. Each new blog post fills me with trepidation that I have gone too far and will be castigated for a meddling ignoramus.

And underlying all these nagging fears is the sense that I am a woman in a man’s world. Who has told me this? Well, no one, but it has been the way things have happened over the years. Men are the office bearers, therefore you have to be a man to have a voice in the likes of the Free Church.

Is that true, though? No, I actually don’t think it is. Recently, I was talking to someone about it, and the notion that Free Church women are kept down. He made me laugh when he said, ‘I’d like to meet the man who could oppress _____________’ The lady he named is just one of legions of island women who could never be kept in their boxes by even the most determined misogynist. They have opinions and they have influence just as the men do.

These are praying women, women who have mentored younger Christians. They have participated fully in the spiritual life and nothing God intends for them can be denied by mere men.

But another recent conversation has forced me to think about the role of women in the church as an institution. We were discussing the way in which complementarianism has been interpreted by the Presbyterian churches in Scotland. My friend pointed out that there is a simple enough way to ensure that we are being Biblical in our division of duties. If a role requires spiritual authority then it should properly be restricted to men. Otherwise, it should be fulfilled by whoever is best suited to it.

This isn’t radical thinking. It isn’t even feminist thinking. What we’re called on to have as a church is a spirit of service, of corporate service. Our collective gifts should be deployed in order to maximise their potential to glorify God. That is what we’re about.

Those outside of our walls often speak about power- any objection to attacks on Christianity are countered with derisive yells of, ‘you just don’t want to lose control ’. The relationship between the church and the world is not about that, however, and neither should our relationships with one another be.

Properly speaking, I am a Christian before I am a woman. What gifts I have to offer in the service of Christ have nothing to do with my gender. He has not made women less gifted than their brothers.

However, I do believe that there is progress to be made in bringing those abilities to fruition in the church. Not, I hasten to add, because of some attempt to create equality between the genders; God has already done that.

Authority is His; spiritual authority He vests in men of His own choosing.

But the freedom to love Him through active service, exercising those gifts which He has bestowed   – that privilege belongs to every man and woman who loves the Lord.




Ask Not For Whom the Bells Toll – It Won’t Be Me

I have never been a fan of New Year. Too much looking back, too much sentimentality, and – for this unreconstructed Calvinist – too much presumption. It never sat easily with me to celebrate the unknown that lay ahead. What if providence brought you something hard, something regrettable?

The year my father died, my husband and I took the decision to spend New Year away from home. We rented a cottage and holed up for a few, snowy days. I didn’t have to feign a celebratory mood, but I was safe with someone who understood exactly how I was feeling. By the time we got home, it was all over, and we could just get on with the business of living.

As it happened, that new year – 2012 – was to be our last normal one together. 2013 brought the shadow of cancer, 2014 came in with great hope which sadly faded at its latter-end, and 2015 brought our final separation. Each turning year seems to bring me further away from him. I am more, and not less, aware of his absence. Every new thing that happens, every person I meet and every novel experience I have, are mine alone. There have been so many moments I would have loved to share with Donnie, things we would have laughed over together, and things we would have discussed endlessly.

These last few months, I have wondered often what he and my father would have made of some of the situations I’ve found myself in.

But these are all good reasons for me to not ‘do’ New Year. Try as you might to be unsentimental, it just isn’t possible and in what may well be a titanic act of cowardice (though I prefer to think of it as self-preservation) I have fallen into the habit of ending the old year a couple of hours earlier than everyone else. Bed, a good book, or a film, and the transition happens without me noticing.

Perhaps, ‘Gone with the Wind’, would be a good film to watch. Scarlett O’ Hara may not be the most obvious role model for a Wee Free widow, but she got one thing right – she told others not to look back because the past can drag at your heart so much that finally all you are capable of doing is looking back.

Lot’s wife paid the ultimate price for just that tendency too. Not, perhaps, because her past was happy, but because it was familiar.

We are all of us wary of the unknown. It is hard to admit our vulnerability, but if we were honest, we could all say to one another that it is something we have in common. What we have already experienced is always preferable because it is a path we have trodden before, and we know where the pitfalls may be lurking.

