Hope Springs Eternity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And conquer it he did.

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

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

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

Keeping the Snail’s March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ultimately, they are our battles too.

Ministry of Offence

When I first started this blog, I felt like a very tiny speck of humanity, shouting out into the unknown from the middle of a vast wilderness. I didn’t represent any particular group, or enjoy the protection of an organisation- I was just a newly professed Christian, shooting her mouth off about salvation.

Then, though, a miraculous thing happened: the unknown whispered back.

Messages began to come from people I’d never met, saying that my writing encouraged them and how they could put their ‘amen’ to much of what I shared. Most unexpected of all, some even began to thank me for my ‘ministry’. 

I had never thought of myself as having such a thing. It’s not that I’m so narrow-minded as to think this is the sole dominion of coves in collars, not at all. Ministries, as I understood them, were the province of churches, and all those people you hear prayed for on Sundays. They’re the missionaries, the organisers, the bakers, the committee people – and they’re under the auspices and jurisdiction of their denomination or their Session. 

My blog doesn’t tick those boxes. I didn’t run it past the Men in Black, far less wait to be asked. If you wait to be asked, as a Wee Free woman, chances are you’ll be waiting forever. Well, I ain’t a waiting kind of gal.

And I’m kind of glad now that this is the case. Of course my blog is a ministry. It isn’t enough to be healed – you’ve got to tell people how it happened; and you have to be ready to defend the reason for that burning, bright, unquenchable hope that is in you. God led me to profess my secret faith with those messages, and he’s not going to let me re-cap my pen until the last ordained syllable has been laid down. 

No Session, no church committee, will ever give you that torch. Nor should we expect them to. Every Christian has it in them to be a minister for Christ . . . it’s just a question of how. 

Some people – myself included at times – thought it was mainly cheek a’ mhuncaidh that propelled me on. Again and again, I was asked where I’d found the courage to just speak, when no one had actually invited me to. It isn’t courage though, folks: it’s compulsion. I cannot shut up about Christ because . . . well, look what he’s done for me.

Time and time and time again I denied him. I knew he was there, but I fooled myself and others into believing I was doing it all by myself. Life was great because God had heaped blessings on my ungrateful head. And never – not once – did I say to him, ‘this is too much – give it to someone else’.

Not until the first day I thought I might lose my husband. Then, though, I considered God to be giving more than I deserved. He was exposing my brittle heart to the reality of death. So I cried out into the unknown, ‘how can I bear this’?

And a miracle happened: the unknown whispered back. Even more miraculous, it was not the unknown at all, but a dear and familiar presence that had been with me always, saying, ‘We will bear it. I will never leave you nor forsake you’.

This Jesus. That’s what our ministry is about. It’s not to tell people the answers, but to lead them safely to a Man who IS the answer. 

I may not carry a label that says ‘officially approved by the FCOS’, but written across my heart are these words: ‘redeemed by the blood of Christ; free indeed’. So, even although I don’t have a governing committee or a policy document, I’m going to stop cringing when you lovely people refer to Post Tenebras Lux as ‘ministry’ – it IS a ministry for Christ and it is my privilege to serve at his pleasure.

And if I’ve ever encouraged you in anything, let me encourage you in this: don’t wait for the ‘church’ to call you – get your mobilisation orders directly from its head. He has fewer rules about who can serve.

The crofter, the tourist and the black, black Commission

There is yet another story this week about a croft tenancy for sale in Harris, inviting offers in the region of an eye-watering £200,000. It is obviously with a view to the development value of the croft that this price has been set – acres of glamping pods rather than potatoes are all that could justify such a hefty ticket.

And that’s fine. One person can sell his croft and he’d be a mug not to ask the very highest sum buyers are willing to pay.

The issue here is not with the individual- it’s with the law that permits such a thing to happen at all. In fact, it’s not even that. All over the country, for many years, developers and speculators have brought up prime real estate for all kinds of money-making projects. That’s the kind of malarkey capitalism approves. So, some people scratch their heads, puzzled at the hissy fits being thrown across the Long Island over what is, after all, the legitimate sale of land.

Therein, though, lies the rub. 

