If not you, then who?

The patron saint of Dubrovnik, where I visited recently, is a man called St Blaise, frequently depicted as carrying the city in his hand. While you are there, even just visiting, it is said that he holds you in his palm also.

Now, a few days of visiting cathedrals and monasteries isn’t quite enough to make me subscribe to the notion of sainthood. I know enough of humanity to doubt that any such perfection will ever be seen this side of heaven. But, as I consider my own home island, something beguiles me about the thought of it being held safely in a protective hand. Lewis needs that more than ever before, as the powers and principalities seek to destroy all in it that is right and good.

If I don’t accept the notion of patron saints, though, who should be the protector of Lewis? Whose role is it to ensure that all we hold dear is kept safe?

Well, call me a heretic, but I’m going to invoke another Roman Catholic saint here, St Teresa of Avila. Addressing the Christian body in its entirety, she said:

‘Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world’.

If we, the Christian community of Lewis, are indeed his hands, his feet, his eyes, then to us, surely, falls the protection of our island.

That, my friends, means a bit more than we’ve been doing. Lewis is not the last stronghold of the gospel. As I have said before, the stronghold is not a place, but a person, and we have no more claim on him than anywhere else. But he has a claim on us. If we have called out to him, and said, ‘Lord, Lord’, we have to be prepared for the inconvenient possibility that he might have a job for us.

Not a comfy, predictable nine-to-five, and not a highly paid, glamorous position either. This is the God, remember, who sent the Apostles with almost nothing to their names, out to build his church. Might he not be asking us to put ourselves out a little? Is it at all possible that he’s speaking to us, that when we ask in prayer what he would have us do, he has answered many times, but we’re deaf to what we would rather not hear?

I know the answer, because I’ve been there more than once. God doesn’t check with us whether now is a good time. He doesn’t even ask if it’s what we want to do. No, if we listen, here’s what he’s saying:

This is what I have for you. It may not have been in your plan, but it’s always been in mine. Don’t worry about what you will say, or how you will do this – I send my people nowhere alone, or unequipped.

I’m sorry, in one sense, to be repeating myself – but this is important, and must therefore be said over and over.

We all know that society has changed and now, moral decline is catalysed by government. Where once we had leadership, we now mainly have populist politicians, seeking to please the people, like a painted troupe of dancing girls. They say what they think we want to hear. And we obediently become the creatures they have pictured in their minds – approving everything that once we knew to be wrong, and revolted by any hint of the truth.

We know it. But are we, a believing people, going to just accept the rapid decline as a done deed? If we shrug now and throw up our hands, will it go well for us later?

Every one of us already knows the answer. We pray for the state of our world, of our country, of our island.

There is a mission field right here. When I see the anger in people and the hostility that manifests in a community like ours over little things of no lasting consequence, I realise the need.

It’s a need for Christ. People who think they are secularists lash out at the church and its traditional influence. They hiss and spew venom at those who profess the Saviour. In a desperate attempt to not face facts, they mock and deride what they secretly fear, and what their soul actually craves:

Rest in him.

The duty to show them this rests with those fortunate enough to have realised their own need. It rests with people like me, and with most of you reading this.

We cannot simply pray for them, though, with our hands over our ears, and our feet rooted to the spot. Believing people have to take their faith public – to go into these positions where difficult decisions are made.

Surely, in a country where governments sanction the murder of the unborn child, the reinterpretation of God’s fixed law, and the excising of the Bible from public life, there is an expectation that we will try to be where such decisions are made.

Moses did not want to go to such places. He thought someone else should do it, but God told him to open his mouth, and the words would be supplied.

If we don’t believe that, what do we believe? And if we truly do, what are we going to do about it?

Comforting His People

, All summer, the blacker of my two cats – let’s call her ‘Mo’, for that is her name – has been largely absent from the house, except for the occasional visit to fill up on Whiskas and slap the dog. If I petted her, or even addressed a casual remark in her general direction, I was invariably met with a hard stare, or a high-pitched mew of disdain.

The moment, however, the weather turned a little colder, a little wetter and a lot windier, Mo became my best friend again. She can now mostly be found curled up in my wardrobe (don’t ask), or stretched on the radiator in the front hall. Cuddles are welcomed, and she even seeks out my company from time to time. However objectionable my personality and conversation, Mo clearly realises when she’s onto a good thing – I am a warm and cuddly guarantee of food and shelter. In short, I am her source of comfort.

For human beings, there are two levels of comfort. There is the ordinary, everyday kind – or, at least, it’s seen as such by we privileged westerners – which consists of all the things we take for granted: warm, clean clothing, a secure home, income, a steady food supply, good health and good healthcare, relative peace and safety.

I don’t know why, particularly, but this morning I was moved to thank God in prayer for the howling wind and driving rain sounds to which I awoke, to which I often awake. They remind me of my blessedness in living where I do, in a place I love, and in a home which is a stronghold against the elements.

The other level of comfort, though, is a deeper one – it caters to our emotional and spiritual needs. Like Mo, our craving for it can be particularly acute during the onset of a soul-shaking storm.

We heard in church recently how the idea of comfort in the Bible carries with it the sense of getting alongside the person who needs it. It is not unusual, when we anticipate going to the home of a bereaved family, to worry that we will not know what to say, as though the perfect choice of words from us could make any difference at all. The words don’t matter; the being there does. And, comfort comes from knowing that there is solidarity in grief, which is surely the most universal of all human experiences.

