Identifying as a Wee Free Widow

‘Identity’ is a word much in the news these days. Gender identity, ethnic identity, community identity . . . It’s the jargon of the time in which we live. Much like anything else, though, once the label goes on, the thing in the jar is already dead. We use the word, ‘identity’ so much because we have lost any real sense of who we are.

There was a time when, if I told my GP that I saw myself as an Irish tomcat, he’d probably have me quietly removed to a place of safety, having first said, ‘no, you’re a boring white maw lady’. But these days, you can – according to the right-on thought police – identify as anything you want.

I have trouble with this on several levels. There is an aspect of my own identity which I don’t like. Much as I may joke about it, I’m reconciled to the Carloway/Achmore/Harris genes; and I’m happy to be fluent in the language of Eden, even if we Gaels are more endangered than the corncrake.

It’s never troubled me too much that there are only two genders to choose from either because you don’t actually get to choose anyway. Occasionally, when my brother would receive his ‘Beano’, and I was stuck with dull old ‘Twinkle’, I’d wish I was a boy. However, antipathy towards Nurse Nancy and her implausible job at the dolls’ hospital was hardly the basis for such an upheaval, so I let it go.

Besides, if I’d mentioned that I seriously wished to switch genders, my father would have counselled me in the time-honoured way of all sensitive Lewismen, ‘Ist, oinsich.’ Conversation over.

The aspect of my identity I’m least comfortable with is the w-word. No, not ‘witch’. Not ‘weirdo’ either, thank you. It’s ‘widow’ I don’t much care for. And I think that a large part of my discomfort stems from the fact that it makes others uncomfortable too.

I keep remembering CS Lewis’ description of himself following the loss of his wife, as a ‘death’s head’, reminding all couples of their inevitable parting. Often, you fret that your very presence will upset people who are ill. Equally, I worry about ruining people’s parties and gatherings – I don’t want to be the hollow-eyed spectre at the feast while others try to make merry.

The problem is mostly in my head, though not entirely. After Donnie died, the MacMillan nurse advised me to change my shopping routine – ‘otherwise’, she said, ‘you’ll meet the same people you always do, people you know. And you’ll spot some of them trying to avoid you, which will hurt.’ She was right: I spotted people ducking up aisles in the supermarket, or suddenly becoming very interested in displays of teabags as I passed by. There were colleagues who never acknowledged my loss, and there were many expected visitors who did not come.

Two years on, I’m probably deemed safe – unlikely to burst into tears, or embarrass anyone by prostrating myself with grief in public. But I’m still a widow: a forty one year old widow. What are people supposed to do with that ? For that matter, what am I supposed to do with that?

Well, it’s simple. I decided from day one that I was going to be as easy as possible to be around. (Yes, this is the manageable version). If you want company, you owe it to people not to make it more of a challenge than it needs to be. That often means being the Catriona people expect even though I’m not the Catriona I expected. Smile though your heart is aching and all that jazz. My grief is mine, and I have no right to thrust it upon other innocent bystanders so long after the event. Two years is a long time. Unless, of course, you’re the one who has lost someone.

But this is where one other facet of who I am comes into play: my identity in Christ. Even in church, I can feel out of place. There are couples everywhere, and there is so much emphasis on young families that it’s easy to wonder where you fit. The answer, though, is in Him, and the answer is: ‘in Him’. He it was who, as Newton put it, brought me safe thus far. And, He intended my widowhood.

That’s the most startling and challenging thing of all. It’s only natural for people who are condoling with you to say how awful it is for Donnie and I to have been parted so young. We view it as though this world is everything, and to be taken out of it is punishment. Donnie wasn’t taken early; he was taken when and as God intended.

The logical follow-on is, therefore, that I was widowed when and as God intended.

So, God meant me to be who I am right now; this has a purpose. I am not where I am as the result of some unhappy accident. Providence knows no accidents; and Providence doesn’t want my self-pity. I do have such periods when I feel hard done-by  – because I’m a self-indulgent, egocentric sinner.

And then I am reminded of the cup that did not pass from my Saviour’s lips, despite His repeated prayer.

If you catch me feeling sorry for myself, remind  me that whoever I identify as, that’s who I’m identifying with – and He suffered unimaginably so that I wouldn’t have to.

 

Lost Causes & Bringing Cutlery to Ness

A former minister of Stornoway Free Church once impertinently suggested that I had a bit of a preoccupation with lost causes. His evidence was my membership of the SNP and the fact that, at the time, I was a development officer in Ness. Well, the SNP has done okay since then; and I’ve heard that the Nisich are now – mainly – literate, and able to use cutlery. So much for my causes being lost.

He wasn’t entirely wrong, though. I’ve always known what it is to be in the minority. Being a Gaelic-speaking Calvinist marked me out from most of my fellow men; and now, a follower of Christ, I am a confirmed oddity in the eyes of the world.

Recently, I was interviewed for BBC Alba’s religious programme, ‘Alleluia’, and was asked what kind of upbringing I had received in terms of faith. I think I said it was ‘gu math àbhaisteach’ – fairly standard. Most households had some kind of church connection, and most attended services, even sporadically. For the time – the eighties – it was indeed àbhaisteach. So much so, indeed, that I fear we took it for granted.