Negative reactions to this sort of thing stem from the confusing presence of a relic from a bygone age: crofting legislation. It was created in the nineteenth century to protect our ancestors from landlord whim – the economic imperative (or ‘greed’, if you prefer) that had led to a long period of clearance across the Gàidhealtachd. 1886 was a seminal year, then, with the first Act to protect crofters landing on the statute books.

Read that last sentence again. Notice anything? That’s right – the law was designed to protect crofters, not crofting: the people, not the system; the community, not the commodity.

Over the years, we have become more financially secure, as successive generations left the land to work for the man. Yet, some people continued to work their crofts, until the excesses of headage payments saw everyone packing the acres with sheep and cattle. When I was growing up in the nineteen eighties, the CAP had made it all about subsidy. Then, the greener nineties, with their hole in the ozone layer and their Earth summits, started pushing for better stewardship of the land.

And now, there is tourism. Where the nineteenth century displaced communities for the sheep, our century is doing the same for the visitor. 

For many people, the villain in this piece is the Crofting (no longer ‘Crofters’’) Commission. They exist to regulate crofting as a system of land use and, like opponents of selling crofts as real estate say, it ain’t happening. Social media is full of half-formed opinions which coalesce around the notion that the Commission isn’t doing its duty. But the Commission is subject to the same laws that crofting is, and to woeful underfunding from government.

The problem is that we don’t all agree on why crofting is important. For me, its primary value has been in the way it ensured people could build homes in areas that might – without the grants and loans that used to be available – lie empty. Most of these board houses were built here in Lewis and Harris, anyway, by young islanders wishing to establish themselves in the place they grew up. During those years, ‘community’ in this place was synonymous with the notion of extended family, of continuity and connection with place.

Now, as the progenitors of these homes age and die, they are sold on to strangers. The children of these families are often elsewhere – many went to the mainland for education or work and have made their lives there. It isn’t always possible to keep the family home; and so the houses pass into the hands of those who can afford them.

Times have changed, but crofting legislation has not recognised this. It is a confused mish-mash that actually protects little that is worth having. 

People buy tenancies now in order to make easy money from tourism and related activities. ‘Diversification’ is a bit of a misnomer as far as I can see because non-traditional use of the land is rapidly becoming the norm. The guys with the hay and the cattle or sheep, they’re the real experimentalists. You can even forget about the sanctity of common grazing because you don’t need to be a crofting shareholder to run a business on pasture that was once intended for communal animal grazing. Literally anything goes in some townships.

So, the moment has definitely arrived for hard decisions to be made. We have so-called crofting laws that encourage the destruction of community, and of crofting itself.

It’s time we shifted the emphasis back to the protection of crofters, as opposed to crofting. In doing so, there is a need to define what a crofter is – and that most certainly has got to be a bit tighter than just some fly-by-night who happens to hold a tenancy. Only then will we know what the laws are meant to protect, and evaluate whether they’re still worth the ink that’s been spilt.

And only then will we know if we have any right – or reason – to be outraged by the things that are done under the guise of crofting.

Every Breath You Take, Every Tear You Shed

Every move you make, every breath you take, I’ll be watching you. Unsettled? You should be. Imagine me turning up everywhere you go, keeping a weather eye on all your doings. Not anyone’s idea of a good time, least of all mine. Most of you are probably very boring, putting bins out and booking chiropodist appointments, not working for the secret service or dating celebrities on the Q.T.

Anyway, it’s just a quote from the song, ‘Every Breath You Take’, which has been jokingly renamed ‘the stalker’s anthem’ – and it popped into my head while sitting in church on Sunday morning. Now, before you all start fidgeting in your pews and eyeing one another nervously, don’t bother – it wasn’t any of you who prompted the thought; it was the minister. And, no, he needn’t be rushing out to get a bigger padlock for the manse gate either. It was actually something in the sermon that brought the song to mind:

God has a record of all our woes. The beautiful psalm 56 tells us that he stores up our tears in a flask. 

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had some big sorrows in my life, the kind that feel as though they’re carved into my very heart. But every droplet that fell from my mourning eyes is numbered and bottled by God. He knows the depth and breadth of my grief in a way that even I do not.