This week, two families I have come to know and love in the Lord have parted with loved ones. In their different ways, these deaths have touched the church and wider community in Scotland. It isn’t simply that Anna and Murdo Alex were so young, though that cannot fail to give the hardest of hearts a thought of eternity. I think it is the strength of their faith that compels everyone standing near to confront the fact that this comfort which we get from God, it’s real. There is no quick-fix, this’ll make you feel better for now-ness about it – this is the solid, all-encompassing, unchanging, faithfulness of God writ large across the lives, and deaths, of those who love him and, more crucially, whom he loves.

He has created his church as a body, to experience his providence – easy or challenging – collectively. I tend to think that’s what Ecclesiastes is getting at when it says, ‘in the day of prosperity, rejoice, but in the day of adversity, consider’. We learn something in our own providences, yes, but it is something we were made to share with the rest of God’s people too. I feel able to speak to people who have lost loved ones, from a place of greater understanding because it has been part of my own experience too.

The thing is, though, I hope that what I’m sharing is not so much my experience of death as my receipt of God’s comfort. For me, the miraculous thing is not that I got through the worst thing that has ever happened in my life, but that I was comforted by the presence of my Saviour, and by my knowledge of his sufficiency in that and all things.

That received sense of peace would be meaningless were it not for the complete trustworthiness of the source. A made-up God that I was choosing to believe in would be a thin comfort blanket indeed against the chills of grief. Yet, poor unbelievers persist in the delusion that Christians ‘choose’ to accept the existence of God as a crutch to get them through.

God exists; that is not up for debate. It is not the mere existence of God which keeps his people in their darkest hours, however – it is his provision, through Christ, of a love that will not let them go. Our relationship with him is often at its most beautiful when we need him most. Hardship and trials in this world, even those less painful than bereavement, drive us into his arms.

It does not remove, or even lessen our difficulties in this world, but it does help put them in their proper perspective. We are the body of his church, and what hurts one, should pain all. Equally, the comfort which we individually receive at his hand is for sharing, that we might bear one another’s burdens.

“ ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’, says your God” – not empty words, not a ‘there, there’ pat on the hand, but a prelude to his own coming among us in the person of his Son.

That’s comfort of the most complete, all-encompassing kind. And there is no comfort apart from him. I know, because it is mine, and it is enough.It will  always be enough.

 

Lies, lightning rods and the God of all comfort

I was quite surprised to find myself at the midweek meeting last Wednesday. Having come back into the island that afternoon, after a long weekend in Croatia, I thought I’d be too tired. But there is a tiredness which only spiritual nourishment can refresh, and my need of that outweighed the desire for rest.

My time away had been well spent. I had left the island – unusually for me – desiring to shake the dust of the place off my feet. No one wants to hear how the fortnight leading up to my departure was a storm of hatred, lies and legal action, so I won’t trouble you with the details. Nonetheless, I was under almost intolerable pressure. This time, the tension arose as a result of the bullying I am suffering on one hand, and the well-meaning advice of friends on the other. They tell me I will have no peace until I ‘chuck it all in’.

If it’s affecting your mental health, they have said, is it really worth going on with?

The ‘it’ to which they refer is my seat on the Stornoway Trust. Until I relinquish that, one friend told me, I will forever be a target for hatred and vitriol.

It appears to be partly true. Many, many people on social media have blithely shared a lie about me (hence the legal action). Some that I know, including brothers and sisters in Christ, ‘liked’ the lie. That, I have to admit, stings far more than the hatred of strangers. While my reputation with God is what matters, what on earth does it say about the church’s witness to the world when we approve slander of one another? I find I have no answer to that one and must leave it be.

 However, it has helped me to reach a conclusion about one aspect of my life. I opened my mouth with this blog to begin with because I felt the church of Christ had no voice in our community. Things were happening to which no Christian should turn a blind eye; I used this platform to speak the truth.

I have since discovered that no one wants to hear the truth. Even many who identify with the cause of Christ are silent as his name is trampled underfoot. Some say to me, ‘I amn’t articulate enough’, or ‘I amn’t brave enough’. No? Me neither.

The wobble I have suffered this past week is the same one that caused Peter to sink. I have looked at myself and realised my own inadequacy. In that, I include as well the inadequacy of the church of which I am part. We are weak; we let each other down all the time. As imitators of Christ go, we are not merely pale, we are translucent.

I feel, in fact, as Peter must have. Finding myself halfway across deep water, with no visible means of support, I started to go under. Overwhelmed by waves of hatred from without and indifference from within, I couldn’t keep myself upright. And so I retreated to a place of safety. For the first time in my life, that place was not Lewis – it was anywhere else but.

The biggest doubt with which I have had to wrestle over the last while is the suspicion that I am a lightning rod for trouble. Was I bringing more hassle to the Trust and indeed to the Church by the mere fact of being associated with them? Would I, in fact, be doing both a favour if I listened to the wisdom of loved ones and resigned from one, and shut up about the other?

And then, that’s where the other pressure came in: the voice that goaded me with, ‘and let the bullies win?’ While I was away, I read a tweet by a Scottish female councillor who has been forced to reduce her public duties because of harassment. I could quite see why she did this to protect her family – but something in me rebels against doing the same.

Is that because I’m thrawn, or because I’m where I’m meant to be, doing what I’m meant to be doing?

Truthfully, I don’t know. I was very certain once that God was leading me to take a stand for his cause, both as a writer and as a trustee. That certainty is out of reach at present.

But, on Wednesday night, I remembered how it all began. We listened to Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 1, ‘so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God’.

As Christians, our trials are not ours alone. I have tried to share mine in order that others might see the sufficiency of God in all things. He carried me through the loss of my husband; he will carry me through the hatred of the world and the indifference of my brethren. If I am in the wrong, he will show me, correct me, and then he will comfort me.

In the meantime, I will exercise two virtues with which I am barely acquainted: patience, and silence.