Chatting to one of our more senior elders this week, he said that he and his wife had returned to live in Lewis during that very period. The pews were so full that one had to arrive half an hour before the service in order to be guaranteed a seat. Those greeting the congregation at the door had no time to do more than catch their hands and encourage them inwards, a gesture reminiscent of sheep being guided through a dipping tank.

It was easy. All they had to do was unlock the doors, and people would come. Elders and ministers were held in high esteem in the community. Even people who were unconverted, or unchurched for that matter, would go to some lengths to avoid giving offence to Christians. Bad language was refrained from in their presence. There was a culture of respect for the things of God, and even those who thought it foolishness had more manners than to say so.

It is easy when everything is as you would want it. The SNP in the Western Isles had seventeen years of Donald Stewart MP, a man universally admired and respected. When he retired, they had to adjust to a whole new world. I remember those years. Repeated election campaigns when you knew in you heart that things were not going your way. Knocking on doors, only to be told that you were a nuisance, or a gullible idiot. Having your campaign literature torn up in front of you. Being called unrepeatable names and even, on one memorable occasion, being spat at.

Scottish nationalism, though, is no longer the social embarrassment it once was. It has gone mainstream. Properly political now, affiliation with the SNP is not, by itself, enough to get you a reputation for eccentricity. Being a member of the SNP is never going to win you universal approval either, but at least people no longer patronisingly say, ‘oh, so was I – until I grew up.’

The cause of the lost, on the other hand, looks to be in a bad way. Churches are emptier, people no longer trouble to refrain from giving offence to Christians here in Lewis – indeed, some seem to go out of their way to shock. Secularism exercises its vocal cords at every opportunity. Only this week, the results of a questionnaire survey show forth the anti-Sabbatarian agenda rearing its tedious head yet again.

Now that the church in Lewis commands little respect from those who do not share its views, then, are we to assume it has become an irrelevance? Should the Free Church pack away its psalm books and sell its buildings so that they may be converted into pubs, or gyms, or coffee shops – something that people do want?

Of course not. Recently, our congregation heard that the world hates the Gospel, but it needs the Gospel. This is the dichotomy that means we must persevere: it echoes the Great Commission. None of us knew we needed Christ,after all, until He made Himself known to us. We love because He first loved us.

When we thronged, as a community, to church every week, it may very well have been just ‘the done thing’ for many. Teenagers went to please parents, adults went out of habit and obedience to societal norms. But many who went there carelessly were eventually saved.They may have gone for months, or even years, under duress, but their bonds would sooner or later be removed by the truth which sets all who hear it free.

Being unwanted in society is not a new experience for the church of Christ. The head of our church was slain by a culture hostile to His message, yet His mission persevered. He was despised and rejected of men, as is His church – and for that very reason it must endure.

We forget, don’t we, that the cause of the lost is very far from being a lost cause. Indeed, Christ is already victorious, enthroned in Heaven. And so, His triumph should surely be foundational to our worship.

Worship is in the Spirit. Neither preaching, nor praise, nor prayer are mere words. And the same indwelling Spirit who compels our private and corporate prayer can compel people into His presence, no matter how far removed they may be from thoughts of Christ.

The only lost cause, it turns out,  is that of fighting irresistible grace.

 

Hats, hymns and the Holy Spirit

I got a bit of a shock last Sunday night. After the evening service, I met my mother. No, that’s not the shock – I’ve known her all my life. But something was different . . . It took a few minutes before I realised: she wasn’t wearing a hat! My first thought was, ‘I knew it – she’s gone back to the Church of Scotland.’ Subtly, I glanced to see if she was carrying a hymn book, and then it occurred to me that I didn’t know what one looked like anyway. Besides, surely I’d have heard if my own mother had absconded back from whence she came.

Actually, she had just got fed-up of hats and decided, at seventy-eight, that it was time to join the aotrom* throng of bare-headed Free Church women. She really does believe in doing things in her own time, and for that . . . well, I take my hat off to her.

The hat-wearing ladies have long since become a symbol of more so-called ‘hardline’ Presbyterian churches. Somehow, people got the idea that the hat symbolised male dominance and female subjugation. As if the Session appointed a committee to discuss such things. ‘What was in style ten years ago?’, the chairman might ask. After consulting a long out of date JD Williams catalogue, one of the elders would say, ‘pillboxes, with a small veil’. Two hours later, an edict would be issued to the local shops – ‘Stock only pillbox hats (with or without veils) and sell these to our women. No gaudy colours – they’re vain enough as it is.’

The hats are fewer and further between with each passing year. You will see more people (of both genders) wearing jeans to church, and fewer men are opting for the suit and tie look.

Last Sunday morning, the preacher mentioned that thousands of others had once occupied the pews in which we, the congregation, were sitting. In the more than 150 years since the church was built, successive generations have indeed sat under the Word there. Fashions changed many times over that period, and so many ministers have mounted the steps to preach in that very pulpit. Even the language of worship has changed. And the light-fitting, the Habitat-esque monstrosity which replaced – I am reliably informed – two perfectly charming pulpit lamps, was also a reflection of the (lack of) taste and mode of the time.