Still more extraordinary, though, is the fact that he also has an exact record of the hurts that I’ve forgotten. I mean, I have cried over a lot of situations and a lot of people that long since passed into oblivion. There were emotional storms that seemed seismic at the time, but that I have certainly no word of now.

Yet my Heavenly Father remembers. Those tears are counted too. God is more tender towards me than I am towards myself.

And that is why, masked up and a metre from all my nearest neighbours, I added a couple more droplets to that eternal flask. These were not tears of pain, however. Relentlessly, psalm 56 unfolded in beauty, and I glimpsed – if only for a brief moment – the inexpressible heart of God.

You see, he not only collects the tangible record of our sorrow. In order to do this fully, he also follows us in all our wanderings. That is, he not only accompanies us on the journey we ought to take, but watches us when we stray from the path. 

Well, of course he does. A parent may smile at their child, safely sleeping in his own bed; but how much more watchful is that gaze when the little one is in danger? It was this that wrung the tears from my Sunday morning eyes – remembering all the foolish times I had tried to do things without him, never knowing that he was coming with me anyway, whether I acknowledged his presence or not.

The context for all of this is a familiar theme in the psalms – strength in the presence of the enemy. It asks the oft-repeated question, ‘what can man do to me’?

I have been afraid at times. Undoubtedly the most frightened I have ever been was when my husband fell ill with cancer. A few days ago, I overheard a television character being asked if he was afraid of something or other and he replied, ‘No. After my wife died, the worst had happened and so nothing else frightens me’. 

That is not how it is for me. When my husband died, before that, even, God caught me in his arms. He was more than sufficient in the worst fear I have ever endured. So, because of THAT- because of HIM – I cannot be properly afraid of anything else. I may get upset, I may be angry at the enemy, but I cannot fear him.

Sometimes in dealing with the onslaught against my faith, whatever form it takes, I forget to leave it with God. I get caught up with trying to tackle the situation myself, and I do so on my own (nonexistent) strength. 

It goes without saying that I make a hash of it. My repetitious tendencies in this regard have been a worry to myself.

Yet, there in church on Sunday morning in Stornoway, I felt a new surge of love and humble gratitude. One metre removed I may have been from my fellow worshippers, but my Father and I are never more than a hair’s breadth apart. Thanks entirely to him. He doesn’t permit that the stubbornness of my heart should lead me anywhere that he does not also go. 

So, why should I fear? Until the stopper is finally placed in the flask, and I reach the place of no more weeping, every move I make, every breath I take, he’ll be watching me. 

Now Only Three

On Sunday morning, I was driving through the neighbouring village of Gress. To my left, the carpark was already starting to fill up, and people were unloading an assortment of beach toys, dogs and children. Over to the right, the cemetery lay quietly, an eloquent reminder that even in the midst of life, we are in death. As I continued onwards, I fell to pondering what visitors make of our cemeteries, plentiful and prominent as they are.

In fact, like our primary schools and churches, the burial grounds are a testament to the way in which Lewis was grown. Each village was a world entire for the people who belonged to it. And note my use of language- it’s something those from outside of the islands would do well to take on board: we make no claim of ownership on these communities, but they have a claim on us. That’s why, to a degree, the concept of community ownership in the literal sense is a bit alien. Traditionally, our relationship with land has not been proprietorial.

Indeed, our relationships were always described in terms of claims on, and not by, us. Where do you belong to? Who do you belong to? 

Thus, the villages had their churches to nurture the spiritual lives of the people, and schools to educate. Land was tenanted, not possessed, and the whole patchwork stitched together by fellow feeling, common experience and mutual understanding. 

The cemeteries are a part of it. One of the first things I did as a grown-up, married woman was to pay the lair fees for myself, my husband and my mother in-law. I began life in Tolsta paying nine pounds, then six . . . and now only three. It is an annual memento mori, a gentle pecuniary reminder nach e seo baile a mhaireas. Unlike many other townships, Tolsta’s cemetery is less prominent and so far removed from the village that you could go your whole life without glimpsing it. That’s a shame, I think, because when burial grounds are at the centre of a village, they do serve as a normaliser of death as something natural. For most villages, too, until very recently, burial itself occupied a central role in community life: everyone turned out to local funerals. 

