There have been one or two articles in the last week, written in defence of the Lewis Sabbath from a non-church perspective. At their heart, they say basically the same thing – Sunday is not just for religion. While I welcome their input to the debate which has hitherto consisted mainly of secularist blackening of the church through the medium of stereotype and ignorance, I cannot entirely subscribe to the sentiment. As far as I am concerned, Sunday is not about religion at all.
Of course, centuries of tradition have created this situation where Lewis continues to observe a commercial shutdown on Sundays. It does indeed date back to times gone by when the norm throughout Scotland would have been that the population rested and worshipped on the Lord’s Day. While other influences have reshaped and changed other parts of the country, Lewis continued to plough its own furrow as far as Sabbath observance was concerned, partly because churchgoing continued here at much the same level as it always had. Elsewhere it has been dwindling at an alarming rate, though 44% of islanders still maintain the practice of regular worship.
That is roughly the same percentage of regular worshippers as there are Gaelic-speakers in Stornoway, and it would take a very ignorant person indeed to suggest that the language is culturally irrelevant.
It is part of that tendency among those of an unbelieving bent to wish to rubbish and revise anything which interferes with their agenda. They do not wish it to be the case that the Christian church has had an influence on shaping the local heritage here in Lewis, and so they simply deny that it is so.
Worse, they imply that the people have been too stupid to resist the wiles of sinister ministers and elders who, on some non-specific power trip, have had things all their own way these three centuries or so.
But I’m tired of that argument. It isn’t up for debate anyway – the facts speak for themselves. Much of what we can all regard as precious about life in Lewis has been shaped, one way or the other, by the influence of the Presbyterian church.
I’m more concerned by the turn that this whole tired issue is taking, that we ought to preserve the Lord’s Day because ‘it isn’t just about religion’. This is a standpoint that should shock Christians into speaking up for their Lord’s Day.
Or are we honestly going to remain silent, and leave it to our non-Christian friends and neighbours to argue for the preservation of the Lewis Sabbath based only on tradition?
Well, shame on us.
The importance of keeping the Lord’s Day is not, for me, a matter of tradition, ritual, or even religion. I would imagine I also speak for my brothers and sisters in Christ when I say that it is about my relationship with Him. He it was who said that Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. Of course, like many more of His words, these have often been used by people to suit their own ends. However, I think that He meant the day as a gift to His believing people, when they could expect to put aside work for one day, and have the time for spiritual rest and refreshing.
Last Sunday, I slept a little later than I can during the week. I walked the dog a little further. My coffee was finished at home, instead of being decanted into a travel mug. The time I had for devotional reading and prayer was more relaxed. I drove for twenty minutes to get to church, through some of His best work – turbulent seas to my left and the green sward of machair to my right. It was a leisurely preparation for the hour of worship.
At the door of the church, there was a mixture of warm welcome and downright cheek from the two elders on duty. I approve of that Lewis brand of cheek – the gentle mockery that is very much a family thing.
And inside, contentment. Catching up with news. The silent subtle passing of the mint imperials. Psalms in Gaelic. Prayer. Preaching.
The sermon was about a man I can identify very much with. We both started out the same way, Nicodemus and I: secret disciples, the pair of us. He hid his interest in Christ, but eventually came out on His side.
We, both of us, finally came out for Him because of His death. For Nicodemus, it was right there and then, after the Lord had been crucified by the very people that he himself had feared. He had feared them and hidden his allegiance from them; and then he had faced their derision when he identified publicly with Christ.
For me, it was at a time of commemorating His death that I too finally felt the last shred of resistance falling away.
I have faced what all Christians in this part of the world do – being mocked and derided for my beliefs, sometimes from people who should certainly know better. It is not violence, of course – not yet – but it can be very trying just the same.
Sunday is a day of rest for me. I do not go ‘ religiously’ to church, nor do I read my Bible ‘religiously’. Sadly, I am monumentally selfish, and could never keep up such a religion.
Christians need this day. It offers the peace that St Augustine summed up so well – ‘ our heart is unquiet until it rests in you’. It is a different kind of rest because it is in Him.
He gave and gives and will give. Sunday was His precious gift to us. If we have identified with Him once, I would say now is the time to show that forth once again.
Sunday is not precious in Lewis because of religion, that much is true. It is precious because of Christ. And because of Him, we surely have the courage to say so.