Were it possible for some of these Victorian worshippers to return to Kenneth Street now, they would undoubtedly be struck by some of the outward changes. They might be confused about standing to sing and sitting to pray, or the purpose of the camera, to say nothing of references to soup and pudding, Tweenies and newsletters. And I am certain that they would wonder why the whole affair was being lit by something resembling an oil drum.

But then, the reading from the Word would reassure them that all is still well with their old church. The preaching is as Bible-centred as it ever was, and the congregation hears the truth, however unpalatable that sometimes can be to us. There may not be much in the way of pulpit-thumping or histrionics from the minister, but the message remains the same. One and a half centuries on, the building still resounds with the Good News. People in varying states of grace are awakened, comforted, challenged and fed, depending on their spiritual need.

What you see may be quite different, but what you hear is the same: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.

And what you don’t hear, or see? That would be the Spirit, abroad in our midst, opening ears and eyes, and changing hearts. He was there in the nineteenth century, and He is there in the twenty-first. The church he occupies isn’t, though, the lovely edifice on Kenneth Street but, as 1 Corinthians 3:16 puts it:
‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in you?’

With heads covered, or without, in jeans, or suits, or Sunday best frocks, it doesn’t matter a bit. The world sees and laughs either way. The Holy Spirit is as out of style as the pillbox hat, but His work goes on regardless. And the world rejects the Holy Spirit because they cannot see Him. To them, it is all reminiscent of the Emperor whose new clothes were not merely invisible, but nonexistent.

Christians, nonetheless, are to clothe themselves in the Spirit. That garment supersedes trends or fads, and resists the restless human desire for novelty and innovation. Whichever church you go to which claims Christ as its head, this will be the dress code: come as you are, and He will do the rest.

 

Notes

* lit. Light, insubstantial – used colloquially to denote spiritual superficiality. 

 

False gods and Free Church outings

I hadn’t been on a Sunday School outing in quite some years, what with me being forty one. On a Saturday, a few weeks ago, however, I found myself boarding the bus for Ardroil in Uig, with thirty or so excited children from the Laxdale Sunday School, where I’ve been a teacher since last August. It was pouring with rain and, as I stuffed the luggage rack with wee fishing nets and plastic spades, I worried that there were going to be a lot of disappointed people heading home that afternoon.

It rained quite hard for the first hour. The kids ate their barbecued food on the bus, while we hardier oldies huddled near the flames and drank cup after cup of tea to keep warm. And then, quite miraculously, the sun came out and we had a magical afternoon down on the sand. Once everyone had eaten a second round of burgers, psalms were sung and the annual event that is the boys versus girls tug of war got underway. Things looked good for the ladies at first, until one of the elders on the boys’ team sat down, which goes to show that Free Church men really will do anything to keep the women subordinate!

When I was first asked to teach in Sunday school, it was by an elder who had run after me into the Seminary on a Wednesday evening. As he rushed up the aisle towards me, my first thought was, ‘what have I done?’ I imagined wildly that he had spotted the Matt Redman CD on the dashboard of my car, or found out about me laughing in the stairwell of the church. But, as he stood, anxiously twisting his hands, it occurred to me that perhaps he only wished to borrow money.

After accepting his suggestion that I might wish to teach in the Sunday school, I panicked. Quietly, obviously – it would be unseemly for a repressed Free Church lady to make a fuss. Ever since Rev.Macrae had made it his avowed intention to ‘give the swooners no latitude’ in the 1930s, fainting has been banned within the environs of Stornoway Free Church. So, I sat silently in my pew and worried. Surely it was too soon? What right had I to presume to teach anyone about Christ when I still had so much to learn myself? Might I inadvertently teach them heresy? And what would I do with all their questions? Despairing, I remembered my own teachers in the same Sunday school, many years before; they seemed so wise, so knowledgeable, so . . . holy.

But then the mists began to clear. People send their children to Sunday school and it is our privilege to share with them the message of salvation, as others shared it with us. What seemed like humility and lack of self-assurance on my part was actually a disgraceful want of faith. Of course I wasn’t going to be adequate to the task; not on my own. Which of us can claim that we are? That’s why Christ promised us a helper in the Holy Spirit. However, if you are called upon to do something for His cause, you do it, asking His aid. In my experience, I can truthfully say that He never fails me.

I cannot, however, say with any certainty whether the children benefit from my classes. Sometimes it’s a struggle to keep their attention. And, oh my word, the questions! ‘Will there be bingo halls in Heaven?’ probably qualifies as the most left-field. The truly challenging moment came, however, when we were discussing the Ten Commandments.

It was, unsurprisingly, idolatry which caused the problem. They struggled with the idea that Jesus must come first in our hearts, before any of their loved ones, or hobbies, or prized possessions. Yes, I had to say repeatedly, before mum and dad, before your kitten, before your mobile phone, before your signed football, or your iPad. I struggle with it too; don’t we all? But then, we got onto talking about other gods, and the worship of false gods. ‘Some people DO worship other gods, though’, one girl said, ‘and they have to be allowed to do that’.