Lewis funerals were the ultimate act of community – a public solidarity with the grieving family, and a respectful acknowledgement of the deceased person’s place in the tapestry of their lives. We understand better than most how someone you barely knew, or knew only by sight or who was just a name to you, still touched your life in some way, however small. They existed, they shared your heritage, they were a part of the same things you are. And thanks to our very civilised and healthy relationship with death, we are able to give them that dignified place at the end of life. The patronymic system ensures that their memory lives on, a chain linking those of us still in life to the relations and neighbours gone ahead into eternity.  It connects us, across the continents and oceans also, to the emigrated loved ones, keeping them a part of our community in life and in death, just the same.

We are losing our hold on what has kept these communities through the centuries. The church building may be where it was placed, at the centre of our villages, but the actual church is rarely at the heart of community life. And because of this, our relationship with death is also changing, turning into something sour and unhealthy.

It is darkly ironic that the unbelievers who call Christianity ‘a death cult’ are so prepared to argue against the sanctity of life themselves. If an unborn life is inconvenient, terminate it in the bud; if a person’s health is deteriorating or their quality of life poor, remove the burden now. Don’t wait on God’s providence, don’t trust him: push his hand away and do it for yourself. Somehow, we think that a life untrammelled by difficulty or pain is our birthright, and if it isn’t provided for us we must take it for ourselves. That justifies breaking the commandment to protect life. What does God know of our suffering?

The people who placed their churches and their cemeteries at the heart of community life knew better than to turn their faces from him. In accepting his seasons of providence, they showed great wisdom. ‘Fatalistic’, some have called it, but I don’t see it that way. They trusted him with all the moments of their lives. We are linked to them, through that patronymic chain, through all the words of prayer uttered by parents for children, by sisters for their brothers and vice-versa, and by pastors for their flocks.

Let us find our way back to a place where God is permitted to be God, and we accept that it is both in and to him we belong.

Another Man’s Croman

(A belated tribute to the late Eachann Dòmhnallach)

I like a laugh as much as the next miserable Calvinist, if only to take my mind off the doctrine of predestination for a minute. Any longer would be too long, even in the context of eternity. Unfathomable immortality may lie before me, but it’s still a sin to waste any of it on frivolity. 

It was in this grudging spirit that I dislodged ‘A View from North Lochs’ from the bookcase where it had been languishing, and took a flip through. Well, it fairly brought me back to the days when I would, as a geeky teenager, eagerly buy my illicit copy of the WHFP purely for Hector Macdonald’s offbeat look at island life. I had seen him once, shaking his fist at an SNP election cavalcade of which I was part, but he otherwise maintained – for me – an air of mystery and legend. He was smart and funny, with a voice that was nothing if not authentic.

Also subversive. A radical, if you will. And even if you won’t. Indeed, especially if you won’t, for isn’t that the way with radicals?

One of my favourite things about him was the way he managed to be a voice for the maws. Any Leòdhasach over a certain age knows that for long enough particular things ran unquestioningly along established lines. Certain roles were to be fulfilled by townies of a specific caste – it was not merely enough to be born within the samh of taigh nan guts and òcrach Bheinn na Dròbha, but it was a start. You certainly couldn’t have the country Maoris with their turned-down wellies traipsing into the town hall or clarting the carpets of Amity House with  anything unmentionable.

Eachann poked fun at this attitude without mercy. He feigned an exaggerated humility and tugged his forelock in such a way that one knew, somehow, exactly what he really thought. Don’t imagine, however, that this was wanton iconoclasm. In those heady days before the faceless nastiness of social media, this man had the art of satirising without giving gratuitous offence. 

And, as I reread the collected columns, published by Birlinn a number of years after his death, something else came back to me. Last week, in the course of my day job, I had to garner a view from Kinloch. (They will honestly do anything to try and provoke my resignation, but I stand firm). This latter-day Lochie commentator had useful insights to offer on the past and present of the crofting community. One thing really stood out, however.

We talk of schemes to regenerate the crofting community and the Gaelic community . . . and in the process, we overlook the common denominator. All these earnest attempts to revive the language and keep an historic system of land tenure alive, they fail to take account of the way in which community has changed.