Faith changes your perspective on all of this, though. The more I meditate on the advice I was given after Donnie’s death not to ‘over-spiritualise’ my grief, the less I understand it. It is putting my trust in God, knowing that He has everything in His plan, which has preserved what little pretension to sanity I enjoy. I am not privy to what He has in store for me, nor even why those events already unfolded fell to my lot, but it truly doesn’t matter. He knows, and He is God; He has never been less than God to me, or to anyone else.

It is easy to focus on the silent voice and the empty chair at this time of year. Grief is selfish, though. Not in the most negative sense, but it is nonetheless about how we feel. We miss them, we wish they were here, and that life could resume its old, familiar pattern.
That is when we have to turn fully to Him. He only brings change, I think, to facilitate growth. And the only growth that matters is the spiritual kind, that we would allow Him to love us more and that He would be glorified.

When we are – quite naturally- missing loved ones who have died in Christ, though, we have this unrivalled comfort: the worst is over. Yes, we go on hurting because we long to see them, yet the next turn in our journey does not actually take us further away from them, but rather, closer to where they are. God has the roadmap, indeed Christ IS the roadmap. And the final separation has already been, as I said. Next time we meet, there will be no further parting.

And, remarkably, this is not even the best part of the story. It is only the tangible aspect, which we are probably best able to get our heads around. Besides, I believe that it offers helpful perspective.

At first, I was perturbed by Matthew 6: 21, which says that, ‘where your treasures are, there will your heart be also’. I worried that my priorities were wrong and that I merely wanted to see those whom I loved, all gone before me – that it was in them the attraction of heaven lay.

It isn’t that, though. You cannot separate  believers from the Saviour or understand them apart from Him. They, we, and He, are united by unbreakable cords of love woven by Him, and binding us all together in ways none can understand.


What a beginning that will be, with no trepidation for what lies ahead. Those bells, now, I long to hear.

Wee Free Woman Identifies as Herself

After finishing off writing the Sunday evening sermon, I checked my diary for the week ahead. Nothing too onerous. Gaelic department lunch on Tuesday, meeting a friend on Wednesday . . and then, I received an edict from Coinneach Mòr to record an interview for his Thursday morning radio show. Consummate professional that he is, he outlined some of the areas we would cover – blog (fine); monthly column (mmm hmm); how come a woman in the Free Church is being allowed to speak out so much on sometimes controversial issues? (ok . . . er, what!?)

I don’t like that question. Someone else asked me something similar recently and I must admit, it threw me a bit.

But it’s different with Coinneach. He may be, as I said, the consummate professional, but he is also the consummate Leòdhasach. His question was posed in very much the same spirit that I myself apply to writing the blog – mockery of the attitude which prevails outside the Free Church that women inside it are somehow subjugated and condemned to a life of baking scones. Coinneach, I think, understands that this is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was.

He understands, first and foremost, because he comes from within this culture. That is his – and my – privilege. The tragedy for some people is that because of an accident of birth, they can never know what it is to be a Leòdhasach. Some get as close as possible by moving here, and indeed, who can blame them? But there are a few things I would have them know.

First of all, native islanders are not necessarily fools. Some probably are, because there are fools everywhere. However, to suggest that because you hail from Lewis you are automatically (and this is by no means an exhaustive list of the accusations to which we are subject): small-minded, nosy, gullible, brainwashed, judgmental, unsophisticated, dogmatic . . . well, I think they call that racism in the big cities, now, don’t they?

Secondly, yes, there is an indigenous culture. You may shout that there isn’t and that we only say that to be exclusivist, but I’m afraid that’s just cultural imperialism talking. We are a Gaelic people. It is possible to learn the language and not be one of us, just as I can learn French but never be a Frenchwoman.
Thirdly, whether it suits you or not, the Free Church (other denominations are available – buy a book, learn the history of this place you’re calling ‘home’) has done much to shape and influence our culture. People of my generation well remember having to be home by midnight on Saturday, or not being allowed to make a noise in the garden on Sunday. Compliance came from respect for your parents and for the norms of your community. We weren’t quite so obsessed then with pleasing ourselves regardless of who it upset.

Yes, there were always those who didn’t appreciate the Lewis Sunday, but they were never so tormented by their own ego as to think everything should change for them.

It’s all about that – self. The issue of ‘being a woman in the church’ likewise. I clumsily told Coinneach that I don’t think of myself as a woman. Perhaps his journalistic nose twitched at the thought of such a story, ‘Free Church woman identifies as deacon’, but he merely raised his eyebrows quizzically.