Tolerance. They are taught this in school. All religions are equally valid. Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam – these are just different stories, and you choose which one you believe. Meanwhile, the same people in our community who howled with derision at the plans for a new church in Stornoway, rushed to publicly welcome the news that an Islamic place of worship was in the pipeline for the town. They were falling over one another in the rush to prove their tolerance of some – though not all – Abrahamic religions. It’s not tolerance, though, is it – it’s tokenism. After all, you cannot accept one faith as valid while defaming another, and say that you are accepting: that would be hypocrisy.

When a petition was launched against the planned building of a High Free Church in Stornoway, no one was terribly surprised. Those opposing it made all manner of justification, including that clearing the chosen site might make some rats homeless. However, one of the comments has stayed in my mind ever since because, for me, it represents that other great misunderstanding at the heart of so much anti-Christian prejudice: ‘they think they’re so perfect’.

So, the people driving the ‘tolerance’ agenda actually understand nothing about the Christianity they deride. If they think that Christianity is a choice, like which political creed to follow, or which shirt to wear today, they have a lot to learn; if they believe that Christians think themselves perfect, then they don’t even know the basics. Following Christ makes such demands on us that our sinful hearts would never opt for it of their own volition. We are drawn, irresistibly, towards Him because we are so very far from perfect.

I don’t mind what they say about me. Christians except to be mocked and criticised for their faith. But I do mind that, in their ignorance, they are depriving children of a proper understanding of what Christ’s message is. We surely cannot allow people who don’t even know what the central message of Christianity is, to dictate how it is taught to the next generation.

That is one reason why Sunday schools are important. Children deserve the truth. Plant the seed and someone else may water it, but God will make it grow. And no one, however tolerant, can stand in His way.

 

Collars, Cappuccinos and Change for Change’s Sake

The light above the pulpit in Stornoway Free Church has hung there so long that it’s in danger of becoming fashionable again. I know that it’s been there a while because my granny (who died some time ago) disparaged the new fitting as resembling an old tin can. She, being from Carloway, was used to the finer things, you will understand. It is said that their tobar boasted a Dresden china cover. Nevertheless, the old tin hangs there still, shedding its light unchangingly. Where I sit, on the balcony, it is right in my field of vision, the same metal shade at which my granny used to frown.

I like that. Oh, not the light fitting – retro urban chic has never really been my kind of thing. No, but I like the sense of continuity with the past. Somewhere along the way, though, ‘traditional’ has become an insulting term, even within the church. This is now, and we have to assert our modernity and break with the things of yesteryear. Just because.

Well, my name is Catriona Murray, and I’m a traditionalist. It’s been eight minutes since my last Stroudwater . . . I like pews, pulpits, handshakes, clerical collars, unaccompanied psalm singing, and the sustentation fund. I like these things because I’m used to them, and for a host of other reasons besides.

Don’t get me wrong, if modernity took over and ripped out all the pews, to replace them with bleacher seats, I’d continue coming to church. If the pulpit gives way to a perspex lectern with integrated cappuccino machine, I would still listen to the sermon. Even if the minister opted for full Highland regalia, topped off with the headgear of a Bamangwato tribesman, I might remark on it to my neighbour, but I’m fairly sure his preaching would be unaffected, so I’d stay for that too.

Tradition does not rule me and I am not wedded to it, though I confess to a fondness for it. Besides, the justification I hear from modernisers is always a little inadequate. We need to be more accessible, more approachable, more flexible, more adaptable. Why? So that people will come. This isn’t Field of Dreams, so building it isn’t enough, apparently. Folk won’t come to church just to sit on hard pews, to listen to a man in a collar who stands in a tall wooden box.

Indeed, they will not. But is that why any of us ever went to church, and will it suddenly be different if we give way to gimmickry? We can dress the elders as Morris men and put disco lights in the vestibule for all the difference it will make.

People outside are not actually repelled by the sight of a minister’s collar, or the wooden pews – they are repelled by the gospel.

So, if the priority is boosting attendance at services, let’s by all means have men in surf shorts greeting people at the church door. Frothy coffees can be handed out as they arrive and the pulpit be replaced with a revolving stage. Each minister could, like a boxer entering the ring, have his own theme tune; each already has his own signature ‘move’, a la Mo Farah or Usain Bolt, anyway. Instead of the Mo-bot, or the lightning bolt, we could have the . . . but no, I mustn’t say.

Boosting attendance is not, however, the priority. It’s all wrong to think of the church of Christ – whatever denomination – as a business which needs marketing. Musical pews and scruffy preachers will not bring people in because old, varnished pews and ministers in clerical garb are not, in fact, what keep people out. The message does; and we definitely cannot change the message.

So, what next? Do we just sit where we are and wait for people to come to us, then? Obviously not. We carry on. The preaching, the worship, the outreach, the witness all must go on. Prayer – both corporate and private – must go on.  The great challenge in this, like in every other area of life, is to carry on doing what is asked of us, while trusting that the Spirit will accomplish the rest.

Putting all our efforts into pulling out pews and restyling the minister, therefore, would be an awful lot like fiddling while Rome burns (with apologies to any fellow Wee Frees still offended by the mention of fiddles and/or Rome). After all, we can’t really believe that this is something we could, or should, manage for ourselves.

