The Wee Free Church of Weaker Vessels?

Some things don’t change. You no sooner write a blog about feminism in the Free Church than your whole congregation gets a loud reminder from the pulpit that women are the weaker vessels, and they really need to remember to address men as ‘sir’.

As if that wasn’t pointed enough, the minister threatened me afterwards not to go undoing his efforts with my renegade talk. I swear all the blood drained from his face when he saw me later, sitting at a table full of women in the church hall.

Isn’t it great how you can alter the whole meaning of something simply by taking it out of context? It’s a wee trick I’ve learned lately. You can make the very truth a lie if you are prepared to go far enough.

When I heard what the topic of the sermon was going to be, I’ll be honest, I was not looking forward to it. There are lots of things that can creep up and stab you in the heart in church, but the duties of husbands to wives, and vice-versa, is a guaranteed killer. It can bring on my ‘poor me’ complex with a vengeance, if it catches me in the wrong mood.

This didn’t, though. Actually, it caught me in more of a, ‘how the heck is he going to pull this off, then?’ frame of mind. A quick advance look at the passage confirmed my suspicion that this was, indeed, the one that talks about women being subject to their husbands, and husbands remembering that blones are the weaker vessels.

Oh well, I thought, this could very well be the first schism caused by ladies exiting en masse from a Presbyterian church. What WILL they call the new denomination?

But, then, that’s just the world’s way of looking at relationships, isn’t it? Everything is about power.

That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. We sought after a knowledge we couldn’t handle, because it came to us out of context; divorced from God’s wisdom as it was.

And because it was untempered by His wisdom, we allowed our knowledge to rule us, and we became drunk on it, until we finally forgot that the wine we were taking was fermented from fruit that was never meant for us at all.

We now think that if the Bible – the unerring word of God – says something we don’t like, then surely the Bible is wrong.

Breathtaking arrogance – and I am as guilty of it as anyone. I bristle at the idea of being subject, and more especially at the thought of being deemed ‘weak’. Although I do a very unbecoming line in self-pity, I certainly don’t want to be ‘poor Catriona’ in anyone else’s eyes.

Until Sunday night, though, I had been labouring under the misapprehension that weakness is . . . well, a weakness. A woman’s propensity to greater emotional sensitivity can, however, truly be a strength, while still making her vulnerable to hurt in ways her husband may never experience for himself. That is why he should exercise understanding towards his partner in life – because her womanness is a crucial element of their relationship in God’s eyes.

And, it made me think of that other amazing passage, where Paul glories in the thorn given to him by God, concluding, ‘for when I am weak, then am I strong’.

One of the great spiritual truths I have learned is that my own strength is a puny thing that would have sunk me in the Slough of Despond long since. Just as well I’m not relying on it. I wonder, in fact, after Sunday night, whether women have the advantage over men here. Not, of course that it’s any kind of competition . . .

But, if we are the weaker vessels, then surely it is easier for us to put our ‘amen’ to Paul’s great proclamation. The less we have of what the world is pleased to call strength, the more we will depend on His.

Being subject to your husband is an interesting one, in an age when many brides choose not to use the word ‘obey’ in their wedding vows. The feeling is that it compromises equality. But, actually, the only equality which really matters is that men and women are similarly precious in the sight of God. After all, it is He who weighs us all in the balance.

It was not God that introduced the tension between the genders over who gets to be in charge. A Godly man does not abuse or mistreat his wife; a Godly wife, likewise, honours her husband.

I am not a wife any longer, but I do live in the world, and must meet with the occasional man. Elsewhere, I have written of how I don’t see the brethren in my church as competition to be beaten, or the elders as having a status to aspire to. They are what they are, as God ordained; and I am, likewise, what I am.

Last night, however, the challenge of living as a Christian woman, while trying to make my way in this world was brought sharply into focus. At the end of a meeting, I instinctively gathered my own coffee cup and those nearest, and carried them through to the kitchen. The men mostly left theirs on the table.

Even as I did it, I thought, ‘don’t become the stereotype’. But this is the problem with the gender war that sin has created – if we all stand on our rights, who will serve? And how will we honour God?

 

Suffrage, Tippex, and the Feminist Free Kirk

As a noted local feminist, I was disappointed that my recent election to the Stornoway Trust failed to attract the expected plaudits from the sisterhood. They can’t have heard. It’s a pity, because I had hoped they would take heart, now we’ve seen that  women can be elected in Lewis after all. Should any of you see them, please mention it.

Maybe don’t mention my complications, though. I do stuff that they might think messes with my girl-power credentials. And I don’t just mean the fact that the last person to put screen wash in my car was the minister. Or that I have several men on speed-dial who tell me what to think about the complicated stuff (the Blue Book, the interconnector, the offside rule).

No, there’s that obedience thing as well: the Biblical authority, the Saviour ruling my life. The Free Church.

Somehow, the patriarchy that I am expected to rage against, they’re the same guys who put me on the Trust. According, that is, to a letter in the newspaper formerly known as the ‘Stornoway’ Gazette.

Do not adjust your screens – I am indeed talking about the same Free Kirk that’s been keeping women down for two centuries.