And now I will explain: I try very hard not to think of myself at all.

That’s what we’re called on to do as Christians. I didn’t start this blog because I had a Free Church feminist agenda to push; I don’t. My stance is that gender doesn’t matter in the church and to say, ‘why can’t women . . ?’ is really tantamount to asking, ‘why can’t I?’ Don’t whine to your elders; go to God, and see what He says. He has a role for each of us – but it is according to our gifts, not according to our gender.

There have been many jokes about me ‘having my eye’ on the pulpit. The sermon I alluded to writing  at the beginning of this blog was not my own, however, but that of the minister of our congregation. I write summaries of them for the church social media account and help them reach a wider audience that way, hopefully. Those on the outside of the church might pity me these limitations, though, and be horrified at the jokes which are always predicated on the assumption that no woman will ever preach in the Free Church.

But I feel no self-pity. I am not a poor soul. Eldership is not a wee accolade for the person, it is a role endowed with the authority of Christ. Leading the congregation in prayer is not an ego-trip, nor are pastoring and evangelising; these are serious responsibilities which are the lot of those called to serve.

Instead of looking at others and wanting to be who they are, and have what we think they have, we must look upwards and ask God what he wants us to be. He intends each of us for service to His glory. I think we imbue the ‘patriarchy’ with more power than they possess if we honestly believe that they are preventing any of us from being what God intends.

The Isle of Lewis is what it is – James Shaw Grant said it best when he called it a, ‘loveable, irrational island’. It need not try to be like other places. For me, it’s lovely in its own way.

And likewise, being a woman in the Free Church is also lovely in its own way. It is where God has placed me. I don’t intend to limit myself or Him by looking longingly at the pulpit, or even the suidheachan mòr; I need to fall back on my faith, ask where He wants me, and say to Him, ‘Here am I, send me’.

Wise men from the East . . . of Lewis?

My father was Santa Claus. I didn’t realise this until, one evening when I was about eight years old, he and my mother went out one evening ‘to visit friends’. Less than an hour later, I answered the door to a tall, portly gentleman, dressed in a red robe, and with a flowing white beard. His laughing green eyes gave it away – this was not Father Christmas, but mine. The costume was property of the County Hospital, where he worked and by virtue of being the only man on the staff, the festive duty fell to him each year: dispensing talc and soap to the cailleachs and aftershave to the bodachs.

And then, years after, my future husband was Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve 2002, he donned the red suit and stood in front of his mother, who was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She recognised him immediately, however. I don’t know how, but I suspect that it was the same thing again – the eyes. He had kind, brown eyes and an expression of mischief unique to himself when he was in the process of one of his beloved ‘wind-ups’.

Later on that same evening, he asked me to marry him. We had met at Christmas two years previously and the timing of our engagement was somehow appropriate. He had not wanted to choose a ring himself, so gave me a locket in the meantime – a tradition of giving a small item of jewellery which he kept up every Christmas Eve thereafter.

Having had the great privilege of knowing and loving two Santas, I am well-placed to write a critique of the jolly cove. His image is everywhere at this time of year and children are giddy with the excitement of meeting him, prior even to his magical visit on the twenty-fourth. He has become the great focus of Christmas, the kindly, all-good fulfiller of wishes. If you ask Santa for something, then he will not refuse, because he is good.

I can remember what it felt like to believe in this mythical figure. It was lovely and it was magical, and there is certainly a place for that in the life of every child. But he was not always the ubiquitous figure that he has become, and I think that he has changed into something much more sinister than many of us realise.

It isn’t that once a year we positively encourage a complete stranger to enter our homes during the night, help himself to our food, before leaving without being seen. Surprisingly enough, that still seems to be an acceptable part of the Christmas narrative.

No, it’s more that he has displaced the person who really gives Christmas its meaning. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild is all very well, but he doesn’t give presents, or grant wishes. He is just a nice wee adjunct to the main event, which is a frenzy of greed. Far from being the benevolent bodach of my childhood, Santa is now some sort of god of consumerism, granting wishes and handing over whatever goods your little ones may desire. How can Jesus hope to compare with that?

His birth was most unlike that of lesser kings. It had none of the costly trappings of rank or display because from the very first, He was gently telling us that none of that matters. If it was of any real consequence, His would have been the richest of surroundings.