One of the proofs that what I say is true is the ebbing away of island humour.
Not long ago, I tried to persuade a neo-crofter that he should keep his hens (I may have called them ‘chickens’ to ensure he understood me) to himself, and that if I was the kind of deviant who wanted hens, I’d get some of my own. He has taken the notion of ‘free-range’ to include my weed-killer infested property, so if the egg consumers of Tolsta start to display odd traits (sorry, odder), you’ll know why.  Not totally au fait with the notion of personal responsibility, he replied unconvincingly that he’d try. I, in turn, suggested that a man who is outwitted by hens probably shouldn’t have any in the first place, lest they overpower him with their superior intellect.

This gentle rejoinder was greeted by apoplexy of the sort normally reserved for hauliers ringing the Calmac booking line. He didn’t get island humour. Of course, why would he? And clearly he thinks that’s the worst I’ve got, so I’ll try to be gentler. Any crofter who wears a safety helmet on a quad probably should be handled with sensitivity, right enough.

I’d have had more respect for him if, instead of throwing a hissy fit, he’d replied as the other fellow did when his neighbour complained of a similar feathery invasion.

‘Tha na cearcan agaibhse staigh an seo a-rithist agus ag ith biadh nan cearcan againne’, the first maw complained.

‘O, tha mi a’ creids’ – tha iad glè bheag umhail mar sin’.

People don’t think of others like they used to, relate to others like they used to or, dare I say, know one another like they used to. It’s ironic that when it was merely ‘sa bhaile againne’, we were more of a community; and now that we no longer know or care for each other as we did, we just can’t stop using the word, ‘community’. 

I’m not all that sure who it is we’re trying to convince. What I do know is that most of the wisest people I’ve ever met had the same answer for dealing with the common or garden amadan – laugh at him. Whether he is an amadan sporting the chains of high office, an amadan with a pen, or an amadan on a grazings committee, he is underneath it all, just an amadan. 

And in a community like ours, we’ve all been the amadan at some point. Some come from a long line of amadain, others strike out for themselves. It would be nice if we could remember that, and learn how to laugh at ourselves – and each other – without it causing a fence.

Defending My Hope

When God decided I should emerge from my shadowy existence as a secret disciple, he must have had a plan, because he always does. Two sermons set me on the inevitable path to the Kirk Session (though they assure me that one blog – possibly even this one – will be enough to see me recalled). One, on the woman who had the issue of blood, convicted me that being healed is not enough, that we have to tell it abroad; and the second one, on the need for readiness to defend our hope in Christ. 

I have not shut up since. Compelled to defend the cause, or to share my hope, I have landed in all manner of trouble. At least part of the reason for that has been my own approach. 

In that, I am like the church as a whole. We love Christ, and in our zeal to share that with those around us, we sometimes forget that the messenger is much less apt to be shot if she considers the mode of delivery a little more carefully. 

Given that my chosen mission field was digital from the get-go, there were always going to be three principal difficulties. First of all, my audience is very mixed. On one hand there are the Christians who, for the most part, see what I’m doing and say little or nothing. Their silence may indicate approval, or the very opposite; I don’t know. On the other hand, there are the all-too-vocal unbelievers who wish I’d be quiet and keep my faith in fairy tales to myself. Secondly, online ministry of the sort I have embarked upon is lonely and prone to snap judgement from among the brethren. More traditional Christians think it folly to be engaging with atheists on social media, and some have made it clear that they see my dol a-mach as troublemaking. And thirdly, if you are using digital media for writing your views, people can misunderstand tone and intention. That’s why, I imagine, I have been variously accused of having a ‘Messiah complex’, being ‘bitter and cold’ and portraying myself as ‘the perfect, grieving widow who found God’.

You see the problem? It’s all too easy to lose people. If they dislike you, or your manner, or even just their idea of you, the psychological shutters come crashing down and you have no chance of reaching them. 