Elders took a few nights off from chaining swings and intimidating witnesses to go out bribing voters, and Tippexing any ballot papers that people had completed without their say-so. I am not exactly sure what their motive in getting a blone elected was, especially a daft airhead like myself who, apparently, needed the ‘big boys’ (whoever they may be) to explain wind turbines to her.

Actually, before the ballot, one of the patriarchy, who shall remain nameless, suggested that it would be a good thing if I were elected. I waited for him to say, ‘because it might get you off our case for a while’, or even, ‘you girls need a wee hobby to keep you out of mischief’. But no. He suggested that I might contribute something to the decision-making process (and not just fruit loaf either).

He meant it sincerely. Nor did he conclude by winking and adding, ‘Don’t you worry, we’ll make sure it happens, a ghràidh’. I think he’s probably more of a feminist than all the badge-wearing, card-carrying types who were casting around looking for an explanation for my election – and finally came up with the contemptible cop-out, ‘it was the church that rigged it’.

Feminism, however, for me, is the simple fact of women getting on with things, and rational folk of both genders accepting that they can.

I want to inhabit Biblical womanhood, because my first love and first loyalty belong to God. This is a colossal challenge, first and foremost because of my own nature. It is in me to think, ‘why shouldn’t I?’ And, although I’m not excusing myself, I feel bound to add that this instinct is probably exacerbated by being a woman on her own. Who deals with the frightening stuff – the spider in the bath, talking to mechanics – if not me?

So, then, it’s hard when you’re the sole breadwinner and householder, to still be the kind of woman God requires.

It is also a challenge because society tells you to assert yourself, not to allow others to trample over you, to know your rights. Society is about being confrontational: me before you; my wants over your needs; my opinion trumps yours.

The problem with society is it’s made up of people, and we are – all of us – fundamentally flawed, and broken in our own way. And we are shot-through with sin. So, what the world will tell you to be is very rarely in agreement with what God wants.

That, sisters, is where we have to rely on Him.

God has not said ‘subdue your femininity’ – He wants us to embrace it and inhabit it in all its fullness. That means not seeing myself in relation to men, not comparing myself to them in terms of what is permissible, but fitting myself to God’s template for my life. I don’t want to be anyone else, or do the things that other people do, of either gender.

My life is not what I planned. Mercifully. It’s easy to tug at your heartstrings and say I hadn’t planned to be a widow now. And, of course, that’s true. On the other hand, I had not planned to commit my life to Christ, to accept His free gift of salvation. Thankfully, you see, God had it all in hand. Submitting to Him is the wisest thing I ever did; and even that wasn’t me.

There are many examples, in His Word, of womanhood which I might try to follow. A friend recently mentioned  a sermon on Ruth, in which the question was posed, ‘where, in all of Moab, did Ruth come to know God’? And the only conclusion to which the preacher could come was this: it must surely have been through  Naomi’s dignity and faith in the midst of great grief.

This would certainly explain that famous and beautiful speech from Ruth to her mother in-law, and particularly, ‘your God shall be my God’.

Ruth must have seen a beauty in Him to desire, and that beauty was clearly revealed to her in Naomi’s steadfast devotion.

That, now,  is the sort of feminist I would like to be: loving God, and witnessing faithfully for Him, no matter where He leads, so that other women – and yes, even men – might see Him too, and be freed from ‘isms’ of every kind.

God’s Unfinished Business

On Sunday evening in church, I was looking, I suppose, for something soothing – a calming, comfortable message that I could take home with me, and rest upon after a frankly awful few weeks. Instead, I left church feeling like the lowest of the low. I had, I was certain, brought myself, my congregation and – worst of all – the cause of Christ- into disrepute.

We are not to repay ill-treatment with reviling; we are not to threaten. That was the message. I thought of my own recent spiritual warfare. Lies were told blatantly about me; insinuations were made; my name was bandied about by unfeeling strangers; and my husband’s death alluded to as though it were nothing. Had I conducted myself badly in response to this? Was this a rebuke, straight from God, via the pulpit, into my heart?

It felt like it. And I responded as though that’s what it was. Sunday night was troubling; Monday more so. All the turbulence of the past months replayed in my head. Where had I let Him down? What should I not have said?

It’s all words, you see. There has been a storm of words. And I am tired of that storm. I am the weary traveller, disorientated and chilled, who just wants to lie down for a rest, wrapped in comfort, and let oblivion claim me.

But, the comfortable text did not come on Sunday night, nor the soothing words. There was nowhere to set down my weariness, just more words that seemed to accuse me. You should  not pay ill-treatment with reviling.

So, I thought, by Monday afternoon – had I? Was the accuser in my own heart being fair in turning the guilt on me?

The passage in question offers Christ as our template, something all Christians know to be true anyway. How did He behave in His afflictions? Just as He behaved in all other circumstances: perfectly. Now, that’s definitely not true of me. It just is not possible.

God knows that’s the case, though, and does not ask for perfection. He does expect, however, that we do everything mindful of Him.

So, had I been mindful of Him? When I was called a liar, secretive, spiritually immature, disgusting, self-seeking, a disgrace to the fellowship of the church? And when I was bombarded with private messages too hateful to repeat? Yes, I believe I was. Did these words hurt me? Of course they did – for a time. And then I brought them to Him, and He put everything in its proper perspective.