Yet, when the wise men came from the East, they brought expensive gifts. Tradition assumes that there were three wise men because three gifts are mentioned, but I cannot agree with that assessment. I find it unlikely that there were more gifts than men, but have absolutely no trouble in believing that the number of men exceeded the number of gifts: there were bound to be two or three who simply ‘forgot’, or ‘didn’t know what to buy’. At least, that’s how it would be if they were from the East of Lewis. Then again, wise men from Broadbay . . ?

Why, though, would a child born in such lowly circumstances require such costly and seemingly impractical gifts? They may have been mere men, but they were wise, after all, and their gifts were a recognition of who this child was.

Gold was for His kingship; frankincense for His deity; and myrrh, commonly used as an embalming oil, recognised His mortality as one who was God, yet fully human. These gifts, which have become the background noise of ‘the Christmas story’ are actually a very significant part of it because they foreshadowed what this infant would be to mankind.

Last weekend, I was in Glasgow, which was a boiling frenzy of consumerism. People rushed about, beguiled by adverts promising the perfect Christmas day, with the cosiest pyjamas, the most fragrant perfume, and the bubbliest champagne.

But it is not the presents we will open next Monday, brought by the jolly man in the red suit which make Christmas perfect, however. That perfection was attained two thousand years ago, and began when a little child was offered gifts representing what He already possessed: deity, kingship, and the keys to death.

Those gifts already in His possession are now offered to us to share. We may benefit from His kingship and from His Godness, and we may accept His offer of freedom from the bonds of death. There will never be anything on Santa Claus’s sleigh to compare with that.



A Calvinist Hallelujah for the Dutch Laddie Wi’ a Fiddle

If I was a storybook Calvinist I would be going about the country burning fiddles. Instead, I am prepared to travel any distance in any kind of weather to hear one in particular played to perfection.

The first Christmas I would spend as a widow – 2015 – was looming unpleasantly on the horizon when I was taken to hear the incomparable Andre Rieu. On a day that seemed like something out of the book of Revelation, my sister and I boarded a flight for Aberdeen. Ours was, I think, one of the only planes to leave Stornoway that afternoon, and I was nonplussed to find myself heading to listen to some eccentric Dutchman play a violin.

The taxi driver who drove us to the hotel gave voice to my own silent incredulity:
‘Fae Stornoway?’ he repeated, ‘That’s an awfy long way to come just to hear a laddie wi’ a fiddle – have you no laddies wi’ fiddles at home?’

Well, quite. My mother’s people on her father’s side were known as ‘na Fìdhlearan’ and yet here we were having to risk being stranded on the mainland over a weekend . . . for what, I wondered.

From the sound of the first drum beats which herald his own and the orchestra’s arrival to their signature, ‘Seventy six Trombones’, something almost magical happens. He cuts a tall and striking figure, with his tailcoat and eccentric conductor hairstyle, but he presides over the music with the warmth and energy of someone who feels – and loves – every note.

I felt, at that concert, pure and unadulterated joy for the first time in a very long while. Music can reach places in your heart that nothing else can and this beautiful programme, played by a man who is devoted to his craft, tapped into wellsprings of delight I thought gone forever.

How strange, you might think, for a Christian to say such things. What of my joy in the Redeemer?

There was very little of that for me in December 2015. I was still nursing Christ to myself, keeping Him small and secret, denying myself the fellowship of His people. And, consequently, I denied myself the largeness of knowing Him and loving Him better which comes through meeting Him in others.

But I think the music of Andre Rieu and the atmosphere of joy helped to unlock my heart.

Knowing Him better has changed how I appreciate the music as well. There is a reason why authors are interviewed about their books, and artists about their paintings. We are fascinated by creativity because it is one of the defining traits of our Father. He speaks to us through music, art and literature. Just as our human relationships with our parents are pale replicas of our relationship with God, the gifts they pass on are surely ghosts of that light implanted into humankind by its Creator.

Although I am one of na Fìdhlearan, perhaps the gift manifests in me as the ability to appreciate someone else’s greater ability to make beautiful music.

Last Thursday, at my fourth of his concerts, Andre Rieu – who claims to be an atheist – introduced Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ as the most celebratory piece of music ever composed. ‘Every voice’, he said, ‘and every instrument is bursting with joy’.

