Naw, naw, minister

My mother is fond of sharing a story from her days in the tents. No, not the ones they used to pitch by the Blackwater, but the Faith Mission variety. ‘O, mo chreach’, groan the Men in Black, ‘if you must bring up this sort of heresy, would you ever just leave folk thinking your mother is a tinker, instead of mentioning that other lot’. They forget, though, she began life in the Church of Scotland, before marriage and the Wee Frees taught her to respectably narrow her horizons. It’s not their fault or mine that the woman has a past.

The yarn she tells is of a minister somewhere in the north-east, who liked to call upon a certain godly, old woman in his congregation. On one such occasion, he asked her who her most welcome guest was, and she politely informed him that he was probably the frontrunner. This touchingly humble man of the cloth didn’t like her answer, and hadn’t expected it. Gently, he prompted her, ‘wouldn’t you say that Jesus is your favourite visitor, though?’ Without having to consider for even a moment, the cailleach shook her head: ‘naw, naw, minister’, she contradicted him, ‘he’s no a guest – he bides here’.

He bides here. In those three words, that woman summed up a beautiful testimony and one to which I can absolutely put a wholehearted ‘amen’.

And it brings me to another aspect of the person of Christ which I think we don’t do too well at communicating. Sometimes, we may shy away from it because we fear straying into territory that is irreverent. So, we place before the world the Saviour that is King, having defeated death. He is the Son of God, one of the three Persons in the Godhead, and the Prince of Glory.

And he is more than worthy of every honour we can give, more than Lord, more than King. Magnificent, majestic, glorious, powerful . . . there is no hyperbole when we describe our Saviour in these glowing terms.

Yet – and please don’t misinterpret my intention here – I don’t think those descriptions do him justice when we are introducing unbelievers to Christ. Our use of words like these place him where he belongs, far, far above ourselves, but we have to take care that our verbal glorification of him doesn’t place him psychologically beyond the reach of those who are not yet saved.

One of my own watch texts (as I like to think of them) comes from 1 Peter 3:15, and was preached on the night I first professed faith publicly. It is that famous passage where we are told to always be ready to give a defence of the reason for the hope that is in us. Knowing the trepidation with which many of us approach the imperative to witness, though, Peter gives this advice first – ‘in your hearts sanctify Christ the Lord as holy’.

If you acknowledge him as Lord in your heart, it is not always necessary for your lips to speak of him in that exalted way: he IS exalted and no speech of ours can defile him, or elevate him higher. Until you know Jesus, he is the Lord of Glory, enthroned in heaven and as far from you as the very stars and moon he made. Isn’t this what  caused his own disciples to almost lose hope, after they saw him crucified? What kind of King, what kind of hope is hoisted by cruel hands onto a cross to die in ignominy and shame?

It was, however, in his humble status as a man of no reputation that he set his people free. He did not come to any of them as a King, gorgeously arrayed in cloth of gold – but as a homeless itinerant who washed the feet of his followers and spent himself to heal the sick and minister to the poor in spirit.

Jesus knew only too well what an evil poverty was. He would hardly have come to the hungry, the widows and the orphans, the sick and the lame, therefore, in the form of a great ruler. He came instead as a man into whose compassionate eyes the lowliest of us could look without flinching. We are surrounded by those in need of all kinds. Surely the Jesus they need to meet is the one whose hands broke bread, bathed dusty feet, opened the eyes of the blind and healed the sick.

That he sits victorious in heaven, his work accomplished, is simply a matter of fact. God is God, whether we acknowledge it with words, in our hearts or not at all.

Christ, though, the Christ our broken world needs, when you reach out to him, will kneel in the dirt with you. He will dry the tears that spring from fractured hearts. This Jesus will hold your hand in the darkness, and he will catch you up into the safety of his arms when you stumble.

If you reach out to him, know that you are reaching out to one in whom humanity is perfected. And once you do, he will bide here with you forever – wherever ‘here’ might be.

Sìth is ‘peace’ in Gaelic

Hope Springs Eternity

As I drove the forty miles or so to attend the funeral of my friend’s father in Ness, I thought about his wife – a lovely, warm and cheerful lady, and a sister in Christ. After all their years, and four children, together, she is now a widow. But how wonderful too, I thought, that she does not grieve as those who have no hope.

What does that actually mean, though? They are words often repeated at wakes and funerals, where the doubting, the unbelieving and the seekers gather alongside the saved. Even some who belong to Christ may never have stopped to consider the difference between Christian hope and the everyday, common or garden kind.

When my late husband was diagnosed with cancer, he underwent a battery of tests and scans. The consultant told us that all these were clear and therefore, he said, ‘there IS hope’. It didn’t impress Donnie who, a Lewisman through and through, interpreted it as a forlorn attempt to make the grim certainty of death a little less imminent. Hope, he argued, is all we have to cling onto when reality is a bit hard to take. And ‘hope’ seemed like a weak word in that moment, implying an outside chance at best.

We are often asked to prepare for the worst whilst hoping for the best and – again – this has trained us that hope is little more than a comfort blanket, and a thin one at that.

It was, as I’ve written before, at my own father’s funeral that I really began to understand the nature of Christian hope, and its difference from the common way. As a friend clasped my mother’s hand and told her, ‘he’s in the happy land’, I saw something in both these women that was much stronger than words: it was certainty. They had placed faith in so trustworthy a Saviour that there could be no doubting his promises. This was not a frail hope that the Gospel might just possibly be true, but a living reality, played out in front of me and anyone else whose eyes were open that day.

