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?

 

Wee Free Feminism & Other Legends

Helping out a colleague this week, I agreed to speak to his sociology class about feminism, coloured by my experiences in those twin male bastions: the Free Church and the Stornoway Trust.

Having already denied being a feminist to no less a person than our church Missions Director, I feel this is ground I had better approach carefully.

It’s not a label I’m particularly interested in claiming because I know, for one thing, that radical feminists like Germaine Greer would laugh their socks off at the notion of people like me aligning themselves with the cause. I belong to a church where the leadership is all-male. The image is very much of men leading and women meekly following in their wake, heads bowed and carrying pans of soup and trays of baking. We appear, in the world’s eyes, to be a Stepfordesque nightmare of gender stereotyping.

Addressing this with the students, I tried to introduce the notion of complementarianism. I probably did a bad job and, even though they were bright and articulate, I’m not sure I explained myself well enough. The problem is that, in such a forum, you are not encouraged to talk too much about Scripture and yet, to properly explain my stance on this, I would have to refer to God’s instruction, and his ordaining of two genders, each with its own distinct role.

Even then, people will say that this is all very well, but don’t men just abuse that belief and use it as a way to keep women out of leadership roles?

The Bible is quite clear about spiritual leadership; it is set aside for men. In my view, therefore – despite my allusions to having pulpit ambitions, or an eye on the suidheachan mòr – that is that. God has decreed, and if I were to start reinterpreting it, then I am doing nothing less than replicating the serpent’s, ‘did God really say . . ?’

Other roles, however – including deaconship – I am not so persuaded about. The early church had deaconesses and, given that the diaconate role is one of managing and dispensing funds and other organisational duties, I see no reason why it should be restricted to men. Ditto the doorkeepers: why must we be welcomed to worship services by men? Shy, awkward men are forced to take that responsibility on, when many women with the requisite people skills are available and undeployed.

And then, there are the committees. In local congregations, women are included amongst the membership of various groups. I am on our congregation’s Communication Committee. Others are on the Catering Committee and the Strategy Group. Is this replicated at national level, though?

It’s not entirely clear. There are six standing committees, according to the Free Church website, and the blurb says that these are made up of ‘ministers, elders and advisers’. I’m dimly aware of there being some female input, but couldn’t say how much, or to what extent their influence extends.

And here is where I have to bring in my other experience – that of being one woman on an otherwise all-male board. I don’t claim to be ‘better’ than my colleagues, nor to be wiser. It may well be that my presence has made no overall difference to the operation of Trust concerns at all. Nonetheless, mine is a different perspective and a different approach because I’m a woman. Not superior, nor inferior; just other.

Now, of course there’s a sense in which every individual brings something unique to the table – all men are not exactly the same, nor all women. However, there is a broadly male approach to things (and people) which I have observed, and a corresponding female one also. Men and women, having both been created in God’s own image, NEED to work together in order to reflect that perfection.

If I had my way, therefore, yes, all committees – in and out of the church – would have mixed memberships.

Before this has any of my more conservative friends reaching for the smelling salts, however, I’d add a rider to this.

When I’m on a roundabout, and I have right of way, it sometimes happens that the person on my left will decide just to go for it first. What is the proper response? Do I enforce my privilege and move, knowing I will probably crash into his side? Of course not – as a driver, you also have a duty to prevent accidents as well as not causing any.

Ideally, then, the church would see the wisdom and – I believe – beauty,

of men and women sharing responsibility more. Not, as I said, in spiritual leadership, but in everything else. However, I would not advocate this if it was liable to damage the peace and fellowship of the church. Internal politics should never be allowed to eclipse the cause of Christ. A woman’s equal ability to contribute in certain roles is neither here nor there in comparison to the greater work. Part of our walk is, after all, subduing self. And even if I know women could, and possibly even should, play a greater role . . . well, the church is not the place to play out gender-based games of thrones.

Ultimately, though God created us male and female, each gender with its own attributes, our relationship with him is personal, individual. He doesn’t deal with me as part of a homogeneous mass of women – he deals with me as myself, as Catriona Murray, nee Maclean. Like everyone else, I have been imbued with certain gifts which are meant to be used in his service. It doesn’t require a badge, or a title to serve the Lord, and wasting time, and causing strife in pursuit of recognition from the brethren . . . well, that’s not something that interests me.

So, the world would call me weak and deny me admittance to the throne-room of feminism. I am not prepared to assert myself, because I know what they do not: my ‘rights’ are as nothing compared to his righteousness.

Christ did not subjugate women. Witness how he spoke to the woman at the well. See his love for Mary and Martha. His coming was heralded to a woman, and it was to women the risen Saviour first appeared.