This wonderfully gifted musician who brings the beauty of music into the lives of many people is so near to the truth. The reason these hallelujahs are so heartfelt is not because of the composition, nor yet the performance, but because, as Peter Schaeffer’s Salieri said of Mozart, ‘God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable . . .’

The hallelujahs penned by Handel are alight with joy because they unite everything perfectly – the creative impulse born of God, applied in the worship of Him. Music like that, I think, brings us a little closer to the perfection the Creator made.

Handel was a Lutheran and his famous chorus is replete with the joy of liberation that should be the lot of every Christian. When he had finished composing that particular piece, he said, ‘I did think I did see all of Heaven before me and the great God himself’.

God’s glory will not be hidden. He reveals it in everything upon which our eyes fall, and yet we remain blind. And He reveals it most magnificently in music which seems to soar heavenwards.

Two years ago, listening to the beautiful music arranged by Andre Rieu, God revealed to me that loving Him and being loved by Him are matters for celebrating. Knowing this, dour wee Presbyterian though I am, I want to sing, ‘hallelujah’.

But it wasn’t meant for one voice. It is a chorus which needs as many as possible. For the many ways his beautiful music has helped me, I pray that Andre will discern God’s presence in all he does, and that his voice will join those who sanctify Him in their hearts.

Lewis Culture: An Uncivil War of Words

The letters page of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ was always something of a curiosity to me. I remember thinking many times that it was pointless to air debates about religious matters as both sides traded Biblical texts in an entrenched war of words. It managed, somehow, to be strongly-worded without – often, anyway – becoming offensive. People could have a debate about the things which separated them, and then change the subject back to the things which unified them.

Now, however, people get offended so easily. Which would be fine, if they didn’t then act as though being offended is a terminal illness. My advice if something offends you, is this: ride it out, bottle it up and wait; because as parents up and down the land used to say before the thought police put an end to such child cruelty, you’ll soon be given something to really cry about.

Using much the same logic as I once did, the editor of the ‘Gazette’ has decided not to allow any further letters on matters of faith.  I have some sympathy with her motives because, I’m guessing, she has given up hope of moving the debate on. It has probably become tedious, repetitive and circular, to her way of thinking, and liable to scunner the readership.

Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, though, the correspondence page of that newspaper used to have a great deal more religious content. I am tempted to say that the letters provided the only really lively content in the whole publication. People would read them and roll their eyes, or read them and have a healthy discussion over the dinner table, or just skip past them to the obituaries; but they didn’t cause the ripples any kind of faith-based debate seems to be causing in Lewis at the moment.

While the ‘Gazette’ circulation is nothing like it used to be, with the paper now being local in name only, it was at least available as a forum for sharing and debating anything which islanders cared about enough. Once an editor starts censoring the permitted topics for correspondence, however, I think we have to accept that the tide of intolerance is indeed lapping at our feet.

We have sleepwalked towards this state of affairs. What was once a mild and usually polite disagreement has become something unpleasant. Anything that has the merest hint of Christianity about it is sneered at as ‘Wee Free’ bigotry. The critics of ‘What The Church Has Done To Lewis’ (no, I don’t know either) are so well-informed that they don’t know what any of us believes, nor what it means to be a Christian, though they are quick to flag any  apparent lapses in ‘true Christian’ behaviour.

They pride themselves on their commitment to truth and are rigorous in applying their own belief system to everything they do. And, yes, they do have a belief system. It even appears as though they are following a pseudo-presbyterian leadership structure, with their agenda driven by anyone who has internet access.

However, if they would permit me one wee piece of advice, I’d say: don’t let your leaders in Glasgow and Edinburgh dictate how you interact with your local community. Like it or not, they are patronising the secularists from the sticks, and assuming that you can’t handle things on your own patch without them. Say what you like about us Wee Frees, but at least we do our own oppressing, and rarely get the Moderator involved.

It is from this kind of outside interference that we get the sort of poorly researched nonsense which insists that Lewis is in thrall to the Calvinist patriarchy. What I don’t understand is why none of the local chapter of secularists is offended by suggestions that this is a community without the capability of original thought or, indeed, sincere belief. Where, in the midst of all their supposed care for the Western Isles, is the one dissenting voice that will oppose these kinds of slurs? Why is ‘brainwashing’ by the church so offensive, but the secular mantra of, ‘there is no such thing as Lewis culture’ goes unopposed from within their own ranks?

