No Sting in this Tale

Everyone is looking back. It is not just the turn of the year, but the close of a decade also. Photos abound, comparing faces from ten years ago with their present-day counterparts; and there are the inevitable lists – what we wanted to achieve over against what actually transpired.

If I do the same, the change in my life looks seismic. At the start of this decade, both my father and husband were still living. I was quietly going about my business: work and home and family were the boundaries of my small world. My face was considerably less wrinkled, my eyes less baggy, and that generally shopworn look had not yet settled on me. It was still possible to stay up all night at election counts and do a full day’s work afterwards. In short, I hadn’t started to think I might be mortal.

That all changed when we experienced a break in our tight family circle. With the death of my father came the real, heart realisation that this world is not forever. I felt that some door to eternity had been flung open and I lived in a state bordering on terror that death was not yet done with us.

It wasn’t. Yet, when it came again to claim Donnie, I was so blessed to be able to see it as what it really is: the last enemy.

I had heard the term, of course, many times – which death-fixated Calvinist has not? But I hadn’t properly understood that such a gloomy phrase could convey much spiritual comfort.

See, as an unassured Christian, I took it to mean that we all need to accept the fact that there is always that last hurdle at the end of our lives. No matter, I thought, how easy or difficult things are in this world, no matter whether you are atheist or believer, there is this dragon guarding the exit. It was a lurking, crouching, dark form, waiting to blight my life by removing loved ones and, eventually, to claim me too.

‘Well’, you’re thinking by now, ‘am I glad I started to read this – she’s fairly cheered me up. A blog by PTL is like the last enemy at the threshold of the year!’

I refer you to Naomi’s advice for her daughter in-law, Ruth; advice I often have to give myself: ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out’.

I haven’t finished yet.

Death being the last enemy is not a threat to me anymore; it’s a promise. You may say that this is all very well because, yes, it is the ‘last’. Nonetheless, it is also still the ‘enemy’ and that is something, surely, to fear.

It used to be. That’s why my father’s death left me feeling persistently exposed and vulnerable. Eternity was speaking to me, laying before me two options. There was the broad road, which looks so easy and attractive. Parallel to it was the narrow path, winding, steep and – in places – dark. Standing at the entrance to these it seems simple to pick which journey to take.

If I had chosen to be seduced onto the broad way, I would be facing the last enemy alone. Instead, by God’s infinite mercy and grace, I was drawn down the narrow way. It isn’t straightforward and I have stumbled so often. There are even many days when I look wistfully at that parallel track, and even stand on the verge that separates the two, wondering where I belong.

The last enemy waits for me, some way ahead – near or far, I can’t be sure.

But, because I walk, limp, and crawl in the company of Christ, the knowledge that death is the last enemy is a sweet one. It doesn’t loom ominously because my wonderful Saviour vanquished it for me long ago:

‘I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless; Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.

Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?

I triumph still if thou abide with me.’

So, yes, on the surface, and even somewhat deeper, this has been a hard decade. Over the last year, indeed, and even the past fortnight, there have been many attempts by the devil to make me fear, so that I will regret the way I have taken. It is difficult to hold your nerve against such onslaught- which is why I don’t; I give it to someone else to hold for me.

The bags under my eyes, the tired face . . .  don’t be fooled; inwardly, I – like every man or woman who calls upon the name of Jesus – am being renewed.

At the start of a new year and a new decade, then, I pray for that perspective on the last enemy to be the lot of those I love. More challenging still, I pray that it will also be the lot of those of you who hate me for Christ’s sake.

Journey into the Known

‘For unto us is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’. These are well-known words – so much so, in fact, that I didn’t even have to check my quotation for accuracy, despite being a Christmas-eschewing Wee Free.

It was actually while driving to work this morning that the power of these words struck me afresh. I was, in a most un-Free Church way, listening to Chris Tomlin’s rendition of ‘Silent Night’. Halfway through the track, Luke 2: 11 is read by an Irish lady and maybe it was her intonation, or where she placed the emphasis, but it spoke so powerfully to me on this otherwise humdrum Wednesday morning.