Of course we mustn’t put up unnecessary barriers, but I think that these kinds of obstacles are more likely to exist in our hearts and in our attitude to others than in any superficial traits we may have as an institution. If you are greeted with a smile and a warm handshake at the church door on Sunday morning, does it matter if the person greeting you is a man in a suit? When you are welcomed, does it signify that it is into a 19th century building with old-fashioned seating arrangements? And, when your heart is moved by the message of salvation in Christ, does it matter what clothes the messenger is wearing? Or are we focusing on these things because WE can change them ourselves?

The light that is shed by Biblical teaching and by the faithful, steadfast witness of God’s people, does not waver. If we wait on it and follow it closely, I firmly believe that it too will come back into style. If we truly commit ourselves into the hands of our Lord, trusting not in what we do, but in what the Holy Spirit is doing, then we must let it be. While the world sees prayer and waiting on the Spirit as doing nothing, the church of Christ surely knows that it is everything.

Silence does not equal inertia in the work of the Spirit; in fact, it often means that He is drawing breath, just about to speak.

 

 

Keep the Faith for Sunday Best (Part 2)

This is the second part of a guest post by Andy Murray of Ragged Theology. Challenging and thought-provoking stuff as ever.

Men like Thomas Guthrie and William Wilberforce inspired a movement rooted firmly in Micah 6 v 8.  They called the church and nation to love justice, show mercy and walk humbly with the God of the Bible.  They wrote, they spoke, they preached, they persuaded and they campaigned for change to the way the poor were treated.  The work went on long after they were dead.  Their work changed whole communities, changed laws and changed the direction of our nation.  When Guthrie died in 1873 not only was education about to be offered to all, but thanks to Christian social reformers children were finally being offered protection and care instead of exploitation.  Men like Guthrie and Wilberforce were hated and opposed because they challenged the powerful vested interests in the alcohol and slave industries respectively.  But through all the challenges, they had an unquenchable hope in the redeeming gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  A hope that the most visionary and noble secularist cannot offer.  This is why secularism soon turns to pessimism.  As Blaikie says:

thomasguthrie2

Secularism may try to keep up its spirits, it may imagine a happy future, it may revel in a dream of a golden age.  But as it builds its castle in the air, its neighbour, Pessimism, will make short and rude work of the flimsy edifice.  Say what you will, and do what you may, says Pessimism, the ship is drifting inevitably on the rocks.  Your dream that one day selfishness will be overcome, are the phantoms of a misguided imagination; your notion that abundance of light is all that is needed to cure the evils of society, is like the fancy of keeping back the Atlantic with a mop.  If you really understood the problem, you would see that the moral disorder of the world is infinitely too deep for any human remedy to remove it; and, since we know of no other, there is nothing for us but to flounder on from one blunder to another, and from one crime to another, till mankind works out its own extinction; or, happy catastrophe! The globe on which we dwell is shattered by collision with some other planet, or drawn into the furnace of the sin.

It is the Christian gospel that has been the great agent of change in human history.  Has the church at times been corrupt?  Absolutely.  Has it at times disregarded the poor and even abused them.  Unfortunately, it has.  But what has been the fruit of the revival of true Christianity?  It has always been love, particularly for the poor.  The spirit of self-seeking is supplanted by the spirit of service and love.  Vice is replaced by virtue.  When men love God in sincerity, they will love their neighbour, particularly the poor and the outcast.  The church at its best lives by that early ‘mission statement’ in James 1 v 27 ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’  As Thomas Guthrie said about the kind of Christianity that brings transformation to communities;

We want a religion that, not dressed for Sundays and walking on stilts, descends into common and everyday life; is friendly, not selfish; courteous, not boorish; generous, not miserly; sanctified, not sour; that loves justice more than gain; and fears God more than man; to quote another’s words – “a religion that keeps husbands from being spiteful, or wives fretful; that keeps mothers patient, and children pleasant; that bears heavily not only on the ‘exceeding sinfulness of sin,’ but on the exceeding rascality of lying and stealing; that banishes small measures from counters, sand from sugar, and water from milk-cans – the faith, in short, whose root is in Christ, and whose fruit is works.

 

Keep the Faith for Sunday Best (Part 1)

This is a two-part guest post by my blogging (tor)mentor, Andy Murray, author of Ragged Theology. Part two of this excellent piece to follow tomorrow.

Philanthropy is not a casual product; it is not a mere outcome of a zeitgeist, or fashion of the age; its roots are deep in the soil of Christianity; it cannot pick up a living either from Paganism, or Agnosticism, or Secularism, or any other system cut off from the influence of the love of Christ.

This is one of the first paragraphs in William Garden Blaikie’s Leaders in Modern Philanthropy published in 1884.  What follows is a barnstorming tour of all the great Christian philanthropists over many centuries from John Howard, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, Andrew Reed, Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie, David Livingstone, William Burns, John Patterson, Agnes Salt and many others.  The claim that some make that Dr Thomas Guthrie was some kind of lone voice in 19th century Scotland is simply not supported by facts.  Guthrie built on the work of Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen and John Pounds in England.  His work was taken up by many particularly Lord Shaftesbury in England.  He was part of a wider movement that rediscovered evangelical theology and roused a sleeping church to the Biblical mandate of fighting for justice and showing mercy to the marginalised.  Their work sprang from their theology.

Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

Despite the UK’s departure from its Christian heritage, much of our society remains rooted in the Bible.  The idea that we are all equal in the sight of the law, the idea of education for all, the concept of compassion for the poor, are all inextricably linked to a Biblical view of humanity.  If you don’t think this is important look closely at other societies and see the radical difference.  The foundational Christian belief that man is made in the image of God has radical implications for the way we treat our fellow man, particularly those who need special protection and care.  Christianity teaches that everyone has dignity and worth.  It also teaches that anyone can be redeemed from their fallen/sinful state.  Man’s fundamental problem is not poverty, housing or power; it is sin (Matthew 15 v 15-20).  The addict, the wife beater, the thief can all be redeemed and transformed by the grace of God.  Christianity is about grace, hope and most of all love.  It is religion of redemption and second chances.

But much more than personal transformation, Christianity places on the believer ‘a strong dynamic impulse to diffuse the love which had fallen so warmly on themselves’ (Blaikie).  Our Saviour, ‘the friend of publicans and sinners, is our ultimate example.  Jesus taught repeatedly about the need to love the poor in parables such as that of the Good Samaritan.  His teaching in Matthew 25 on the sheep and the goats couldn’t be clearer.  He defined true greatness thus: ‘the servant of all being the greatest of all.’  Remember that Jesus was speaking at a time when the order of the Roman empire masked a barbarous culture. Gladiatorial sports slaughtered tens of thousands for nothing but the amusement of the baying mob.  Slavery was commonplace and women were often used as sexual playthings.  Yes, there were occasional spurts of compassion when an amphitheatre collapsed, but there was no systematic relief of the poor.  It was a hierarchical society where groups and classes were systematically oppressed and kept down.  A bit like modern Britain.

It was as the New Testament church grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire that Christianity’s counter-cultural message of love for the poor began to change societies.  As Blaikie says: ‘In the course of time, barbarous sports disappeared; slavery was abolished or greatly modified; laws that bore hard on the weaker sex were amended; the care of the poor became one of the great lessons of the Church.’  This is not to say that the church did not frequently go wrong.  Often the methods of showing love became exaggerated and distorted.  The alms-giving in the mediaeval church became more about the abuse of power than equipping the poor to become self-reliant.   The Reformation was a great return to Biblical Christianity, and while it was a time of great conflict it also saw a return to Biblical philanthropy and care for the poor.  It encouraged education and saw the start of schools, colleges and universities.  The Bible was not only given to the common man but he was also taught how to read it.  This why William Tyndale became a hunted terrorist.  His English New Testament was a threat because it smashed the power of a corrupt church.

So far so good.  Even the most cynical atheist would surely acknowledge that Christian philanthropy has done great good.  But let’s be honest, there have been many inspiring philanthropists who haven’t had an ounce of love for God.  It is wonderful to read of philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie building libraries, donating ornate organs and building palaces of peace.  My family home in Sutherland has many monuments to the generosity of Carnegie.  We celebrate every effort that is made to relieve the poor and change society for the better whether in Christ’s name or not.  Nobody can deny that many charities have sprung up with little or no Christian inspiration.  History, however, shows us that all too often the greatest social reformers have been compelled by a zeal for God that leads to an enduring love for his neighbour.  They inspire followers who, if not always sharing in their theology, agree with their goals and are willing to follow their example.  Often secular philanthropists (such as Carnegie) are blessed with great fortunes and influence, but it takes an exceptional love to persevere in championing the poor without wealth or power.  It is one thing for an inspiring political leader to rise up, but unless it is underpinned with the theology of Christian compassion, how long will it last?

 

Did We Lose Our Sins in Translation?

Working in a Gaelic environment, I frequently hear obscure words being used. At least once a year, for example, a student will attempt to revive ‘fa-dheòidh’. I quite like it, but it creates much the same linguistic effect as if I were to pepper this blog with ‘forsooth’.

Recently, the minister, in throwing me a clan-based insult (yes, it still goes on, even all these years after Culloden), introduced me to the word, ‘eanraich’, which is apparently some kind of soup. It was – presumably – in regular use at one time along with ‘fa-dheòidh’ and other linguistic curiosities. When the social and cultural context for vocabulary goes, however, the words themselves swiftly disappear too. People no longer use horses for agricultural work, and so all the Gaelic terminology for a horse’s tack is redundant; likewise crofting, fishing and many other traditional practices besides.

Although you rarely hear it included in that category, churchgoing falls into the realm of traditional Gaelic culture. It had – and has – practices of its own, influences of its own and certainly vocabulary of its own. I know many Gaelic speakers who say that they can’t ‘follow’ a sermon in their own tongue because ‘the language is too obscure’. There certainly IS an ecclesiastical Gaelic, which employs words not in everyday use: ìobairt, ceusadh, aiseirigh, peacadh. I must confess a certain weakness, as it were, for ‘teachdan-geàrr’ And that is a play on words for my bilingual readers which would lose much in translation.