I’ll tell you why. The de-localising of culture in Lewis, the nay-saying and the outside interference from those who will not have to live with the consequences of their meddling is part of a wider stategy. You see, Christianity has informed and shaped these communities for so long that it is fused to the local way of life. And no, I am not claiming that every Lewis person is a Christian, nor even that every Lewis person is a churchgoer. Sadly, there are those in every generation who decide that the truth of the Gospel is not for them. But it has influenced them, because it has helped make this island what it is.

Generations of self-styled island atheists have talked of Christianity as a foreign creed and of the Bible as a hotchpotch of Middle Eastern fairytales. ‘Fragments of the philosophy of Geneva’ was how the poet, Derick Thomson derided the sort of Calvinism which his home island embraced. They despised what they saw as alien intrusion into Gaelic culture.

Which of them, now, will call for the tone of debate to change? Who among them is truthful enough to say that this is a conversation that can continue in a civil manner between believers and unbelievers in Lewis, just as it always has – robust, but never strident.

I think that the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ has made a mistake. If this debate is going to be played out only on social media, directed by the scions of the National Secular Society, what, then, of local culture? Who will speak up for it against malign and alien influence now?

The Sofa & the Ghost of Christmas Past

Sometimes, you know, church can be uncomfortable. Oh, I don’t mean the pews: Calvinists are genetically adapted to fit those. If anything, the addition of those pesky cushions has interfered with nature. No, I mean more of a spiritual discomfort – the kind of thing that starts like a niggling little itch, but finally develops into a full-blown ache.

We like being uplifted by the preaching. Then, we can sing the psalms with gusto and pray fervently along with whoever is leading. And we go home feeling good and optimistic. When everything comes together and reaffirms that Jesus is everything and you are His, yes, of course, who wouldn’t be happy? Sometimes, you can actually see on people’s faces – their eyes shine – that this has worked on their hearts.

Other times, though, the sermon can prick your conscience. I had one of those moments this week when the minister accused me of worldliness, right in front of everyone.

Now, in case you’re imagining this is some archaic Wee Free thing where the black clad and be-collared minister fixes you with a fiery glare, and shouts, ‘woman, ye are a worldly sinner’, think again. That isn’t how it works in the real church, only in films and newspaper articles by people who have never actually been inside one.

In fact, when a minister is preaching, we are not really hearing the man. Yes, it is his physical voice, and words that he has chosen, but we are to believe that this is God speaking through them. Faith comes by hearing the Word preached and, as the Bible itself tells us repeatedly, faith is not of ourselves.

For me, a warning against worldliness was very timely. I cannot do the whole sermon justice here, but the counsel was not to become too attached to the things of this world, as John warned in his first letter. These things are, as we know, transient, and it’s a very bad idea to tether your life and soul to them.

Now, don’t laugh, but the reason I squirmed at this was because of my sofa. It’s a chestnut brown, soft leather chesterfield. I have had it two years and I have been very careful of it, gently vacuuming it each week, and wincing at the mere sight of people actually sitting in it.

Well, I don’t know who would want to sit in it now. Last Saturday, I trustingly and naively, left Mr Roy in his basket in the sitting room while I went to church. I came home, made a big fuss of how good he’d been, fed him a steak bake and then actually went into the room. There was a large puddle on the seat. Oh, he’d very thoughtfully chucked the cushions onto the floor (presumably so as not to ruin them), before urinating on the one seat in the room least able to cope with such an assault.

And I was livid. You know, in that unreasonable way that disregards the fact you’re addressing a dog and not a person who has done this to annoy you. I told him it was no wonder he’d had so many different homes, that he was unloveable, ungrateful, smelly, thoughtless (!) and even, with unwarranted hyperbole, that he was a ‘menace to society’.

It was several days before I could bear to look at him. I forced myself to pat him and speak civilly, because deep down I knew he had no idea what was wrong, but I was still very upset.

About a sofa. Yes, I do realise how shallow that makes me sound. By Wednesday, I had actually got over it, more or less, having started enquiries about getting it professionally cleaned. I knew that once it was clean again, I could forgive Mr Roy.