I couldn’t have got through any of this without Him. But I have to be honest, there were times when I had to work hard to remember who I am – not least when confronted recently by one of the secularists in an approach which presumably made sense to her. My claims that I have been bullied upset her, she complained, without a trace of irony.

It is a mammoth struggle to be gracious when your tormentor becomes your accuser. But this is where that other great challenge of the Christian life comes into play: crucifying self. I think I understand it better now.

Just as Christ would not come down from the cross to save Himself, despite the taunts, I should not trouble about my own reputation, as long as it’s being pilloried for Him. All that matters is that I am doing what is just in His sight. My reputation before men does not really signify. We are, all of us, liars and warpers of the truth, far too easily impressed by an outward appearance. God sees what is within.

I have been tested far more than I am capable of putting into words. It is unpleasant to be the target of so much hatred from strangers, to see yourself described in the most unflattering and inaccurate of terms, to be shown no mercy.

And yet I have suffered nothing compared to that same Lord. His agonies were so that I would not have to endure. He was spat at and mocked, beaten, and finally put to death, and he spoke not one word against His enemies. Blasphemed and reviled on all sides, He prayed one of the most beautiful petitions of the Bible, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

This is the aspect of God I need to be mindful of in these circumstances. I need to imitate His pity and His compassion. I am far from perfect, and I have nothing like the Saviour’s heart, but I have seen His love from both sides now. He has shown me the meaning of forgiveness.

Uncomfortable though it is, then, I want Him to go on speaking His truth to me, testing and questioning my motives, my conduct, my heart. That is how I know this is a living faith, as well as a faith to live by. And if my conscience is troubled by God’s Word, then that tells me I am still His work in progress, and He is active in my life.

I would have it no other way. And, whatever else may be said about me, I would by no means keep all that grace for myself.

 

 

 

 

The Savour of Life . . . Or Death?

Coming up to the anniversary of Donnie’s death this week, I worried. You see, I’ve learned that you never quite know how you’re going to be. It is almost as though you are watching another person, because you have zero control over your own feelings in this regard.

Nonetheless, you gather yourself inwards, tentatively approaching the dread day on metaphorical tiptoes. I suppose, three years on, I am afraid of waking the sleeping beast of grief.

Sunday was wonderful. I had missed the midweek service because of another meeting. And I felt its absence, limping towards the weekend. So, Sunday and my church family received me into their warm embrace. Preaching, praise, prayer and fellowship somewhere you can just be yourself is not to be beaten. It poured strength into me, reminding me who He is.

And, when Tuesday came, I awoke, feeling . . . fine. Better than fine. Time with Himself, a stroll with the dog, and I was chilled out. There were messages of care and love and prayer – many from people who had never known Donnie but who have become important in my life since then.

Just as He has done three years ago, God surrounded me with His peace. For that day, I could read the barrage of nastiness about me online and not be troubled. Not be troubled for myself, at any rate. The people making snide remarks struck me as rather sad, forlorn figures. What kind of person hates someone they’ve never met to that degree? I felt sorry for them.

But I’m ashamed to admit that the feeling of pity did not last. You can only hold yourself taut for so long and, by the time I went to bed, my heart felt so full of resentment I thought it might splinter.

‘Even today’, I complained to God, ‘they couldn’t leave me alone’.

I have learned to live with the fact that I am despised for being a Christian; I have learned not to be bothered by the casual lies they tell about me. This is not actually about me anyway – I could be their darling tomorrow if I denied Christ. He is the unpopular one, not me. These days, I am reviled for His sake, just as He was reviled for mine.

And there the comparison ends.

He bore His infinitely greater suffering with perfect fortitude. I simply ended up feeling sorry for myself.

On Wednesday morning, I stomped about the house, and went to work in the worst of humours. It was a culmination of things: too much coffee, too little sleep, too much holding it together on my own inadequate strength, and not enough time pouring out my heart to God. At one point, I told my sister that the day was bound to end with me hitting someone – anyone – or bursting into tears.

The day, in fact, ended in laughter and in gratitude.

What effected this miraculous transformation? Not ‘what’ – who? And I think you already know the answer.

First of all, there are friends. The friends God puts in your path are not necessarily those you would expect. Sometimes, the world might look askance at these relationships, and even wonder what you could possibly have in common. But I found the value of those God-honouring friendships right then. While I was seething through my day, these friends were, it transpired, worrying for me.

And, if you’re not a Christian, you may be thinking, ‘that’s nice – but hardly remarkable’.

Wrong. It is extraordinary in the truest sense of the word. Christian concern goes heavenwards. These friends, in their anxiety for me, were bringing me before God. In being on their hearts, I was also on His.

That is not nothing.

In their safe company, I unwound. The venom of poor, misguided people lost its sting. I remembered who I was because these friends showed me what I should be.

And we laughed. Mainly at each other. Together, as well, we reflected on the meaning of integrity, which is really  about being straight before God.

It doesn’t matter what those who are wise in their own sight think of me. They have started off from the false premise that there is no God, and so all the working out from then on is bound to be erroneous.

This is not about them, though. They have taken enough of this week from me.