‘Sin’ loses quite a lot in translation too. The word, ‘peacadh’ in Gaelic is used virtually exclusively for the theological concept recognised by every dutiful Wee Free as ‘a want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God’. In English, however, ‘sin’ came to be used in two ways – in ecclesiastical circles of course; but also in a superficial manner. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear non-Christians say, ‘it’s a sin to throw all that food away’, or ‘it’s a sin that Mrs MacLeod’s daughter doesn’t visit her’. The things being described as ‘sin’ frequently are, but the people who label them as . such don’t really mean it in the catechism, ‘want of conformity unto the law of God’ sense. They might just as soon have said, ‘it’s a pity’, or ‘it’s a disgrace’.

Recently, sin has been in the news. Oh, it’s there all the time, of course, but like its master, usually goes under a variety of pseudonyms. On this occasion, however, someone asked a politician whether he thought that homosexuality is a sin. When the journalist sensed prevarication, the politician was harangued and badgered. This happened repeatedly. If you are unfamiliar with the ways of the British media, let me tell you that politicians are not usually asked about sin – it is not one of the top ten issues in any election campaign.

So, Christians should be delighted that, at last, sin has made its way onto the political agenda, right? Wrong. It hasn’t. Tim Farron was only asked about sin because he’s a Christian, in the same way that a multi-millionaire might be asked about tax loopholes. The mainstream media sees Christianity as a weakness, something to humiliate believers with. After all, Farron was not asked about sin as such – he was asked whether he thought that something was one.

Christians are not actually required to have an opinion on sin, other than that held by a famously fiery preacher in the USA in the early 20th century. Calvin Coolidge, the notoriously monosyllabic president had been to hear the man preach. Attempting to draw Coolidge out, a friend asked what the subject of the sermon had been. ‘Sin’, replied Coolidge. Exasperated and wishing for more detail, the friend asked, ‘and what did he say about sin?’ To which Coolidge responded, ‘he said he was against it’.

Sin isn’t a matter of opinion. God has decreed what is an affront to Him, and Christians try to conform in obedience. If you want to know whether something is a sin, should your first port of call really be a sinner, albeit one saved by grace? Why ask fallible Farron, when the word of God is readily available to answer all such questions unambiguously?

Our tolerant, liberal, progressive society does not want the truth about sin. It could not handle the truth about sin. If the doubters opened their Bibles to Romans 3, they would read that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. Set within the wider scriptural context, this tells them everything they need to know about what sin is and, more importantly, what sin does.

It is uncompromising. We can’t debate, barter, bargain or otherwise spin our way out of sin. Something which is sinful cannot be made acceptable in God’s sight just because the world has winked at it. Tolerance, liberalism, progress – these three recognise no sin except one: calling something ‘a sin’. Christians have to be ridiculed, derided, silenced – they are the enemies of a progressive society. Yes, that’s what we have: progress. Who needs the Bible with its backward notions of sin? Humanity knows best, humanity will rule by its own lights. What could possibly go wrong?

Remember, humanity progressed itself right out of Eden.

Free Church Android

I have a friend who does not come from a Free Church background. Actually, I have many such friends. In fact, a lot of the people I grew up with have little or no church experience and absolutely no truck with Christianity. Many of them fall into what I think of as the Iain Crichton Smith category – having a pretty tired and hackneyed view of Hebridean Calvinism which is largely based on stereotypes that are no longer true (if they ever were). These stereotypes wear black hats and sombre faces; they shake their heads at mirth and sigh in response to vain worldliness. And they live in the imagination of people who ought to know better.

However, this friend has no such prejudices. She wandered into my life in a haphazard, vaguely work-related way. We hit it off over coffee (me – after all, I’m a neurosis-ridden Wee Free) and herbal tea (her – a bit fancy like that, what with being ‘from away’). One Sunday, I took her to a Gaelic service in the Seminary in Stornoway, which is nothing to do with training priests, despite the name.

And then she came along to some English services too. I was impressed at her tenacity because, the previous summer, on a reconnaissance visit to Lewis, she had been to such a service. The children’s address, about the irrepressible manse dog, had appealed to her, but the content of the sermon had not. She was discomfited, I gather. Now I can’t remember if I explained to her that this would usually be viewed as a good sign in the Free Church. Wallowing in comfort and self-satisfied complacency is not how a spiritually healthy clientele should be. The hard pews, the hard truth, the hard stare from the pulpit: they are all part of the strategy.

Some weeks ago, she and I met up with another friend of mine for dinner on a Wednesday evening. Yorkshire Lass asked Island Girl (yes, I’m aware that they sound like runners in the 3:15 at Aintree) whether she would be coming with us afterwards to the prayer meeting. Island Girl laughed in a mildly hysterical way, ‘On a Wednesday!? No way!’ And so I had to explain why Wednesday was a ‘thing’, whilst simultaneously reprimanding Island Girl for allowing her daft Leodhasach hang-ups to emerge in front of a visitor from the Real World.

Yorkshire Lass has experienced much of what Free Church life has to offer. She has heard fine preaching, beautiful psalm singing, shared in prayer meetings and witnessed the Lord’s Supper being dispensed. This month, she was astounded by the groaning food table at our congregational fellowship. We have experienced the Harris conference together, and the WFM annual dinner. I know she has made lasting friendships besides my own.

Just before our recent ‘off-peak’ communion, she asked whether it would be ok if she attended the Saturday preparatory meeting. When I answered in the affirmative, she said, ‘what do people do who don’t have a you to ask these things?’, as if I’m some kind of Wee Free Siri. A faulty one, at any rate, but perhaps more reliable than Wikipedia.