That’s why, on Wednesday evening, God accused me of worldliness. Well, not just because of the sofa, but it serves to represent everything else that gets too much place in my life. I recalled what Thomas a Kempis said in a book that has been a favourite since my teenage years, ‘The Imitation of Christ’:

‘To triumph over self is the perfect victory. For whoever so controls himself that his passions are subject to his reason, and his reason wholly subject to Me, is master both of himself and of the world’.

There is no one harder to conquer than yourself because there is no one more likely to allow you moral latitude. But I have begun an important lesson. Perhaps I need to see Mr Roy’s intervention like the visit of Scrooge’s first ghost who, frustrated with the old miser’s lifestyle, called him, ‘man of the worldly mind’.

It is fine to have nice things. And, it is good to take care of those things, being grateful to God for providing them. I do thank him for my comfortable home, and more so when I read of the destitution often faced by widows in the past. But, there is a disconnect between my thanksgiving and my attitude. My house, my furniture, my possessions . . . none of those should come before obedience to God, and trying sincerely to imitate Christ in a life of holiness.

Besides, I love Mr Roy for himself, as much as for the fact that he was Donnie’s faithful companion till the end. He is irreplaceable. And his little misdemeanour reminds me of something I must never lose sight of:

God loved me, even before the stain had been cleansed. If His forgiveness had been predicated on my being clean, I would have been beyond hope forever.


Wee Frees and Wise Men – Not Mutually Exclusive

When the Calvinists of the Free Church in Stornoway are not busy oppressing the people who want to exercise their free will by swinging a golf club on Sundays, we like to sit around, oppressing one another. Old Christians try to prevent young Christians from enjoying themselves, men keep women in their place (the kitchen), and, I suppose, the ministers whack the other elders on the knuckles with a wooden ruler if they overstep the mark. Our times of fellowship are an endurance test, with the first person to laugh put outside by the bins.

It is remotely possible, though, that we are just harsh and humourless by nature. I mean, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame everything about us on Calvin. The atheist intelligentsia has been doing that for a long time – they blame him for destroying Gaelic culture, for taking art and music from people’s lives and they blame him for stealing Christmas.

John Calvin, a.k.a. The Grinch.

There was, it is true, a tendency among the Reformers to distance themselves from these holy days which had been so much a feature of the Roman Catholic church. Nonetheless, Luther permitted its observance and Calvin . . . well, Calvin’s position was not exactly as it has been portrayed.

The celebration of Christmas had already been abolished in Geneva before he went there, and it was later reinstated during his temporary expulsion from the city. By the time he returned, Calvin had either mellowed somewhat, or had not been strongly opposed to it in the first place, but he stated his intention to allow Christ’s birthday to be marked as the people had become accustomed to doing.

Knox shared Calvin’s reservations about the celebration of a day not explicitly prescribed in scripture. Christmas was eventually banned in Scotland by an Act of Parliament in 1640. Despite its repeal 48 years later, it continued as a very low-key festival, not becoming a public holiday until 1958.

Now, however, more and more Presbyterian churches in Scotland are tentatively marking the religious significance of Christmas. In what looks like a binning of the rule-book, the dour men in black are decking the halls. Or something similar.

Well, what does the rule book say about the matter?  The Westminster Confession of Faith says that, in addition to the Lord’s Day, there is room for. ‘solemn fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner’.

It is the manner of the celebration that matters: the spirit in which it is done and the intention behind it. If the primary objective is to point to Christ, to glorify God, then the marking of Christmas is entirely compatible with the ethos of every Calvinist church.

Of course, the Westminster Confession of Faith is itself based on Scripture, and it is back there we must go if there is any doubt about the rightness of such a move. One of the objections levelled by people like Knox himself was that the Bible does not offer any authority that December 25th is the birth-date of our Saviour. Far be it from me to call poor Mr Knox a pedant, but . . . Surely the material point here is not when the Son of God was born, but that He was born. Only last weekend, we reflected in church upon the startling fact that, in the storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee, it was God who slept, in the person of His Son. That was the real miracle – that God, as John Betjeman wrote, was man in Palestine.

He was born, then, and we have several accounts of how this came about. In John 6:38, He Himself addresses the why, ‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me’.