So, I have an image problem. There is an entire group of people – most of whom have never met me – entirely persuaded that I am a repellent Bible thumper, an unreasonable Sabbatarian and a smug, self-righteous hater. I must bear at least some of the responsibility for this because, without doubt, I have misrepresented my Saviour at times by being unloving and too swift to speak. If we look at any of Christ’s encounters with ordinary people in the Bible, or with leaders, for that matter, there are precious few words from him. 

We, on the other hand, seek to show him forth by jabbering endlessly. Fill the silence at all costs – isn’t that how we roll? Unfortunately, my heart is not fathomless, like the Lord’s: it is mean and brittle, and goes out only to those who are easy to love, and so much of what I think, say and write is devoid of the costly perfume that Christ pours out on me without measure. I set out to share his boundless grace, but end by keeping it meanly to myself and spilling out judgement and condemnation.

Or, at least, that’s how it seems to people who are only seeing me. There is too little of Christ in the way that I deal with unbelievers and I have, consequently, forced them to see him through the prism of me, rather than the other way around.  To say that I have misrepresented him is the understatement of the century. 

The endless words from me have been an attempt to fill the void that ought to be filled up with Christlikeness. I have to speak and write and speak some more so that the avalanche of words will persuade people that I am a Christian, and that he has begun a good work in me. Of course I believe that he has, but I shouldn’t have to say it: my life ought to be sufficient witness.

I could stand silent in the presence of doubters, as my Lord did, if I was able to reflect him back at them. For a long time, I thought I was doing that with this blog, but I am increasingly aware of speaking into darkness and being answered with silence and hardness of heart.

I think, perhaps, for a little while, it may be wise to sanctify God in my heart and ready myself to give the defence of the reason for my unquenchable hope, but only when it’s asked for. When people ask, you know that they have seen something in you without having to be told.

I have never – not once – been asked for that defence.

Reputation or Character?

Many years ago, the post office at Achmore briefly became a crime scene. Over a period of time, small sums of money had been disappearing and, as is bound to happen in such cases, people were beginning to regard one another with suspicion. This is an unhealthy state of affairs in a small community, and so a plan was hatched.

Two people lay in wait on a given night, hoping to apprehend the light-fingered culprit.

Imagine their shock, then, when he turned out not to be light-fingered – or, more accurately, not to be in possession of any fingers at all.

‘How sad’, you say, ‘what all that inbreeding can cause’.

You misunderstand me: he had a long tail and whiskers.

‘Yes, Achmore’, you nod sadly.

You’re still not getting it: he was a rat; a felonious rodent with a penchant for bent accounting. When his little stash was discovered, the money was even arranged according to denomination. 

Still, isn’t everything in this part of the world?

History doesn’t record the relief this discovery must have occasioned. We are far too ready to regard our fellows with suspicion, and they in their turn to think badly of us. That the real culprit turned out to be a rat must surely have been welcome news all round.

I was thinking about false accusations recently, and the harm they – and gossip – can inflict. It is the instinct of every person to protect their own good name, and to lash out at those who would defame it. That drive is no less present in the Christian, but there is a very particular reason why we have to fight it.

In surrendering your life to Christ you are giving him control of everything. You are acknowledging his complete ownership of all that you are, and all that you have.

Including your reputation.

That’s his too. Remember Job? Joseph? King David? All three saw their good names sullied without cause. David was exiled, Joseph imprisoned, and Job had the particular pain of being doubted by his friends. Surely – as Eliphaz believed – a Christian who suffers loss of reputation must certainly have offended God deeply.

That’s a logical stance for the world to take. They cannot distinguish between character and reputation. And, of course, they refuse to accept that their view of the matter is not final. It is a state of affairs as old as time (or very nearly). Read the Book of Psalms for repeated exhortations that God not allow his servant to be put to shame by the enemy.

Inevitably, these petitions conclude in the same way: remembering God’s faithfulness and praiseworthy name.

The key to bearing trial, whether bereavement slander, or scandal, is to place yourself back where you belong: in God’s hands. See his strength actually perfected in your own weakness. 

These are not just nice words: I have lived them.

Sadly, I have also failed to live them. The unregenerate part of me wants to defend myself against liars. These efforts tend, however, to be fruitless – not because I am wrong, but because my appeal fails in the courts of men. 