The fact of the matter is that most people here in Lewis do have plenty people they can ask. They won’t, though, because they’ve already had their heads filled with daft rules. Wednesday night meetings are for communicants only, preparatory services are likewise for the converted . . . the list goes on. Worse, though, is the idea that you may not be welcome, or that people might judge you if you haven’t been to church for a while. They picture it being like the saloon bar in a John Wayne film where the stranger enters and many hostile eyes turn to stare. Wee Frees are gloom merchants and their churches oppressive places. Probably the minister will thump the pulpit, shout a lot about hell and maybe even castigate the newcomer for their sinful lifestyle and lax conduct.

Yorkshire Lass had no such preconceived notions. She came with an open mind and an open heart, but with no very positive formative experience of Christianity. Here in Lewis, she has met Christians whose faith is not about a series of formal steps, but is a living reality. They are far from perfect, but they are authentic. Christ is the centre of their lives. I see my brothers and sisters now through her eyes, as well as my own.

For me, meeting her has been a gift. She may do funny things with nettles, but she has given me the ability to see the Christian heritage of Lewis as something precious. We so often have to defend it against prejudice from within our own community. People get hung-up on the ouward badges and rituals of church life. In her, coming with the heart of a child, to ask questions in good faith, I see Him. I always believed that He had brought her to Lewis so that she might be among some of His believing people. In my blindness, I failed to realise just how much of a blessing her presence might be to us. To me, anyway, because in answering some of her questions, I am answering my own.

When you remove all the inside track stuff that needs explaining – who is allowed to go where, when do we stand and when do we sit – there is only one truth anyway. Christ reigns over all, and His people have been released from bondage.

There is also only one church after all: His, and it is most entirely free.

Your Father’s Side & The Family Name

It is hard to believe that we Hebrideans have any Viking DNA. I imagine that if a young Lewisman had ever said to his parents that he was off on a summer adventure to sack and loot, to raid and pillage, their reaction would almost certainly have been, ‘ach dè bhios daoine ag ràdh?’ What will people say? Surely marauding on this scale would reflect badly on them and therefore would have to be nipped in the bud.

‘What will people say?’ used to be the refrain of parents and grandparents in the island. Nowadays, people think of this attitude as narrow-minded, judgemental and stifling, but I think it helps to reflect a little on how it developed in the first place.

Your village was your world. The neighbours were as familiar to you as those who occupied the same home and shared the same surname as you. Besides, you didn’t go by your surname – you went by a patronymic, a chain of names stretching back into the distant past, connecting you to people you had never known. Perhaps you had some of their characteristics without knowing it. If you did, some cailleach in the neighbourhood would notice. ‘Iain Dhòmhnaill Sheumais used to walk like that’, or if she was feeling acerbic, ‘It’s a shame you took after your father’s side. Your mother’s people were good-looking.’

People knew one another inside-out, which meant knowing their history. Not just their personal history, either, but being able to place them in the context of their lineage. Forget Burke’s Peerage, your average cailleach had an encyclopaedic knowledge of her own people and those of her neighbours. It meant that they could see where your good points and your bad had emanated from. And so, your personal conduct would be added to that. The responsibility not to tarnish a good family name rested equally with each member, and each successive generation. Any deviant behaviour was likely to be dismissed as ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’ – a weakness in your people.

Now, of course, we don’t have villages; we have ‘communities’. Some are more community-minded than others and it’s not always the ones you think. I live in a rural village where there is quite a lot of Gaelic spoken and some crofting still taking place. You will even see the odd peat-stack. Nonetheless, when I was widowed, my immediate next-door neighbours visited, but no one else.

Had I lived fifty years ago, I would have been Banntrach Dhòmhnaill Chaluim and the neighbours might have rallied round; nowadays, I don’t have that comfort, or that status. I am not on their radar. People probably don’t even talk about me, no matter what outrageous – hypothetical – thing I do. It doesn’t matter to them because I am a stranger. Community in that sense has gone and many of us now seek that feeling of belonging and identity elsewhere.

For me, it has come from my church. I have been blessed with a close and supportive family, and my church family has been likewise.

My church family has at least as many quirks as my actual relatives. There are those who make you laugh, who laugh at you, who are always ready to help, who always want you to help, those who encourage and those who gently put you in your place. It has its father figures and mother hens, its bossy big sisters and cheeky wee brothers. This family has get-togethers and minor disagreements, outings and heart to hearts.

And this family knows its own heritage. When we are together, no one has to ask, ‘who do you belong to?’ We have the same father. He knows us all more completely than we know ourselves; and yet He loves us nonetheless. Each of us carries the unfortunate burden passed down from our first parents, and each of us has added some particular sins of our own. It is in our DNA to rebel.

Keeping together, though, returning often to our Father’s house, I think, is the only way we can refrain from bringing shame on the family. Reputation is very important when you are responsible for more than just your own. In God’s family, we need to reflect on our conduct more frequently, and ask the question again: ‘what will people say’? We have to fight against ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’.

Surely this is one setting where the ultimate goal is for everyone to see that we take after our Father, and that the family have care of each other. I hope that’s what people will say.