Everything in that one sentence is glorious. It is, first and foremost, the news of a birth. Many carols deal with this astounding news and we are led to think that the child, humbly born in Bethlehem is primarily a new beginning. He is, of course, all of that. But for something to begin in this world, another has to end – and that is at least half the triumph of this verse and the entire Christmas message: the birth of Christ signifying the beginning of the death of sin.  

We have all, through the great medium of television or internet, witnessed world-changing events: the death of empires; the capture of dictators; the outbreak of war and of peace. Yet, somehow, these things are remote from most. It is possible to see the coronation of a monarch you will likely never meet. All that pomp, the ermine and the jewels, they are not for the likes of us. Look, by all means, but don’t touch; pay for it, but gain nothing in the process.

Whereas, the birth of this King, within the bounds of a royal city, though in the lowliest accommodation there, brings to us an unparalleled message of hope and inclusion. Here, it says, is ultimate Royalty, prepared to humble itself for our sakes. This is true kingship that does not rely upon the outward trappings for its sovereignty.

I had a lot on my mind this morning as I made the journey to the college. It always seems to be in the car that concerns rise up to greet me – marking, Christmas shopping, what’s in the diary, have I forgotten a deadline, where am I meant to be this evening, did I feed the cat before I left, what’s that niggling feeling that I’ve forgotten something important. And always, as we make the descent into this particular holiday, I remember Donnie and how much he loved coming home for Christmas. Memories of these times are woven into everything else and they can sweeten or salt my vision, depending on the moment.

Yet, even that thick fog of concern was not impenetrable today. Two words shone through it like a beacon of hope: ‘unto us’.

Separated by some two thousand years, the birth of Christ the Lord in the city of David is far less remote from me than the coronation of Queen Elizabeth sixty-six years ago. The reason, of course, is that, while she may well have been born to be Queen, he was born already King, no need for accession or for a crown and sceptre. Furthermore, she was born to rule the Commonwealth and to maintain the distance that permits human government to be carried out with a modicum of fairness.

The government that is on his shoulders, however, is of a very different kind.

It is meaningful to everyone who has a relationship with Christ, because it is personal to each one of us. This Saviour was not just born: he was born unto us. From the very beginning, then, it was clear that this event in the city of David was intended to be foundational. Here was something that changed everything, not simply for the world entire, but for every individual  in it who accepts the gift of life. Unto us, that Saviour was born; unto us that only begotten Son was given.

So, today, driving south on an Atlantic island, to work, with a head stuffed with myriad concerns, that birth spoke loudly once more. Unto me, in that faraway city of Bethlehem, two thousand years ago, was born a Saviour. He isn’t – as some would have it – a character from an Eastern folk tale. Indeed, he travels regularly with me on this trip to the college; I talk to him in the privacy of my car – something I almost never do with Ealasaid the First of Scotland.

Read those precious words, especially if you don’t know him – ‘unto us’. He was and is and will be your Saviour if you’d only see past the familiar story to the truth it reveals. There never was such a man; take him and the gift he offers to yourself and you will never again travel alone with your cares.

 

 

We Are Covered With Shame

In a country that seems to be in a permanent state of electoral campaigning, it is comforting to remember that there is a Saviour coming whose government shall be eternal. As a Christian, I feel dejected by the absence of God-honouring leadership, of moral representation in our land – and then I remember something else very important: I did this. My faithlessness, and prayerlessness, my insistence in going forward on my own wisdom and strength . . . these things have broken the society of which I am part.

The society of which I am part, incidentally, is one where some children sleep in their outdoor clothes at night, because their families are too poor to afford heating. Men and women bed down on cold, hard pavements because a rich nation like Scotland cannot provide them with a roof over their heads. And then I, and people like me, assuage our guilt by donating money: tiny, tiny drops in an ocean of need.