Actually, this blog is not a blog at all, but a love song – to the Lord, and to His people. It is a thanksgiving.

God moves the hearts of His people to small acts of love. It was they, through Him, who soothed my brittleness this week. In the unexpected heat of this election campaign, a little  band of us have supported one another. Each day, we begin by sharing a reading; and each night, we smooth the cares of the day with a song of praise.

And, there are the messages. One person sent me assurance of their prayers, accompanied by the loveliest sound clip of psalm singing from our church. Ladies I haven’t seen in years, but who knew my parents, sending me word of their solidarity. It is worth so much more than I can ever express.

Then there are the strangers. Not the hate-filled people who abuse my good name for what I believe; not the faux-reasonable secuularists who wish I would just disappear and shut my face about who Christ is.

No, the other kind of stranger. People I have never met, but who are my brothers and sisters because they too have known God’s grace. So, so many of them have reached out and blessed me by doing so.

How can the same words cause some to bitterly hate, and others to brim with love? That, I think, is a question for the unbelievers. God, help them.

 

 

Whose providence have we inherited?

Working in the College, which is situated right in the grounds of Lews Castle, I have always been aware of the legacy left by Lord Leverhulme to this island. It has been on my mind rather more this week, however, as I continue in my quest to be elected onto the Stornoway Trust – the body which administers the estate he gifted to the community.

I wish I could say I’m surprised at how little people seem to know of the history associated with the Leverhulme era, but it is one of the greatest frustrations of my professional life. The Gaels are generally ignorant of their own past: that is why it has been possible for many of the wrongs of history to be replicated in the present day. Those who do not learn those lessons are doomed to repeat their mistakes.

That is not what shocked me at all, then, but the response to what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment, left by an outgoing Trustee on my campaign page. He was echoing my endorsement of another candidate, and made reference to the importance of having a ‘God-honouring Trust’.

Cue shrieks and howls of derision. But – honestly – what did people think Christians were going to want, if not that? After all, if an organisation is not honouring God, where does it stand in relation to Him? Our nihilistic friends would probably say ‘nowhere’, but that is a child’s answer; God does not leave us that option. We are, quite simply, with Him, or against Him. And that’s fine, that’s free will; you make your choice, and you take the consequences, as with anything else.

So, you are – as an individual, God-honouring, or God-denying. And, as an organisation, the same is true.

Honouring God, for the Christian, is the foundation and framework of their life. It is their first thought and their best hope. I am a poor example of this, but I do try. When I remember, I ask Him that anything I do would be to His glory and not mine; I ask Him to keep me humble. Clearly, I do a very bad job because there are those in our midst who accuse me of thinking I’m ‘the new Messiah’.

Like we need another one.

So, I don’t make a great job of humility. But I know this, and I work on it, and with His help, I will be kept where I belong. And even when I am making a mess of it, and thinking that anything I’m doing is of myself, in my soul I know it’s Him – it’s all Him.

Which is why I do not understand why this man’s comment caused such outrage, even amongst some Christians. There was one suggestion that it was ‘undemocratic’ to define the Trust this way because Leverhulme’s deed establishing the body which would have oversight of the estate, made no mention of honouring God.

I think, in a week of reading and hearing some pretty astounding points of view, that one knocked the wind out of me most – like a punch in the stomach. Are we, honestly, at this stage, when we need a legal document to permit us to honour God? Do we really think that democracy – a manmade system necessary to mitigate against our sinful tendencies to exploit and bully one another – sits in superiority over the Creator of all things?

In His own providence, I had heard a sermon on our relationship with human authority, just last Sunday evening. Christians have a dual citizenship – in Heaven, in the highest sense, but also in this world. We are required to submit to rightful authority, as long as it does not lead us to sin against God.

The best way of ensuring this is to elect godly people into authority. And the best way of ensuring that we do, is to be a prayerful people. Our voting, our decision-making, our every action must be clothed in prayer that God will guide us to honour Him.

All of this, I realise, reads for those who suspect me of having a Messiah complex, as being a plea for ‘the church’ to hang onto ‘power’. No matter what I say, or how I couch it, my words will be warped and twisted and I will be described as a hateful and bitter killjoy.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that every Christian wants God to be honoured in all that they do. Therefore, in standing for, or serving on the Trust, in doing your day job – whatever that might be – in bringing up your family, in speaking with your friends, in living your life, that is what must come first.

I am still naive enough to hope that people reading this will understand, therefore, that this is how Christians approach service. They wish to honour God first and foremost; and so they should. Far from meaning, however, that they will neglect their duties to the people they are supposed to serve, the opposite should be true. Enemies of Christianity shout, ‘keep them out of government; sweep them off every committee’.

And, as in so many other circumstances of unbelieving life, there is no thought to the long-term consequences of a world without God. People are free to create power structures without Him – but there is a question that remains unasked by many, perhaps because it is too frightening even to contemplate:

If we remove God from every corner of public life, what manner of thing will fill the void?

 

How many Lewismen does it take to change my mind?

On Sunday morning, the message from the pulpit caused a wry smile from me – ‘following the Lord is an exciting adventure’. Hard on the heels of my reading at home (‘walk by faith, not by sight’) I felt like turning to the Lord and saying, ‘okay, I hear you’. And the thing is, you can speak to Him that way; He wants you to take absolutely everything to Him, to pour your heart and all its cares into His. He wants to hear from us, and He wants us to hear Him.