But, in all these accounts, no matter how you read them, he is the main character, the central figure. The Christian walk follows in his footsteps and offers the only equality that matters: salvation in Christ, freely available to both genders. In light of that, nothing else matters much.

For Him Or Against Him

When you belong to a community like Lewis, it’s hard to be uncertain as to your identity. I certainly grew up very aware of being placed within a genealogy, within an historical and cultural context, and with a kind of duality of experience through both my mother tongue, and the language I had to learn in order to ‘get on’.

Still, though, a few weeks ago, if you’d followed me to a reception in the Castle, you might have heard me announce myself to the name-badge distributor as ‘Norman Maciver’. She responded with, ‘riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight’, whilst politely scanning her table for the appropriate pin. Taking pity on her at last, I explained that I was, in fact, a last-minute substitute for the said gentleman, and revealed my real name.

‘I was going to say’, she laughed in some evident relief, scribbling my moniker hastily onto a makeshift label.

She was most definitely not going to say, however. After all, we live in a society which positively encourages 5’2” women called Catriona to fool themselves and others that they are 6’ farmers called Tormod, with their own quad and PSV licence.

It doesn’t sit very easily with a person like myself, of limited horizons, and who grew up plagued by questions like ‘cò leis thu?’ I would feel very daft indeed pretending to be someone other than what everybody else knows me to be.

Don’t worry, though, I am not going to wander into the morass of debate about gender reassignment. I don’t know enough about it. What I do know is that those who genuinely experience issues of this nature are in the minority. We hear a disproportionate amount about it because there is an agenda which isn’t content with educating against hatred and persecution of minorities, but which must always attempt to coerce us into approving of them too. This isn’t just the case with ‘the gender issue’, but many other modern dilemmas besides.

Far from increasing tolerance, it merely forces us to either be hypocrites, pretending to agree with unpalatable things, or it polarises society into new hate groups.

When I was a teenager and in my twenties, I knew that the churchgoing people of my acquaintance would not approve of my lifestyle. No, in fact, let’s rephrase that: I understood that they could not approve of it. It’s not that I lived like Oliver Reed – even if I’d wanted to, my father would probably have had something to say about that – but neither was I living according to God’s law. Quite apart from my social life, I had not recognised my own sin, or my need for Christ; I was living the way I saw fit, albeit largely within the staid framework of my upbringing.

I understood that there was a choice to be made. Life gives you that luxury if you are fortunate enough to live in a western democracy like ours. For a time, I chose to go my own way, and I enjoyed it.

Yet, I never once expected that the Kirk Session should be made to say that my weekends were being spent as they would advocate. Not even those Sunday mornings when I sat in church with a pounding headache from the night before would I suggest that there was anything in my conduct that they should be forced to applaud.

Besides, the right-on agenda pushers are missing the point by a mile if they think that getting conservative Christians to say ‘okay’ to same sex marriage, or abortion, or teaching kids all manner of deviancy in schools, is any sort of victory.

What kind of enlightened society attempts to make you act against your beliefs? I believe, for instance, that abortion is just a euphemistic word for ending a life. The reason I believe this is because I know that the giving and taking of life is God’s prerogative, and all that he has asked of us is that we preserve the gift once he has bestowed it. However, society will tell me that I am denying other women the right to choose what happens to their own bodies.

First, I am denying nothing, for I am just one person with one vote and the same amount of power and influence as every other ordinary UK citizen. Second, the unborn child is not a member of its mother’s body – though, in the normal way of things, it ought to be treated as such.

I could say, for the sake of a quiet life, that I’m okay with everything that the liberal lobby wants. The day is coming, indeed, when they may try to make me, with threat of jail if I don’t comply. Nonetheless, they cannot force me to believe a lie. They cannot insist that I act against my conscience. No amount of coercion can make a lie true.

Nothing I can say here will make any sense, of course, considered from a worldly perspective. To the liberals, I am just yet another deluded Bible-basher, high on hatred and champing at the bit to persecute those who disagree with me.

It is not because of hatred, however, that Christians oppose gay marriage, or immoral teaching, or abortion, or any of the myriad wrongs that someone has decided to foist on us as not merely acceptable, but somehow noble. No, it is because of love. Real love.

Human love is a beautiful and precious thing. It brings out the best in us, and elevates the day-to-day. But it is not enough. At its purest, it is still only an imitation of that original love.

God looked on what he had made and saw it was very good – and we thanked him by smashing and warping it. And we dare now to throw our definition of love in his face, as though we know best.