How strange it must seem to those as yet living in unbelief that death is often the place where Christians display the greatest hope. To those with no faith, the valley of the shadow is a desolate spot, a featureless wasteland where they must part forever with someone they have loved very much in life. That last clasp of hands, the dying breath . . . they are final. It is here in the valley that worldly hope perishes.

For the disciples, there was a time like this too, when the man they thought was the Saviour died, and their hope with him.

But even though they didn’t realise it, they were certainly not grieving as those who have no hope: they were grieving for a Saviour who accomplished so much more than they could have imagined. Jesus did not escape the cross because he did not want to merely cheat death; he embraced his punishment because he had promised to conquer death.

And conquer it he did.

We are asked to always be ready to give a defence of the reason for the hope that is in us. Well, I say you can do worse than look to the widows. 

My friend’s mother, my own mother and myself are all privileged to know the same thing, and to share in the same hope.

Death is indeed the final parting – because when we are reunited with those who have gone before us, it will be eternally and it will be in a better country – yes, even than Ness! This is not the hope offered by a kindly surgeon, but the security we can all enjoy in the Great Physician.

Keeping the Snail’s March

For me, Kate Forbes epitomises the challenge and the triumph of what it means to be a Christian with a public profile. The church rejoiced openly as she rose through the ranks of her party, trusted with increasingly heavy responsibilities. In our more reasonable moments we remembered to give thanks for her witness.

Sadly, our reasonable moments are all too rare and the reality is that Kate is much more likely to be attacked on questions of faith by fellow Christians than she ever is by the atheist community. For the most part, unbelievers think her faith is irrelevant and would sooner take issue with her nationalism or her fiscal policy. Or the fact that she’s a Teuch. But the brethren, oh, we don’t hold back in our carping. Although the complaints against her take many forms, they can be grouped together under the broad accusation – a perennial favourite of mine – ‘no Christian should support the SNP’. 

Leaving aside the fact that no Christian should be so flipping judgemental, let’s consider what might be behind this opinion. Because the Nationalists are in power and have been for so long, their policies are subject to prolonged public and media scrutiny. So, the opposition parties lurk in the shadows and let the ruling party take all the heat. Amongst all the finger pointing, few remember that those who stayed silent are complicit in wrongdoing as much as those who designed and built it.

A person would have to be either naïve or partisan to believe that the SNP is alone in its stance on the big ‘moral issues’ (which, bizarrely, never seem to include child poverty or homelessness). Let’s be honest, all mainstream parties have a broadly similar policy on gender, on marriage, on abortion, and on euthanasia. 

Why is that, though? Simply because they are the elected representatives of an unregenerate world. They do their secular best to create an environment of justice and social equality, quite divorced from the instruction manual. A Christian like Kate Forbes is all too well aware how doomed to failure such an endeavour is. No politician can save souls, not even if they imposed Biblical law on the nation entire. Obedience to God’s law cannot be the starting point for redemption because it grows from it – it is like expecting the flower without first supplying a seed. 

Besides, party politics is a numbers game. It is all about being in the majority – that’s how you get your views heard at branch level, and nationally. That’s how your party gets elected into power. Strategy, predicated on what the people want will bring you to the place where decisions are made. Remember, though, these are unregenerate people, for the most part, voting in a well-meaning way to get a better society for themselves, their children, and maybe even for those they see as downtrodden and exploited. They do not see Jesus as the way, far less the truth and the life; he, and his irksome followers actually stand between Scotland and progress.

And we prove them wrong . . . how? By turning on our own. We tell Christians in public life that they are falling short. Instead of giving genuine thanks to God that there are a few righteous among us prepared to be bruised and bloodied in the fray, we attack them for being part of a system that actually we all helped to create from the moment we fell. Kate Forbes can’t be a real Christian because she holds membership of a party that condones things that are unbiblical. 

This is an object lesson in shortening the arm of God. It presupposes any number of things – including that a politician cannot be called in the same way that ministers of religion are – and it seems to deny the possibility that human government is not the ultimate authority. 

People who never do anything make the mistake of thinking that they will never, therefore, do anything wrong. But, belonging – as we do – to a body whose mission statement begins with the imperative, ‘go’, stasis and torpor might actually be a greater affront than the occasional misstep. 

I have often avoided asking God his will for me, entirely because I fear his answer. He has had his way of inconveniencing me in the past, and I tremble to let him have that opportunity again. However, that is probably true in the experience of every believer – which is exactly why we should be more mindful of those who have answered his call. By ‘answered’ I don’t mean those who assume the mere appearance of vocation, but people who get their nose bloodied and their knees worn in the journey of obedience.

You pray for your minister and elders, I am sure. Such people report feeling a heightened awareness of God’s protection because of the prayer that surrounds them.

But there are other Christians who have been called and, because they don’t serve the institution we like to think of as ‘The Church’, we not only neglect to pray for them, but actually turn on them when – in our flawed opinion – they ‘fall short’. Spurgeon was well aware that some Christians were jealous of those who appeared to have done more for the cause than themselves; instead of redoubling their own efforts, they sought to drag the champions of faith back. Let’s not hold Kate accountable for the sinful ignorance of others, but let us uphold her in prayer for all the battles she has to fight.

Ultimately, they are our battles too.