So, I heard Him. He had been speaking to me for a while on one particular subject. And this was Him, I felt, on Sunday saying, ‘you were right to listen, even if it took you a while’.

I am a stubborn individual who always thinks she knows the right way to do things. It physically pains me to watch other people struggling with just about anything – not because I’m kind or empathetic, but because I am always itching to take it from them and do it myself. Unless they’re doing equations, or changing a wheel. Or icing a cake.

So, I struggle with relinquishing control, even to the Lord. I am getting better at it, but it is inconsistent progress, and He has to keep pausing to wait for me.

For the last couple of years, I have been aware – as have many others – of a growing agenda in public life here in the islands. Anything that relates to the ‘typically island’ manner of doing things has been steadily inferiorised. There are those who seem to think that the way to a Lewisman’s heart is by criticising his culture. Those are people who do not understand Lewismen.

Then again, I also have my moments of that too.

See, God can use any manner of weak vessel to do His work – even the Leòdhasach male. He tried His best to speak to me through them, but He had worked His way through five coves before I eventually got the message. This is not because of their inability to communicate, but my reluctance to hear what they were saying.

And also, at least one of them was a bit of a mumbler.

When the first one suggested that I should consider standing for the Stornoway Trust, I told him that I had no time, reeling off a list of all the other commitments in my life. He’s a reasonable guy so, having planted the seed, he sauntered away. The second one to mention it got much the same excuse. And the third.

But, I was getting no peace about it. All the time I was resisting the very idea, the thought would not go away that it is not enough for us to be watchmen on the wall, alerting others to the danger; we have to be prepared to get our hands dirty in preserving what we value. What is the point in talking – or writing – while the thing you’re talking about saving is being dismantled about your ears.

They used to call it fiddling while Rome burns.

Those who have a secularising agenda have made no bones about the fact that they seek to impose change upon the island by getting themselves appointed or elected onto all the strategic decision-making bodies. And that is absolutely fine – it’s democracy in action; it’s legal; it’s strategic thinking.

So, if we don’t like what they are planning, it is clear that moaning about it is not the way forward. They have stopped making the numbers argument ever since a little Facebook group proved to everyone looking on that the heritage of Lewis and Harris means a lot to more than just the Christians in our midst. Keeping Sunday special for the 2000+ members of that group means just that. It does not mean foisting the will of church elders on the oppressed majority, or denying families the right to be together. We do not tend to be ashamed of those aspects of our own culture which mark us out; if we are ashamed, then perhaps we need to look at ourselves for the reason behind that feeling of inferiority.

The ‘oppressed majority’ have realised that they are not a majority at all. So now, in order to beat their oppressors, they are seeking public office every which way they can. They are prepared to serve because they believe in nothing, and want the rest of us to live our lives according to that.

How much more, then, should those of us who believe in something – in the greatest something of all – be prepared to serve our cause? Its very essence is service. Christ came to serve, and we are to be as like Him as possible in promoting His message to others. It does not matter if we are busy, or we are tired, or we feel inadequate to the task, because He is not actually asking anything of us that requires our strength. If we have that spirit of service, if we are burdened for His cause, then we trust in Him for the rest.

It’s a challenge, but it is one that the Christian can no longer afford to resist.

So, by the time the fourth fellow made his case, I was already beginning to wonder if it wasn’t the right thing to do. The fifth Lewisman called after I had prayed and come to a decision.

That is why I am standing for the Stornoway Trust. I am proud of my upbringing, of my Gaelic, crofting, Free Church, island heritage. For all my joking about the Achmore granny, and the Doune granny, and the Harris connections; for all my gentle irony about the foibles of the Wee Frees and a people sometimes ‘out both ends’, I love this place. There is not a lot wrong with it, and I’m tired of hearing that there is.

This is not a plea for votes, but a reflection on the fact that God sometimes inconveniences us by having a different idea of what we should be doing with our time.  Maybe it will only be for a fortnight, but as always when you listen to Him, it won’t be boring, and I am bound to learn something valuable along the way.

Dear Younger Me

In the last blog, I mentioned in passing my ongoing education in spiritual music. Although it was certainly a revelation to be told last weekend that there is no scriptural reason why I might not precent in church, there remain several very good musical (and, indeed, social) reasons why this would not work. I am in this, as in everything else, a follower and not a leader.

Of course, I was brought up in a tradition of singing Psalms. I love them for their sustaining wisdom, for their ability to speak to me in all circumstances. They have the power to heal and, just sometimes, the power to wound. If I am feeling vulnerable, Psalm 100 can tip me over into lip-trembling wobbliness, simply because it was sung at our wedding and . . . well, I’m only human.

There is, however, more to spiritual music than psalms. I have, by virtue of living in the world and having a mother who grew up in the Church of Scotland, some idea of popular hymns. Once, as a child, I surprised my mother by quoting ‘Blessed Assurance’, probably to help me win an argument.

A couple of years ago, I went to a women’s conference where, on the programme, the – to me – mysterious word ‘praise’ was printed at various intervals. I glanced about me, mildly nonplussed as to who would precent in a room full of dames.

Imagine, then, my surprise at what ensued. Musical accompaniment, and something calling itself ’10, 000 Reasons’. Not a clue. I scanned the song selection. Nope, nothing familiar here. A Christian gathering consisting only of women and no psalms, with added music.  To say that I had been catapulted out of my comfort zone would not be an exaggeration.

The women thing, I realised, was just a blip. Once the Session got to hear about it, I was certain that those responsible would be punished and normal services would resume. But, my eyes – and ears – were opened to the possibility that there was another kind of music out there; that there were ways of singing your faith that didn’t have to be metrical.

My exploration of the possibilities turned up a few singers that I could get along with. There is, after all, absolutely no excuse for bad Christian music. Who has got more reason to sing than us? Like the hymn says, ‘I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free’.

Yes, I’m still quoting hymns. Old habits die hard. But I am also having my musical horizons broadened.

A friend supplies me with seemingly random links to songs he likes, sometimes when I least expect. During a recent public trial by secularist hate mob, he sent Matthew West’s ‘Grace Wins’ – ‘Take a breath smile and say: Right here right now I’m ok because the cross was enough’.

The best songs will do that, just like the word in season, the shared reading: God speaks through it, reminding you who He is and that nothing will overwhelm the person who puts their whole life in His hands.

But then there was the intriguingly-titled, ‘Dear Younger Me’. This is something different because it explores what we might say if we could go back and speak to a younger version of ourselves. The dilemma, of course, is whether you would warn the young you about the pitfalls that lie ahead; whether you would try to head yourself away from dangers and bad experiences. Would you not try to spare yourself pain?

Perhaps there was a time when I would have answered that question very quickly in the affirmative. Why would you not want to spare yourself suffering? It is, after all, how we are expected to behave towards others; why would we not want to do ourselves the same kindness?

Is it a kindness, though? Yes, if you look on that span of life between cradle and grave as what concerns us most. But for the Christian, that can never be the case. The journey we are on here is towards a destination in heaven, yet we are not simply plodding, there, head down; we are being equipped for it as we go.

Not a day passes without me thinking of my late husband, and missing him in countless ways. This time of year, though, I think of how hard it was to fear losing him, to be told I would lose him, and to watch him die. And how much easier it was to know he had gone, and to Whom he had gone.

That is the difference, I think, between wanting to spare yourself burdens, and knowing what pain and loss and thoroughly unwanted providence can do for you in the longer-run.

The song says, ‘every moment brings you closer to who you were meant to be’. I know that if I could go back to Christmas 2000, to that person I used to be, I would not say, ‘See the man you met the other night, maybe don’t meet him for that drink. It doesn’t end well’.

In fact, if I was forced to meet her, 25 year-old Catriona, I would tell her two things you will also find in the song. First, I would tell her that life will bring sadness and joy, but that the deeper peace in her soul has nothing to do with either of those; and then I would tell her that whatever challenges come, she was never meant to carry them beyond the cross.

And if she asked me about the man she had just met. I would smile, and nod, and she would do it all exactly like I already have.

Other Christians I know, too, are a bit battle-scarred, and wondering the same sort of thing – trying to make sense of what they have gone through. If I had the courage, I would tell them the precious truth I have learned:

The roadmap may be hidden from my sight, but it’s hidden in God’s hand. He’s got this, dear younger me. And I would not have Him change a thing.

 

 

 

 

A Servant is for Life, Not Just Sundays

Last Sunday I was arrested in church. Before you imagine a group of burly policemen pushing past the elders – who would undoubtedly have tried to stop them – in order to cart me off, I didn’t mean it like that. In fact, I mean I heard something which struck me in its beauty and truth; something, believe it or not, about the deacons. Or, more specifically, about the duty of deacons.

It was this: deacons bring the love of Christ to the church in a practical way.

Yes, deacons – those guys who, in our tradition anyway, are seen as the money men, the fellows who hold the purse-strings and authorise paint jobs for the church vestibule. They are the ones who ‘do’. And their office is all too easily dismissed as being a bit, well, mundane.

Put it this way, if you were writing a novel about the Free Church (and, believe me, I’ve considered it), your hero probably wouldn’t be a deacon. They’d be there alright, but only in a supporting role.

Well, I say ‘only’ but, in Christian terms, a supporting role is the best kind. The main part has already been fulfilled.

There’s a song I love, (introduced to me by someone who has somehow ended up being responsible for my spiritual music education) in which Jesus is resembled to a hero who takes the stage when everything looks hopeless. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what He did.

Historically, He did. Spiritually, He does.

Almost three years ago, I thought my life was over. The person on whom I thought my world depended died. He left our home for what we thought might be an overnight in hospital; a week later I returned there, a widow at the age of thirty-nine, and wondering how many years I might have to get through alone.

The answer? None.

I was not alone, because Christ was there, waiting for me to notice Him. Christ had been there a long time. Maybe even since, as a child of nine, I asked Him into my heart simply because I couldn’t bear to think of Him knocking and not being heard.

He is the main event, the all in all, the ultimate star billing. Yet, He waits in the wings like a supporting actor, and appears to take His cues from us. Only when I turned my grieving heart towards His did I even know He was there.

That was when He took centre stage in my life. Just when I thought everything was finished, He walked on.

So, the bit-parts are for the rest of us. He is the hero; we are the supporting cast, as Christians. Deacons bring His love to the church in a practical way . . . but what are deacons? Yes, I know I said they’re the money men, the guys with the chequebook. But, in a wider sense, what?

Well, ‘deacon’ comes from the Greek, ‘diakonos’, meaning ‘servant’. And all Christians are called upon to have a spirit of service. That is why, in the best sense, we are, all of us, deacons. Yes, even the women. It isn’t about status, or titles – service never is – but about the satisfaction of serving a worthy Master.

This is an unusual Master, though. He is the starring role content to wait for a cue from the support act; and He is the Master who willingly became a servant. It is from Him we learn how to be the walk-on actors in our own lives, and the servants to the King.

Rendering service to Christ is not going to win you any of this world’s accolades. Even in the church, you may feel that the hours you put in, and the time that you give go unnoticed. And perhaps they do – by people. But you’re not working for people, are you? One lady I know who works hardest for Christ’s church has the truest servant heart, and never complains, or expects for herself.

Servants are often overlooked, or even despised. They may have their good name besmirched, their reputation degraded, and their heart bruised and beaten. But never, ever by Him.

He knows, you see, what it is to be a servant. We can only try at all because He first showed us how:

He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

This is the humble servant upon whom we are to pattern our behaviour. Our men who are deacons should follow Him in showing His love to the church in practical ways. Love is practical, after all: it changes lives.

But beyond the official designation of ‘deacon’, there is a whole church which ought to be showing Christ’s love to the world. Just as the deacons distribute the wealth of the church in the service of the Lord, we ought to follow their example in following His.

I can’t help reflect upon our own mission-field locally, and all the strife there has been recently between secularism and Christianity. The unbelievers, in their ignorance, think it’s all about Sundays. It troubles me that some Christians seem to think so too.

Our starting point with the world cannot be this. A servant does not seek to impose his own will, but, rather, to do his master’s. We will win no hearts for Christ by telling people what they must do and must not. No one will ever desire God’s law without first knowing His love.

And, if this community does not know His love, have I failed in my servant’s duty, to show what it is? Have I said too many words, and not demonstrated enough humility? Did I forget, somewhere along the line, to withdraw and let the spotlight fall on Him?

 

Men in Black and Other Legends

There was a loch in the moor near where I grew up, and it held a strange fascination for us.  Quiet Sunday walks with my siblings often drew us in that direction. But we always went with warnings from our parents ringing in our ears, regarding mysterious lights and a certain eeriness about the place. My grandfather had warned my mother of its uncanny nature, and she, in turn, was warning us of the same.

Stories abounded throughout the islands, of the each-uisge, the water horse. This mythical creature could assume the form of a handsome man, to entice an unwary maiden, and once she was totally taken in by this charming stranger, he would assume the form of a horse and carry her back into the depths of his watery home.

It is not difficult to understand what the true social function of the each-uisge story was – it performed the dual role of warning children against lurking strangers, and of hanging about near water.

The each-uisge belongs to a world of Gaelic folklore which has largely been consigned to books and the archives of local historical societies. It is part of that great corpus of ‘dualchas’ which the Calvinists destroyed in a rush of evangelistic fervour. St Patrick may have banished the snakes from Ireland, but John Knox went one better and drove the eich-uisge out of the Highlands.

All my life I have been hearing that the Free Church did away with our colourful traditions – our ghosts, and our fairies, our witches, our evil eye and our eich-uisge.  Then again, I have also been hearing how it oppresses women and no one has put a gag on me . . . yet.

It amuses me to think that, if it were not for the Disruption of 1843, and all the hard-line fellows in black hats and collars, we would all still be putting out a dish of milk for the fairies before going to bed. Perhaps the local secularists would be mocking us for pouring our beer into the Minch to appease the sea-god, Seonaidh, instead of deriding us for our Christian beliefs. They might even be calling for the closure of pubs on Sundays to prevent us from indulging the superstition.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Free Church was born out of a great act of faith. Ministers and congregations turned their backs on the security of manses and stipends for the uncertainty of a new denomination, loosed from the bonds of patronage which had so stifled their spiritual freedom.

Of course, it was not uncertainty as the world knows uncertainty: they had put their trust in God and knew that He would prosper their endeavours for the furtherance of His kingdom.

This church taught a people hungry for the good news of the Gospel how they might be set at liberty. In the context of forced eviction, of emigration, of famine, of grinding poverty and of disease, the Gaels were hearing something that really does change lives. It was this: none of those things, no earthly suffering, can actually steal the peace from your soul that comes from placing your faith in the risen Christ.

And sometimes, I think we see Him most clearly against a backdrop of fire and pain.

Fire and pain, of course, are not things we desire for ourselves or our loved ones. And atheists will tell you that the idea of suffering outside of Christ is just a story invented by theologians to keep us all under control.

Hell is the Calvinist each-uisge, a story told by ministers so that they can keep the population subdued.

To what end, though? Ministers trudge up the pulpit steps in order to rain down fire and brimstone on the heads of their congregations, threatening them with hell and damnation so that . . . what? So that they can keep their unearned reputations as control-freaks? So that they can be caricatured and vilified by turns? Or, is it really as the more hysterical elements in our midst suggest, all about the fact that they are in a secret pact with the Comhairle to ensure that no one enjoys themselves more than is strictly necessary?

Of course, it isn’t any of those things, as even the people saying them surely know deep down.

The Gaelic folktales warned of theft by the fairies, or drowning by water-horses because people could not see past the threat of sudden death. This is why Christianity displaced superstition, because once people had their eyes lifted to the true horizon, they would never again be in thrall to a fable.

And the only fable we have left is the one which tells people that the Wee Frees are angry and narrow-minded men in black, oppressing the daft women who follow along in their wake.

Saying it over and over does not make it true; telling it to the gawping national media does not make it true. Unlike the traditional tales, this one loses something with every retelling.

Meanwhile, those who think themselves simultaneously wiser than, as well as put-upon by, the power-hungry Calvinists, are at risk of being borne away by a legend of their own making.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outwards and Upwards

My late husband used to carry a photo in his wallet – just one, mind you. It wasn’t a picture of me, however, but of another young lady entirely, one he loved with his whole heart.

She is his niece, Joanne – beautiful to look at, and one of the most consistently happy people that I have ever known. To hear Joanne laugh is to have your day brightened unexpectedly.

She was born very early and, as a consequence, has faced many challenges in life – her vision and hearing are both limited; she cannot walk or speak; she is fed via a peg in her stomach. Joanne has spent a lot of her life in and out of hospitals, and she has been a worry to her family and friends on many an occasion. This week alone, she has been staying in hospital suffering from – amongst other complications – pneumonia.

Her parents are an inspiration. Not because they are remarkable in any way that is outwardly obvious, but because of their commitment to her. They would not want to be portrayed as heroic because they are not: they are simply loving their daughter; it just happens that loving Joanne requires more practical application than it might if she did not have so many health problems. The crucial thing is that Joanne has problems; she is not, herself, a problem; she is a blessing from God.

Those who are unbelievers struggle with the idea of children suffering under the eye of a benevolent and loving God. I understand their confusion; we think that if God loves, then He will not permit it.
But, the evidence of our own experience teaches us that this is not so. There is suffering. Many of God’s own people go through unimaginable hardships.

So did God Himself, though.

He knows what it is better than any of us, and so He does not shrug His shoulders and walk away from the person who is afflicted – God is NOT watching us from a distance. Scripture even tells us that He hovers over us like a broody hen.

Donnie once asked me why I thought Joanne had to bear so much in her young life if there really is a loving God. I don’t know what I said at the time – my answer would have been wholly inadequate anyway.
He had the most compassionate heart of any person I have ever known – Donnie came closer than anyone to actually being able to feel other people’s suffering. There were many occasions when I told him that his conscience was far too active, and that he could not take on the problems of the whole world. His reaction to every crisis was automatically, ‘what can I do in this?’ It took me sometimes to point out that not everything was his responsibility.

His mother, by the time I first met her, was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. Donnie’s patience and care of her spoke volumes about the kind of person he was.

One Christmas, after washing up the dinner dishes, we went for a short walk in the early evening, leaving her at home for just half an hour. When we came back, she had emptied the cupboards of every single item of crockery. In a worried voice, her big, dark eyes full of concern, she told us, ‘There’s a child missing, and everyone is out looking. I’m making tea for them’.

And it’s actually now, writing this, that I realise who he took his enormous empathy from.

Finally, it was his own turn to suffer. It is one thing for your heart to be exercised for others in their hardships, but the way you conduct yourself in the midst of personal pain surely speaks volumes about who you are. He never wavered. I didn’t expect that he would.

It is a measure of him that he had far more pity for Joanne, and for his mother, than he ever had for himself. He did not ask ‘why me?’ Not once. In fact, I have often recalled how, many years before, when his friend was terminally ill with cancer, Donnie said to me, ‘imagine if that was one of us, how the other would feel’. His attitude was always , ‘why not me?’

I believe he knew how to conduct himself in the midst of his own suffering because he had gone through it with and for others so many times. He suffered less for himself than he had for those around him. Even the last few entries in his diary are full of compassion for me, not pity for himself.

I understand that aspect of his character better now through closer acquaintance with our Saviour. Sometimes, Christians believe that they are entering the ‘fellowship of His suffering’ by enduring hardships in this world, but I can’t think that this is what Paul meant at all. God does not ask us to suffer in order to enter His fellowship – we identify with Him in His suffering for us.

As ever, it requires nothing from us but our faith.

What our own trials will do, if we allow them, is bring us closer to Him. Like a hurt child, we hold our arms up to the Father who knows how to comfort. It is, in every sense, an inside job for Him: He has been there Himself, and He heals the bruises that the rest of the world simply cannot see.

On February 22nd, 2015, a month before he would pass peacefully from this world, Donnie wrote in his diary of his love and concern for me, and of his gratitude to, and trust in, God.

I thought then that it was a good way to die. But, as I have since learned in facing this journey without my husband, it is also a very good way to live.

Look outwards at others, and upwards to Himself, and your own pain can never overwhelm.