In his righteous anger at the ugliness of sin, he still loved us. He brought his Son into the broken world to redeem us from our own calamity – and we thanked him by spitting on that Saviour, and hanging him up to die.

And God, in the person of Christ, loved us to death. He looked on our taunting, mocking faces and he willingly gave himself up.

So now, the world is divided into two camps. We are not male and female; we are not gay and straight; we are not black and white; we are not Protestant and Catholic.

Ultimately, the world will see that there are many moral absolutes. In the end, though, only one really matters:

We are for Christ, or we are against him.

Dead in the Water?

There was a day when every village had its taibhsear: someone who could foretell future events. Inevitably, the visions were limited by the boundaries of his world – that is to say, he saw what would befall the local and the domestic sphere only.

To predict national and even international developments, however, that was the province of the true seer. Think of Coinneach Odhar, lifting that circular stone to his eye and telling Lady Seaforth that her husband, abroad in Europe at the time, was enjoying the company of other ladies. She had insisted on knowing where he was and yet, Coinneach faced the ultimate punishment for ‘speaking evil of dignities’. Legend has it he was put to death, simply for humiliating the lady before her people.

It’s the lot of the prognosticator, I suppose, to risk their own reputation by voicing what has not yet come to pass. Today, in all but the most despotic regimes, making a mistake will not cost your life . . . though it may well damage your credibility. Witness, if you will, the present silence of political pundits on the likely outcome of Mr Johnson’s election. Who wants to put their head above that increasingly unpredictable parapet?

In the Gaelic world, it is a tradition which some think was born out of a purpose other than ACTUALLY seeing the future. The filidh, according to ‘The Textbook of Irish Literature’, tended to combine ‘the functions of magician, law-giver, judge, counsellor to the chief, and poet’. Elsewhere, the word ‘filidh’ is sometimes translated as ‘seer’. So, this person originally was more than the mere poet we have come to consider them. Those other roles were obviously separated off at various points in history, but nonetheless, our poets were at one time also our seers.

Or were they?

In fact, I think it very likely that our poets were more in the order of cheerleaders. You know the kind of thing: ‘we will win this battle and crush the Campbells and their blood will stain the heather while we dance on their graves’. Sort of latter-day locker room pep talks for the clan. And then, full of vim and vigour, with the filidh’s words ringing in their ears, the men would do battle – and win. Thus, poem becomes prophecy and the filidh a seer.

It’s depressing, therefore, that while this tradition appears to be alive in Lewis, the would-be seers are using their dubious gift for a purpose other than cheerleading. For the last few months, we have had something resembling a Greek chorus emanating from parts of our island regarding the prospect of real development. The latest sad chapter of this prognostication reared its head – bizarrely- last Sunday evening.

The PR consultant for Point & Sandwick Trust released another of her copious blogs on the topic of how bad outside investment is for these islands. Sorry, no, not for these islands – for the shareholders of four crofting townships near Stornoway. In this extended piece of writing, we are told (repeatedly), that the interconnector is ‘dead in the water’.

Perhaps the intention behind this singularly morbid article, then, is that it should be regarded as self-fulfilling prophecy, a sort of anti-pep talk for the Comhairle, the Trust and Lewis Wind Power. Is superstition so strong with those behind the blog that they believe repeating the message again and again gives it some sort of power?

And, crucially, why does a small number of people derive such pleasure from the dashed hopes of the islands entire? If you haven’t already, ask yourselves who should be gleeful at the prospect of no cable, no renewables industry, no community benefit, for a place so in need of all these. What delight is to be had at the thought of Lewis continuing to lose its young people because we have failed to provide opportunities for them?

We have an unparalleled wind resource here in the islands. What we need now, in order to exploit that for the future good of all our people, is unity.

There has been talk – a lot of talk – about unfairness. It does not lie where some say, however. We would do well to remember the old Stornoway burgh motto: God’s providence is our inheritance. He placed these islands where he placed us and we cannot change geography. Working as one, speaking to the government as one, however, we could definitely mitigate against its disadvantages.

It’s apparent to almost everyone that the case for the cable, far from being ‘dead in the water’, is there to be made. How impressive it would be, how laudable, if those who have stood against progress thus far would add their voices to the clamour for what the Western Isles truly deserve.

Coinneach Odhar’s final prophecy was the desolation of his master’s broad lands, and the destruction of his line. I can’t – despite much evidence to the contrary – believe that this is really what anyone wants to see in Lewis. I hope we don’t forsake this one great chance to secure a future for these islands, simply because we failed to work in harmony.

That would leave more than just the cable dead in the water. 

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.