The courts of men are built on the very street in which truth is fallen.

We have all, therefore, to seek after the weakness of which Paul boasted, ‘for when I am weak, then am I strong’. God owns my reputation; it is not mine to defend.

Can a Christian be slandered and wronged with impunity, then? Yes. And no. It all depends whose verdict you value. We can, it would appear, be subject to all the vilest jibes and condemnation of the world. Christians may even – as Job was – be judged wrongly by the brethren.

However, we can also stand fast in the love of Christ and pray as he did. If our reputation is God’s then, the awful truth is that our enemies are much to be pitied, for they really know not what they do.

Because He Loved Us First

When the bombs fell on Buckingham Palace in 1940, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother said that she was glad because it meant that she and the King could finally ‘look the East End in the eye’. Many people have laughed at this statement, believing it to be illustrative of just how out of touch the royal family is. People who had almost nothing, losing everything they owned in one night were not experiencing the same war as the privileged Windsors with their untold wealth and multiple palatial residences. If one castle gets totalled, move to another: that is not poverty.

We seem to believe that empathy can only stem from our having actually experienced something. Until the monarch has to live in a high-rise flat with no food in the fridge and no money to feed the meter, she cannot begin to understand the plight of her poorest subjects.

Empathy, though, is like faith – it shouldn’t require evidence. Nothing breaks my heart more than homelessness, though I have mercifully never been in that position myself. Surely the essence of the empathetic heart is being able to find the common point of experience. The Queen Mother was not suggesting that her domestic situation was the same as that of the Eastenders; she was saying, however, that both knew what it was to have their homes threatened and even breached. One was much larger and grander, yes, but home nonetheless.

And, just the same, when I saw our Queen sitting all by herself at the funeral of her husband, I could finally understand how a blone from Lewis and the monarch of a kingdom might have something in common.

When the time came for the mourners to file into the church on the day of my husband’s funeral, a church officer approached me and asked, ‘are you alone?’ I felt his words like a knife to my heart. Yes indeed, I thought, quite alone. My best friend, my helpmeet, my companion in life, has gone on without me, and I have to navigate this path as best I can with no hand to hold.

I don’t imagine the pain of losing a spouse is any less when you are a world leader. Perhaps, indeed, the pain is greater still for one whose life is so public. She must now find a way in which to do everything she used to do, but always conscious of the absence where Prince Philip used to be. It is likely – though by no means certain – that her reunion with him will come much more quickly than mine with Donnie. When I was first widowed, I used to envy elderly women in my position, because I thought they wouldn’t have to experience so much of life without their husbands.

Now, though, I know it makes no difference. Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, but he still wept with the family. His tears were not merely for their pain, but for the human condition – for the fall that has brought us to a place of death. Inevitably, whether we are exalted in the land or humble, we gather at the graveside and mourn for what the great leveller has removed.

Jesus – the Queen’s Saviour and mine – was displaying empathy. He was shedding tears for mankind, for the sin that brought death into our experience. Although he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, death would eventually claim him a second time.

Of course, the depth of Jesus’ empathy was what led him to finally surrender himself on the cross. So moved was the Lord’s heart by what we have inflicted upon ourselves, that he did not merely weep with the bereaved: he gave himself to death in our place.

Christ became man and walked this Earth. He was born into the humblest of surroundings. As a man, he had no home to call his own, no regular income, no insurance policies. The King of Kings was a vagrant.

But that isn’t what made him the most empathetic man who ever lived.

Before God sent his Son into the world, there was compassion, and there was empathy for our plight. Do we castigate God because he has never had his home destroyed, or lost his spouse? Would it be fair to tell him that he cannot understand our pain? Of course not, because he is the very model of what empathy means. If I may put it like this, he carried empathy to its ultimate conclusion.

If we are followers of Christ, then, shouldn’t empathy be part of our character? There are things I have not suffered, practices I do not approve, walks I have not had to take . . . but when I see my fellow man in their midst, where is my heart? Do I rush to judgement, to vitriol and condemnation, or do I say, ‘there but for God’s grace go I’.

Christ came alongside all manner of sin and suffering. That was empathy. And we are capable of it, it is expected of us, because he loved us first.