Yes, I pray for them, lifting them up to God – when I remember to. Do I weep over them, though? Beg him to intervene? The truthful answer is: not often enough.

As political manifestos go, the Bible is as radical as it gets. So radical that it’s uncomfortable. Do people like me want to be told that our wealth is an obstacle to our entrance into the kingdom of God? Are we prepared to love our neighbour as ourselves? That’s what Christ expects of us, not because he is unreasonable, but because he went so much further himself.

We’re supposed to be impressed when we see the Prime Minister in a high-vis jacket on a building site, or an MP prepared to ‘sleep out’ on a December night to demonstrate solidarity with the homeless. They are perceived as forsaking their dignity in ‘coming down’ to our level.

My Party Leader relinquished his godness to be born into the humblest of circumstances. He was ridiculed, persecuted, and hunted for speaking the truth. This world rejected him and nailed him on a cross to die. We crowned him with thorns and gave him sour wine to drink. Then he was goaded to prove that he was indeed the Christ by coming down from the cross and saving himself.

He stayed exactly where he was and, when the moment was right, surrendered his spirit into the hands of God.

Why? Was it for votes? For power?

There was no advantage in any of this for him, if we assess his actions in political terms. Christ had nothing to gain, for how could he ever be greater than he was?

So, that leaves only one logical explanation. It was all motivated by love for us.

Right at this moment in time, are you not beguiled at the thought of a government founded on love, and led by love? I know I am. That’s why I follow him, why all my hopes are in him, and why I would dearly love to see things run his way, to his glory.

Then, however, I don’t act as though this is what I want. Instead I get diverted by my own ambitions. The inner control freak tries to bend everything to her will, forgetting that submission is the first rule of this particular party membership. If I’m not being led by Christ, then I’m being led by my own sin, and by the leader of the opposition in his bid for power. Satan, the master of spin, can get me to do just what he wants the moment I strike out for myself.

And what I want is mostly about me. It comes down to my desires and priorities. The time I give in my thoughts, and in my prayers, to those whom Christ blessed – the poor, the needy, the sick, the fatherless – is shamefully minimal. Do I please him in this? Of course not.

If I spent more time asking myself the right questions, I would probably carry less guilt about the state of our nation. There are really only two enquiries we need make in any given situation: how can I glorify God in this, and how can I experience more of his love? Individual Christians living their lives this way will build up into a church which functions similarly, and a church which shows the world a better route can only lead to improvements in the leadership we elect.

It is because I have not repented enough or prayed enough that the church of Christ’s witness in this world is weakened. I should be demonstrating that I expect more from politicians than to follow their own judgement, by not always following my own. Because I am dumb on these points, the church also is silent.

It follows, therefore, that when the church is silent, the nation does not know any better.

And because the nation does not know any better, it acts on what it is pleased to call its ‘wisdom’. That is what gives us situations like the one in which we currently find ourselves. I don’t mean Brexit particularly, or the prospect of further constitutional flux – I am talking about the fact that the poorest and most vulnerable in our society consistently get forgotten about when we choose our leadership.

Even that, though, is just a symptom. We have taken God out of our reckoning. Whether we accept it or not, he is sovereign over all, and he is looking on at what we do with the free will to choose leaders. And he is wondering why, in all this mess, we still think we can do it with no reference to him.

The Reliable Robin

‘See that cute wee bird’, one of the gentlemen of the Trust said, gesturing in my direction. I preened a little, sitting straighter in the chair. ‘It’s the most vicious, territorial, aggressive thing you’ll ever come across’. A bit harsh, I thought, considering I’m always on my best behaviour at meetings. When I objected to the accusation, though, he claimed to be talking about the robin redbreast pattern on my dress.

It seems (according to the bloke in question who evidently relished labouring his deliberately ambiguous point) that the very attractive little birds for whom we all feel such affection are feathery sociopaths, possessive and territorial in the extreme. At this time of year, their image is everywhere: on mugs, Christmas cards, cushions . . . and even clothing. Hanging on a hook in my porch is a little wooden heart, which bears the legend, ‘robins appear when lost loved ones are near’. This is part of the comforting folklore that lets people believe that stray feathers, friendly robins and even butterflies are a message to them from someone who has died.

Our association between the robin and Christmas may simply be because he is a colourful fellow who appears to good effect against a wintry landscape. However, I prefer to believe that it’s because of the folklore which connects the little bird to Christ.

In one story, Mary has kindled a fire in the stable in Bethlehem, to keep the baby warm. She is distracted by a visitor, and does not notice that she has placed the manger too close to the blaze. A little brown bird comes and fluffs out his wings, shielding the baby’s face from the heat of the flames, scorching his own breast in the process.

In light of this fable, then, the robin is a very apt symbol of Christmas. More importantly, though, he is a good metaphor for Christ’s own love – the love that goes out to others and sets self at naught. The bird who shielded the baby suffered for it, but what a worthy recipient for his act of selflessness! Which Christian would not want to have done as much?

It’s difficult to make the time to reflect upon Christ at this time of year. We have so thoroughly removed him from the festival that bears his name, and filled that void with things that have nothing to do with him – eating and drinking, partying and spending – and that are transient pleasures at best. But then, just as the robin is a suitable metaphor for Christ, the modern ‘celebration’ of Christmas is a vivid reflection of what a life lived purely for oneself looks like.

I am particularly blessed to belong in a congregation that marks the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday in December – the one usually recognised in other traditions as Advent Sunday. There is always something in the communion that I can take away and meditate upon, and that has helped me to think more about the sort of Saviour upon whom I depend. Lately, I have not been able to forget the minister’s words regarding Christ’s thanksgiving on the night he was betrayed; even in that proximity to death, he was looking upwards, his eye upon pleasing the Father.

Since communion Sunday, I have been thinking about what followed on from that prayer. Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, alone and fully aware of what lay ahead. Our humanity gives in to fear because we allow it. Jesus subdued his by being obedient and keeping his eye on God. Indeed, we witness him throwing himself completely  upon God’s mercy, and subjecting himself to God’s will in the fervent prayer that he utters.

In his place, not only would I have begged the cup to pass from me, but I would have dashed it away myself.

And there’s the difference between the likes of me, and the unparalleled Christ. He suffered to the limit of that tension every Christian knows in some respect: to want to obey God, but to be terrified of what obedience to him may mean for us personally. The inconvenient truth is that he is likely to send us places we don’t wish to go, or to suffer partings for which we are unprepared. Almost every time I have sought his will in making a decision, it has cost me something to obey. On the other hand, however, it has earned me much greater peace than doing exactly what I want ever could.

Jesus knew that being obedient would result in his death – and he also knew that it was necessary that he drink the bitter cup to the very last drop: not, crucially, to save himself, but to save us. In reflecting on this, it’s hard not to feel how far short I fall of the ultimate pattern of obedience, and of making my will subject to that of God.

In another tale, the robin was said to have landed on the head of our crucified Saviour, and plucked out of his brow a thorn from the crown that had been placed there in cruel mockery of his kingship. The little bird’s breast was stained red by the blood of the last, perfect sacrifice.

I am like that particular robin. All I had to do was alight upon Jesus and be sprinkled with his blood. The amount he has asked me to suffer, in proportion to his own agonies, is less than that one thorn – and even when I am injured, it is his blood the enemy draws, not mine.

What better time than Christmas to fix our hearts upon these truths? And how apt to remember, every time we see the robin, how Christ went against his human will so that we could accept his gift of life.

 

Religion, politics & doing your bit

If you don’t want to fall out with people in the pub or on the internet, you should steer clear of religion and politics. So, that’s cleared up why I’m so unpopular, then. According to one of my Stornoway Trust colleagues, I actually enjoy getting in the middle of arguments. Although I can see why some people might think that, it isn’t strictly true. Like most non-sociopaths, I certainly do not relish confrontation, but neither am I content to let lies spread unchecked, if they relate to a cause of any importance.

These days, as far as I am concerned, there is only one cause that fits into the aforementioned category, and that is the cause of Christ.

This does not mean, however, that I’m going to restrict myself to reading, speaking and thinking only of theological and spiritual matters. My understanding of what is required of me as a Christian is a little broader than that. In fact – and yes, I know I’ve said it before – I think that believing people have a duty to bring their faith into the orbit of their fellow human beings, whether that is at work, in the community, in public life, or on the internet. Indeed, we cannot leave it behind anyway, even if we wanted to.

At this precise moment in time, I don’t think we can ignore politics either, however much we might wish to. I know that Christians are having a particular difficulty in deciding how to cast their votes, because the reality is that none of the mainstream parties are saying what we would like to hear. If you consider the issues that matter more to believers than to the general public, there is no party out of the big four with policies a believing person can approve. I hear most about the party of which I am a member – the SNP – and their tendency towards support for unbiblical policy.

That is true. But it is also true for the other main parties as well. Neither Labour, the Conservatives nor the Lib-Dems could satisfy scripture in terms of their view on abortion, same-sex marriage, gender reassignment, or LGBT education in schools either.

So, what do we do? Tear up our polling cards and sit at home on December 12th? Or flounce off in high dudgeon and create our own party? That would certainly be in keeping with the Presbyterian way over the last two centuries. We have turned ‘schism’ into a verb, after all.

I have made no secret of the fact that I have wrestled with this issue myself. As a lifelong nationalist and member of the SNP, I have been disheartened by the direction of travel my party has taken of late. Nonetheless, I still believe in self-determination for Scotland and that – regardless of what some of my more overbearing brethren tell me – is not a point of view inconsistent with my adherence to the faith.

The reason, therefore, that I have remained a member of the SNP is that I am still a nationalist. I choose to vote positively, for what I do approve, rather than negatively, against what I do not. Withholding my vote from the SNP because of their stance on abortion, for example, would be somewhat hypocritical if I then put my ‘x’ next to any of the other big hitters – because their record is no better.

More importantly, I do not believe that we can legislate for morality. Nor, really, as Christians, should we want to. Our nation (however you choose to interpret the word) already suffers from the delusion that if people are ‘basically decent, law-abiding citizens’ then they have no need of Christ or his church. What do we achieve by imposing outward morality, then, on a country in state of spiritual decay? I don’t want Scotland to be a whited sepulchre; I want it to obey God’s law because it knows and loves the author.

Early on in the pre-election speculation, I am aware that a wee rumour circulated about me standing on a ‘Christian’ ticket. Despite atheist propaganda to the contrary, I didn’t even stand on such a platform for my election to the Stornoway Trust. I happen to think that it is not a ticket upon which a politician at any level should stand. Be a Christian, and let that speak for itself; let it inform your decisions and guide your behaviour, but never expect that anyone will cast their ballot your way simply because you follow Christ.

Far better for Christians to be part of the electable mainstream parties, and to be a force for change within, than impotent protestor without. It is not an easy matter, to be the lone voice for Christ in any situation – and that is why I fundamentally believe that Christians everywhere have to be tuned into the possibility that God may be asking them to serve him in a different way. We are not all bound to be ministers, or elders; they also serve who only stand for council . . . or parliament, or the grazing committee, or the community trust. Imagine these organisations transformed by the presence of genuinely God-fearing people, elected because they are able and conscientious, and for their personal integrity.

Now, stop imagining it. This is one of these situations, I’m afraid, where you have to quit looking around, quit expecting ‘someone to do something’.

Have you ever thought that someone might be you?