From that incarnation stems everything that we have as believers, starting with hope. Hope was born the day He came into the world, and gathered in strength towards the cross and finally the triumph of the empty tomb. It is because of God incarnate that we have been redeemed from the bondage of our own sin and the certainty of death.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I cannot think of anything more worthy of celebration.

Not celebrating as the world celebrates. The bloated excess of Christmas as it is marked and commercialized these days would turn the least sensitive of stomachs. In that feast of self-indulgence, all that remains of Christ is the name – and there are those who would expunge even His name from the proceedings.

Last year, Christmas Day coincided with the Lord’s Day and we concentrated in church upon Mary’s Song, and upon the importance of unwrapping and making our own the gift which God has given us in His only begotten Son.

This is the message of Christmas when told properly. The world took Christ, it beat Him and abused Him, and it finally crucified Him.

Now, it is doing the same with His very name.

It was appropriated, and all the meaning with which Christmas is redolent has been leached out, to be replaced by a consumerist frenzy.

Advent is all about waiting. It is about silence. And it is about anticipation of the greatest event our world has ever known. This year, I am grateful that I will be able to draw aside with God’s people, singing His praise for what He did all those Christmases ago:

Sacred Infant, all divine

What a tender love was thine

Thus to come from highest bliss

Down to such a world as this.

Advent, òrduighean and the return of the King

This Sunday, I hope to be doing two things at once. In Stornoway Free Church, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will be dispensed. Those who sit at the table – and, I think, many who don’t – will remember the death of Christ. They will think back to Calvary, and they will begin to measure His love towards them.

But the service does not last long enough for anyone to finish that calculation. His love is the very definition of immeasurable.

Sunday also marks the beginning of Advent. It is the beginning of the waiting, the anticipation. There are four Sundays between now and Christmas Day, counting forward to the date which marks the birth of Jesus Christ.

Was He actually born on December 25th? Does it matter? Like the Creation, it is the same miracle, however and whenever it took place. Those who try to punch holes in the details of timescale and location are guilty of a very human smallness. They try to shrink God to fit their limited vision also, but He will not be contained. It’s the Devil who lurks in the detail, after all.

God is in the greatness, the unparalleled truth, the soaring wonder. He became one of us in order to show how we should live. And to die so that we would not.

We eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of Him. It is not a forlorn ritual, but a meaningful act which brings before us the always remarkable fact that He was perfect, and sacrificed Himself for sinners because He was perfect. Everything about Him is eternal, an unbroken circle without end or beginning .

So, because that is true, we have to look at communion as more than just an act of remembrance . He did not stop at dying, so we should not stop at commemorating His death. We are to mark His death only until He comes again.

It is fitting, then, is it not, that we should partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of Advent? We are remembering, but we are also waiting. This is not a counting down to the lowly birth in a stable which ends in the horror and ignominy of crucifixion: no,it is something far more wonderful.

Christmas is not something we have traditionally marked in the Free Church. At home, yes, but not in church, not the way other denominations might. Historically, there were no hymns sung, and so no carols either. We do not light candles, nor bring greenery in from outdoors, nor set up nativity scenes in front of the suidheachan mòr.

These, though, are only the outward trappings of Advent. They make a pretty enough show, but are not in themselves Christmas. It may be a festival of tinsel and lights and ‘tissued fripperies’ as John Betjeman put it, but if it is to have any meaning for us, it is not to be found in any of those details.

Bring together, though, the remembering of the Lord’s Supper and the waiting of Advent; then you have something.

Remember Jesus, the baby born into a world already unwilling to accommodate Him. Think of the danger this tiny, helpless child was in. Imagine the hope vested in that infant Jesus, and the wonder of those wise men from the East.

It is lovely to dwell on that Christmas long ago because the people who were walking in darkness suddenly saw a great light. There were angels, hosannas and everything was suffused with hope.

We love that, as human beings – a happy, hopeful story. No one wants to see the dark figure lurking, just in the edge of the frame. Our world has captured the baby Jesus and placed Him in amber, forever a golden hope for mankind.

Remember, though, that He came to die. Remember that first Christmas as something which was always destined to culminate in crucifixion thirty-three years later.

But remember also, that was not the end. In fact, for believers, that was the real beginning in many ways.

So, we should certainly look forward to Jesus. When He comes again, it will not be as a powerless infant. All of that, pretty though it is, is done with. This time, we await our King.

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine