Ambushed by the Enemy Within

I have a friend who is an elder. He is also a relative of some description but this is Lewis, so isn’t everyone? We have a Henry or two in common ancestry, that’s all I know. This particular fellow has a weakness for loud ties and, despite the fact that he has zero rein over his tambourine-wielding wife, I have an awful lot of time for him. She may be out of control, but I’m quite fond of her too, and have high hopes of reforming her. Or, at least, of removing her tambourine to a place of safety (probably Martin’s Memorial).

He asked me an interesting question about this blog recently. In fact, he’s asked me twice whether I get a lot of negative comments about it. A valid enquiry. Apart from that one time the minister cautioned me that I was in danger of harming my mother’s mental health (‘you’re sending your mother droil and she’s going to have to leave the island’ were, I believe his exact words), no one has given me any hassle about what I write.

It surprises me in one way because I have certainly experienced spiritual attack. I expected to; I’m a member of a very level-headed and scripturally-grounded church, so I was warned to expect such things after coming out for Christ. They prepared me for it, and they equipped me to know how to deal with it.

When it came, though, it did not happen the way that I thought it would. The Devil is the master of the surprise attack, the spiritual ambush, and while I was busy crying and getting upset about what had happened to me, he was stealing my peace. And here’s how he did it:

He exploited my sinful weakness and my propensity to harbour a grudge. Deviously, he got me to inflict the real harm on myself.

On what would have been my husband’s birthday last year, with the knowledge that his headstone was being installed in the cemetery at that moment, I took the dog for a walk, already feeling emotionally fragile. Yards from my own gate I was subjected to an aggressive verbal assault from a neighbour that I had never spoken to in my life. About Donnie’s death, she spat these words I will never forget: ‘I don’t care. Sh*t happens’.

I shut down. Instead of reaching out to God, instead of running to be with His people, that Sunday, I stayed at home, feeling sorry for myself. And her poisonous words festered. She had physically threatened me, but her words about my loss were what really stung.

Earlier this year, before I even started the blog, I received a horrible tirade of anonymous messages. They were sinister, dark and vile. Amongst other things, I was accused of cynically portraying myself as a ‘perfect Christian’ and ‘the grieving widow who found God’. It was a time of great grief for our church, so I didn’t feel I could confide in people who were already over-burdened. This time, I didn’t stay away from worship, but felt strangely isolated.

And it was all my own fault.

You see, the power to harm me spiritually did not come from the words used by either of these poor souls. It lay entirely in my own difficulty with forgiveness, and an unfortunate tendency to self-pity.

The frontal attack from these people was not what my eye should have been on, but the enemy within. My heart is deceitful above all things, and it can even fool me.

But my church prepared me. Somewhere in the armoury I had what I needed. Prayer and the Word, as we are repeatedly told, make up the first line of defence. We have the weapons, we have the whole armour of God – but we forget to use them.

In this case, I eventually understood what He wanted me to do. I let go of my bitterness and the feelings of injustice that I am apt to nurse all too fondly. It is not
up to me to forgive, but it is so much better to pray that God will. Once you have prayed for someone, all the enmity goes. He has forgiven me much more than this; why should these two troubled souls not have the same? Perhaps because they don’t deserve His forgiveness?

But, then, neither do I. Yet, I have it.

When I let go of all the bitter thoughts, when I stopped rehashing their attacks in my mind, the miracle happened. God’s peace returned, and the Devil skulked away. He can’t abide the light.

Prayer is the most effective tool, the most powerful weapon, and the most enduring comfort that any Christian has. If you need to achieve something, to defend yourself, or to find peace, use prayer.

This blog has been a source of great blessing to me; it has brought so many wonderful people into my life. It is encompassed by a ring of prayer. I believe that is more impenetrable than a ring of steel.

And, know this, so does the enemy.

 

 

Lantern Beams & the Hebridean Cringe

‘Our distinctiveness lies in being ‘of the place’, rooted in who we are’. Does anyone want to guess who I’m quoting? The Free Church? Harris Tweed Hebrides? Comunn Eachdraidh Nis?

No, it’s ‘An Lanntair’ in Stornoway, the arts centre which serves the community hereabouts.

Even although I’m a Calvinist and, therefore, have to avert my eyes from anything remotely resembling an artistic representation, I am an occasional patron of the said Lanntair. I have watched films, seen plays, listened to talks, and drunk coffee there. Being a bit of a weirdo, I enjoyed their Faclan book festival a few years back, on the theme of the supernatural. Respectfully, I refrained from commenting on the fact that in amongst all the second sight and ghost stories, they had crowbarred Alistair Darling’s book-launch into the program too. Bernera connections and those eyebrows probably do qualify him for a space in the netherworld, after all.

So, because I have been a frequenter of the arts centre, I believe I’m allowed to comment on their latest foray into distinctiveness.

They have already this year devoted an entire calendar month to a celebration of LGBT culture (whatever that is). Apparently it’s important to celebrate diversity, and many of our resident secularists rushed to virtue-signal their support for the Lanntair, and their intention to attend at least one film, while also very carefully declaring their own heterosexuality, just in case. The same people also nearly got stuck in the door marked ‘Yes please’ when the plans for a small Islamic meeting place for Stornoway were unveiled.

They are for diversity. This doesn’t just mean simple respect – which I hope that all decent human beings are capable of – but actually celebrating difference. From what I can work out by observing their behaviour, it means that they are in favour of the LGBT community, and the Muslim community having a voice, and are swift to set down anyone who takes an opposing stance. Especially Christians.

And now, they are delighted that An Lanntair – which is ‘of the place’, remember – is going to trial Sunday film screenings. It is tediously posited by the usual suspects as the long-awaited provision of ‘something for families’.

When did family life consist of spending as much time as possible out of the home, and surrounded by other people? I remember Sundays which involved walks, reading, board games, talking to my parents . . . does that not happen any more? Am I being obtuse? If children are in school all week, and shepherded around various organised activities all weekend, where does the much talked-about ‘quality time’ come in?

This is all very well. People of a HASP+ (that’s Humanist , Atheist, Secular, Pagan and whatever else) tendency will say that they’re quite delighted. It is time that diversity had its moment in the Lewis sun. Anything that’s a bit new, a bit different is absolutely welcome. Everyone is just tired of those Christians, trying to spoil everything with their hackneyed old beliefs and their inconvenient lifestyle.

Do you know what this is? It’s a great, big, ugly extension of the Hebridean cringe.

Novelty wins every time over heritage. Tradition is an embarrassing affront to innovation. People are plastering the label ‘Hebridean’ on everything, while all the time disdaining what makes us distinctive.

When did this happen to the island? Why are we delighted to show tourists sites like Callanish, or Eaglais na h-Aoidh, or St Clement’s, but not the living, functioning reality of Christian worship? What makes us so proud of our Celtic music, but not our Celtic church?

What kind of revisionism is taking place when Lewis can be portrayed as some sort of microcosm of any of our larger cities, and no one bats an eyelid?

Well, I’m batting one now. This island in which I live, has far more cultural distinctiveness than to need to emulate London, or Glasgow. It is physically shaped by geology and by climatic forces, and by hundreds of years of crofting life. My ancestors scraped a living from the soil, and from the sea around our shores; they trooped off to war and some even trooped back again. They spoke Gaelic, and they worked their land in line with the seasons.

And on Sunday, they both rested and worshipped God.

Keeping Sunday as a day of rest is good for the body and for the mind. I’m not even going to mention the soul, because that’s a given. Our European neighbours know this to be true, and they’re not trying to scrap it in order to desperately ape what they do elsewhere.

That would be culturally insecure behaviour – and no one does that quite the way we do in Lewis. We’ve been embarrassed by our language, our accent, our faith, and now our very way of life.

I am of the place, and I am rooted in who I am. Gaelic-speaker, Calvinist member of the Free Church, reader of my people’s history. And I am not ashamed of any of these.

If An Lanntair wanted to live up to its name, to its mission statement and to the notion of art being a bit subversive, it could shine a light on what it is about Lewis culture that is so very precious.

‘Lantern’ actually, refers only to the outer casing, which encircles and protects the source of light.

It plays no part in trying to snuff it out.

 

Christianity and the Art of Motorcycle Accidents

Reading back over some of my blogs recently, I wanted to remind myself of what it is I’ve been rambling about. And then it occurred to me that I might be on the verge of creating a false impression. Mostly, when I write about faith, I talk about how it triumphs over adversity, how it has kept me, how it is sufficient for anything.

But I wouldn’t want to be accused of distorting the truth. Sometimes, my faith fails me.

The last time was right in the middle of the communion weekend. I had been to the Friday evening service, done a bit of shopping and was, finally, at half-past nine, making something to eat, having missed lunch and dinner. My home was quiet and my mood peaceful; but then the bad news came.

An accident, my nephew and his motorbike, hospital. In the few short minutes between hearing that the ambulance had picked him up out of the moor, and my sister calling to say that he was alright, I had imagined all sorts of things, but mostly that he was dead.

And, to my eternal shame, my first thought towards God was, ‘why have you done this to us now?’

The Devil can turn us into petulant children: why has God allowed this, haven’t we suffered enough? Surely He would not be so cruel, to inflict more loss on our family. In maybe three minutes, I had entertained despair, anguish, disbelief; that was all the time needed to make me forget who I am in Christ, and who I am to Christ.

Next day, discussing the accident with two people at my kitchen table – one a Christian, one not, as far as I know – we talked about God’s intervention in our lives. The lady, who is a Christian, agreed with me that His hand could be seen in the previous night’s events. Her husband shook his head at this and said that things will happen anyway, and we over-attribute them to God.

My defence was inadequate as ever. I am constantly aware of the words that were in my ear the evening I went to profess faith for the first time. The minister had preached from 1 Peter, ‘always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you’. And I am outstandingly useless at this. It troubles me how often I fail Him in this regard, even though I do try hard to find the right words.

But God did show me His hand in this. First of all, the news of the accident was broken to me by one of His people, which made all the difference. My sister, unusually, was not at home, but out with a friend when she heard, and so the friend drove her to hospital and stayed with her. Ordinarily, I would have been the person to do that, but I didn’t have to, which mattered to me because my last memories of that building are not good ones.

And, of course, Andy is alive and in one piece, apart from a broken and dislocated thumb.

During the not knowing, though, I thought of my nephew and, instead of the strapping twenty five year old who is 6’2″ tall (he doesn’t have the hobbit genes I inherited ), I was picturing the toddler whose hand I used to hold crossing the road. Your own mind can turn against you, which helps you turn against God. Is he dead, I wondered, or maimed; is he scared, is he alone? And all the while, thinking of the vulnerable wee boy, not the man.

Well, no, he was not alone. The people who caused the accident may have callously left him there, but the Lord put other people on the road that night – kind people who waited with him, reassured him and, crucially in Lewis in August,  tried to keep the midgies at bay until the paramedics came.

All of this tells me that, for every clever move the Devil makes, God is several steps ahead.

He protected my nephew, He  protected my sister; and He protected the rest of the family in that, by the time I called to tell them of the accident, we already knew that Andy was not badly injured.

And He certainly surrounded me. I suffered agonies for only a few minutes – He did not permit my anxiety for long. In all my human frailty, though, it was sufficient time to question God. That is certainly something for me to pray over and work upon. If Satan finds a way to drive a wedge so easily, I know he will use it at every opportunity .

Surely, if ever there was a case for the whole armour of God, my fragile heart is it. I am so thankful that my safety comes from the Lord and does not rely upon me.

And, despite my failure of nerve, I can still say, like Hudson Taylor, that though my faith may only be a little thing, it is in a great God. However I falter in my belief, His trustworthiness remains the same.

Bibles, Burials and way-out Wee Frees

I was in Ness again recently, and visited the spot in the old cemetery where the community buried 400 worn-out Bibles in 2006. They had been donated to the local charity shop but were unsalable because of their condition. Yet, people could not quite bring themselves to place the books in a bin. And so, just as the Hebrews used to do with their tattered, sacred scrolls, the Nisich held a funeral for the Bibles.

It seems to me like rank superstition. The Bible – by which I mean the tangible, paper object – is not in itself Holy. God’s word is holy, but the physical form which contains it is nothing more than a shell. And crucially, the Bible gives us no instruction on its own disposal.

Our unenlightened ancestors also treated the Bible in this talismanic way, using it as an amulet to protect them from fairies, witches and visions of death. Not the Word, you understand, but the book itself – carrying it in their pocket, or placing it under a pillow to ward off evil.

At the beginning of my day in Ness, our guide explained to the 45 Americans with whom I was sharing a spiritual pilgrimage, that my denomination did not believe in sacred places. He somewhat took me aback by adding, ‘because everywhere is sacred to them’.

I remember sipping my tea and wondering if I’d fundamentally misunderstood the Free Church, or if this was something adopted at the most recent General Assembly and not fully understood by anyone who doesn’t regularly use words like ‘anent’ or ‘crave’, or indeed realise that stamping one’s feet might still signify agreement in polite society.

Or, did this lovely, gentle Quaker simply not have the heart to tell our guests that I was an unreconstructed Calvinist of the type that burns fiddles and catechises innocent passers-by? Was it just nicer to say everywhere is sacred to us, rather than explain that we don’t have any of the . . . well, the soft window-dressing that people expect of the ‘Celtic’ church?

Sometimes, it’s kinder to chuck the violin on the bonfire than let someone keep trying to torture music out of it. But island restraint dictates that I didn’t contradict this description of my theology. It is not so much that I disapprove: just that I do not understand the need for places to be deemed holy. They are the work of a Divine hand, yes, but any holiness originates with Him and may be imputed to people. Just not places.

It would have been more honest of me to share this with them. Instead, my innate politeness (yes) forced me to nod and smile benignly as folk shared their perceptions of the spirituality of place. Perhaps it doesn’t matter though. After all, when some of my fellow Wee Frees say after a service, ‘there was a lovely spirit in the church tonight’, I tend to think that it accompanies them wherever they go, that they have – unwittingly – brought it with them. Might the same not be true of others, who mistake it as belonging to the place in which they find themselves?

I had hoped they would be able to come to church with me in Stornoway the following Sunday, but they were all leaving the island that day. It might have helped them to see the pared-back character of our building, which I think reflects the pared-back character of our people.
What would they have made, I wonder, of the simplicity of our worship style? To preserve this picture I would, of course, have had to steer them well clear of any tambourine action that might or might not be happening in the church creche. But anyone who keeps to the church will see something quite  lovely in its truthfulness.

The Bible is foundational to our worship. It seems to me that when you fix your eyes on Jesus, through the Word, there is absolutely no need for any other ornament. Read, sung, exegeted: it is all that we require.

You could say that the Bible is, as an object, quite similar to the Christian. In and of itself, it has no spiritual value; but used by God, and transformed by the Spirit, its effect is boundless. This book has crossed continents; it has transformed lives; gone into prisons and war zones; entered hospitals and schools; spoken to the bereaved, the lonely, the frightened, and brought them comfort.

In physical terms, the Bible is just a book. By the same token, we are just bodies. It is our lot to eventually be buried in the ground, just like those tattered Bibles in Ness. But there are two very important differences.

At the latter day, all the human graves will open, and give up their dead, while the Bibles will remain buried forever.

And the other difference?

God will require the presence of His people in Heaven; but there will be no further need of His book.  By then, the Bible can also rest in peace, for its work will be over and done.

Ready for the light

Sometimes in this world, I think we receive tiny glimpses into heaven. Just like the briefest ray of sun might touch you and warm you on an otherwise gloomy day, these are precious moments which can keep us going through many difficulties.

Today, I heard news that confuses me, because I hardly know how to feel about it. One of the loveliest ladies I have ever met died last night. She has gone to be with her Lord, she is free of pain and worry, free of missing her husband, free even of old age. For all those reasons, I rejoice on her behalf. Her burden has been laid down and she can rest in the arms of her Saviour.

But heaven’s gain is most decidedly our loss. We are only human, and we will miss her from our midst. Her family who loved her so much and cared for her so well have now to find their way from here onwards without her wisdom, her kindness and her strength. The particular beauty of this situation, however, is that she herself equipped them very well to deal with the temporary separation that must be theirs.

She had helped all her children come to know her Saviour as their own and to know Him better still at times through her own lovely witness. Lately, knowing that her time with them was growing short, she could rest on the knowledge that the same Comforter who had been with her would also be with her loved ones.

Much as they cared for her, they are in infinitely better hands. He has entered into their grief and, better still, He knows its purpose. It is the ultimate comfort for every Christian at times like these. I can testify to His steadfastness myself, and it never wavers or dims.

The last time I spoke to Rachel, the lady in question, was a week ago. I had a feeling, as I drove home, that I would not see her again in this world. She always seemed to me to be a little too good for it anyway. Not, I must add, in any kind of lofty, impossibly pious way. Let’s not forget that the lady was from Ness and way too authentic to be a plaster saint. It was just impossible – even for me – to be a bad person in her company, or to believe that there was much badness in anyone else.

She was a very wise and seasoned Christian, and I regret not talking more with her. I could have learned such a lot. But we shared many lovely moments and even the last time I saw her, we had such a laugh over . . . well, that will have to remain a secret for now.

Near the start of her battle with cancer, I spent a couple of hours in her company, though. It was an enriching experience just to be with her. She did not wallow in self-pity, nor speak much about the illness at all. It was typical of her that her main concern was for everyone else, and that she maintained an interest in others right up until the end. I have never known anyone to be so much in love with people. But that was because she walked so closely with her Lord.

We have been aware for some time that this moment of parting was swiftly approaching.  Visitors came to, and went from, her home just as they always have, but there was something extra, something different this time.

On the Sunday night before the Stornoway communion, I was privileged to share a time of worship with her and a small group of others in her home. She looked serenely beautiful as she bravely pointed out the verses of psalm that she wished us to sing. And the singing was . . . well, out of this world. There were only six of us in that room, but the sound produced was immense in every sense. It seemed as though we were accompanying her down to the water’s edge, and were afforded a glimpse of what awaits in that haven we all desire to see.

Ever since I heard that she had taken her leave of us for now, I have been thinking of these words, penned by Calum and Rory MacDonald:

Long ago she knew someone who told her
All the things she’d done in life
Now she’s waiting in the morning fields
Ready for the light

We grieve, not as those who have no hope, but as those who have watched a loved one go on home without us. As natural human beings, we miss them from our lives; as believers, our grief is more like cianalas for that better country that awaits us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Humiliated, redeemed, thankful

I was born on Thursday of the Stornoway communion, which is a day of humiliation. It certainly was for me. Whatever test it is they perform (or used to), on newborns, I scored a mere nine out of ten. An under-achiever from the beginning, the pattern of my life was set.

At this communion service, though, forty-two years on, I was struck by something that the visiting minister read from the book of Isaiah:

He saw that there was no man,

and wondered that there was no one to intercede;

then his own arm brought him salvation,

and his righteousness upheld him.

No man. Absolutely no one. I imagined how it would feel for God to scan the Creation that He had made in His own perfection, and find it so damaged that not one person was adequate to be an intercessor. Every last soul was shot-through and warped with sin to the extent that none could stand for us; each and every person was a spiritual under-achiever, a nine out of ten at best.

It is the custom in our church that communicants, on arrival, go straight to the area marked off with white linens, but are only said to be at the Lord’s Table when certain warrants have been read and the table ‘fenced’. This practice has been – like much else that the Calvinist churches do – subject to misunderstanding. People have thought of it as exclusive and as somehow compounding the fallacy that those who take communion think themselves, quite literally, holier than thou.

Consider, though, what a ‘fence’ achieves: it contains and it protects; it keeps in that which is precious. The Free Church, in complete accordance with Scripture, requires baptism in Christ’s name and a profession of faith before believers in their own denomination are admitted to the sacrament. It follows, then of course, that some sort of fence is necessary. The alternative would be to have open communion in which anyone could come, unexamined and potentially unbaptized, to the table.

Sitting there, I can assure you, I was not thinking smugly of my own perfection, nor do I believe that anyone else was entertaining such erroneous thoughts either. We were hearing that of all mankind, even the best person was far short of the mark, and that God’s ‘own arm brought him salvation’.

God is perfectly holy; God created mankind perfect after His own image; mankind sinned; mankind required redemption; God became that Redeemer.

In that whole list, there is only one thing that mankind has actually done: and that was to fall into sin. What would I – or any Christian – possibly feel smug about?

But God’s infinite mercy does not even permit us to dwell too long upon our own shortcomings. Even as we sat there, at what would soon become the Lord’s Table, we were led to muse upon the salvation He supplied in our deficiency. I recalled what our own minister had preached, the previous week, in preparing us for the sacrament. He said, that the Lord’s Supper is not primarily about witnessing to God – it is for us to feed off and be encouraged by.

Those who are not yet communicants watch as their friends who have already made their profession partake of that meal. In the ordinary sense, bread and wine nourish: they give us energy, and are necessary to the sustenance of life. But this meal is spiritual, and the elements consumed are symbolic of the much greater nourishment received when we dwell upon Christ.

It is not always easy to focus as you would wish. The first time I took communion, I was nervous and slightly overawed in human, rather than spiritual terms. This time, though, something about the calm and unhurried delivery of the minister, and of the peaceful spirit pervading the table, was conducive to fixing my mind upon the Saviour.

I rose from that table, fed but – crucially – not sated. Later, I shared a meal with others from the church, and we dined royally. Still, there came a point when we had all certainly had plenty. It is not so with the Lord’s Supper; it is not so with anything about Him.

On the closing evening, which is for thanksgiving, we heard about those who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and how their hearts had burned as he spoke to them. They could not stay where they were, they could not sit on the good news that they had received, going immediately to Jerusalem to tell how ‘he was known to them in the breaking of the bread’.

I was born on the day of humiliation, but this year I marked my birthday on the day of thanksgiving, and I had much to be thankful for. As I stood outside the church on Monday evening, wondering what – or who – it is the minister writes in that little red book from time to time, I was subjected treated to a tuneful rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ from some of the most enthusiastic singers of the congregation.

The really happy birth day for me was not forty two years ago, though, when I only scored nine out of ten; it was that other day, much more recently, when my competence had nothing whatever to do with the matter.

God’s unwanted gift is one of His greatest

Death, in case you’re under any delusion, doesn’t wear a long, black coat, or carry a scythe. Nor does it only happen in Lewis, although we are remarkably good at it. I don’t mean that facetiously. Actually, I think we have always handled the business of dying with considerable aplomb, and that has somehow earned us the reputation for being a bit, well, morbid.

I don’t have any statistics on this, you’ll be glad to know, but I am fairly confident that the average Leodhasach goes to more funerals than his counterpart anywhere else in the country. Although I’m a wee bit away from pension age (and, unlike previous generations, actually getting more so the older I grow), I could not begin to estimate the number I have attended.

The book of Ecclesiastes says, ‘It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting’. While few of us would opt for the former over the latter, there is – unsurprisingly – the wisdom of Solomon in this.

God draws us closer to Him in the times when we are broken. I think, like any parent seeing their child in pain, His infinite heart goes out to us. He knows what it is to grieve and although He knows our end from before our beginning, He also knows our limitations. Our Heavenly Father knows that we are going to have all tears wiped from our eyes ultimately, but He also knows how our faith can waver. Although we always have that truth to comfort us, we don’t necessarily remember it as we should.

After my father died, six years ago, I felt as though a door had been opened up into eternity – a door through which death might very well come again. Despite my job, I am not much given to premonitions. Nonetheless, I had a very strong impression that death had unfinished business with me. Within two years, my husband was undergoing an operation and treatment for cancer: the illness that took his life a little while after.

I have not written about Donnie’s last hours before now because I supposed no one wanted to know. But I have since read a very brave and honest account by another blogger, who lost her mother to the same disease, of what seeing someone dying can be like. Sometimes, we can handle everything else connected with mortality so well, and yet shy away from the truth of the death-bed.

Before he finally fell asleep, he would drift in and out of consciousness. Every time he awoke, he would look at the clock as though surprised and disappointed to find himself still subject to it. When I asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about, he told me that he would be fine and then, surprisingly, he quoted, ‘I go to prepare a place for you’. Smiling, he added, ‘but you won’t like the curtains because I’ll have to choose them myself.’

He was still his lovely, cheeky self. But better, because although he was being kind as ever, I think his heart had already left me and his family, and gone on ahead. There had been months of pain and sickness, even flashes of fear and irritability. Here, though, in his final few hours of alertness to this world, it comforts me that his eyes and his soul were already looking to eternity.

The body is frail. He was strong and healthy until this sickness came. In the last hours, as I held his hand, the infection in his chest made a noise like several pots boiling at once. Despite this he – himself – seemed to be in total peace. And then, he was gone. Never one for great shows of drama, his death was typically quiet.

Watching him go, knowing the spiritual significance of that moment, you expect something more.

Why, though?

Physical death, after all, is separation of soul from body. The battle in his lungs had nothing much to do with the peace of his inmost being. What I and that lovely nurse were witnessing was simply his body closing down, no longer needed, for now.

His soul, on the other hand, had gone on. We who had felt so much pity for him in his suffering, and who feel so much sorrow at his loss, are actually the more to be pitied and sorrowed over. Donnie is where he would certainly never want to return from.

After he died, I was troubled by the verses in Matthew 6 that urge us to store up treasures in Heaven, ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. I worried that the treasure I was thinking about was my husband and that I simply – understandably – wished to be where he was.

But this is why grief can sometimes be God’s gift to us. It is not something that can be gone through, dealt with, and shelved away. Two years on, I still get waves of overwhelming, almost physical pain. And in those moments, I can go to my Saviour and show Him my bruised heart.

No one else comforts like He does. I can truthfully say that He has been closer to me in my sorrow than at any other time and, for that reason, grief itself can become a strange sort of treasure.

It was through death that He gave us the greatest gift of all.

 

 

God’s unwanted gift is one of His greatest

Death, in case you’re under any delusion, doesn’t wear a long, black coat, or carry a scythe. Nor does it only happen in Lewis, although we are remarkably good at it. I don’t mean that facetiously. Actually, I think we have always handled the business of dying with considerable aplomb, and that has somehow earned us the reputation for being a bit, well, morbid.

I don’t have any statistics on this, you’ll be glad to know, but I am fairly confident that the average Leodhasach goes to more funerals than his counterpart anywhere else in the country. Although I’m a wee bit away from pension age (and, unlike previous generations, actually getting more so the older I grow), I could not begin to estimate the number I have attended.

The book of Ecclesiastes says, ‘It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting’. While few of us would opt for the former over the latter, there is – unsurprisingly – the wisdom of Solomon in this.

God draws us closer to Him in the times when we are broken. I think, like any parent seeing their child in pain, His infinite heart goes out to us. He knows what it is to grieve and although He knows our end from before our beginning, He also knows our limitations. Our Heavenly Father knows that we are going to have all tears wiped from our eyes ultimately, but He also knows how our faith can waver. Although we always have that truth to comfort us, we don’t necessarily remember it as we should.

After my father died, six years ago, I felt as though a door had been opened up into eternity – a door through which death might very well come again. Despite my job, I am not much given to premonitions. Nonetheless, I had a very strong impression that death had unfinished business with me. Within two years, my husband was undergoing an operation and treatment for cancer: the illness that took his life a little while after.

I have not written about Donnie’s last hours before now because I supposed no one wanted to know. But I have since read a very brave and honest account by another blogger, who lost her mother to the same disease, of what seeing someone dying can be like. Sometimes, we can handle everything else connected with mortality so well, and yet shy away from the truth of the death-bed.

Before he finally fell asleep, he would drift in and out of consciousness. Every time he awoke, he would look at the clock as though surprised and disappointed to find himself still subject to it. When I asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about, he told me that he would be fine and then, surprisingly, he quoted, ‘I go to prepare a place for you’. Smiling, he added, ‘but you won’t like the curtains because I’ll have to choose them myself.’

He was still his lovely, cheeky self. But better, because although he was being kind as ever, I think his heart had already left me and his family, and gone on ahead. There had been months of pain and sickness, even flashes of fear and irritability. Here, though, in his final few hours of alertness to this world, it comforts me that his eyes and his soul were already looking to eternity.

The body is frail. He was strong and healthy until this sickness came. In the last hours, as I held his hand, the infection in his chest made a noise like several pots boiling at once. Despite this he – himself – seemed to be in total peace. And then, he was gone. Never one for great shows of drama, his death was typically quiet.

Watching him go, knowing the spiritual significance of that moment, you expect something more.

Why, though?

Physical death, after all, is separation of soul from body. The battle in his lungs had nothing much to do with the peace of his inmost being. What I and that lovely nurse were witnessing was simply his body closing down, no longer needed, for now.

His soul, on the other hand, had gone on. We who had felt so much pity for him in his suffering, and who feel so much sorrow at his loss, are actually the more to be pitied and sorrowed over. Donnie is where he would certainly never want to return from.

After he died, I was troubled by the verses in Matthew 6 that urge us to store up treasures in Heaven, ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. I worried that the treasure I was thinking about was my husband and that I simply – understandably – wished to be where he was.

But this is why grief can sometimes be God’s gift to us. It is not something that can be gone through, dealt with, and shelved away. Two years on, I still get waves of overwhelming, almost physical pain. And in those moments, I can go to my Saviour and show Him my bruised heart.

No one else comforts like He does. I can truthfully say that He has been closer to me in my sorrow than at any other time and, for that reason, grief itself can become a strange sort of treasure.

It was through death that He gave us the greatest gift of all.

 

 

Fiery Crosses and Rightful Kings

If you wanted to foment a rebellion today, it would be a simple matter of texting all your supporters the where, when and why. ‘C u @ Gfinnan – B there or die.Charlie x’ . The Jacobites didn’t have Vodafone though, so their technology was rather more primitive, and quite possibly a lot more reliable – the crann-tàra. This was a cross of wood which had been partially burnt and then dipped in blood before being passed from person to person in a kind of relay until all had been rallied.

A scattered population has always presented a challenge to any cause. It was difficult to provide a uniform education system, or equal access to healthcare in all the corners of the Highlands and Islands. And it was difficult to evangelise those who did not live in or near a large centre of population.

That is certainly one of the reasons why the Reformation arrived so late in our neck of the mòinteach. Keeping the effects of the Reformation alive is proving to be an equally great challenge in the present day.

People do not come to church if they don’t want to and, increasingly, they don’t want to. Attendance at the means of grace has dwindled alarmingly across the country and even here in the islands.

There is still a thing or two that we could learn from the Jacobites. They did not sit around waiting for their supporters to show up – they went and demanded loyalty from each one. The symbolism of the crann-tara was that anyone who did not respond accordingly could expect to meet with fire and blood. It was quite literally a life or death proposition.

That, I think, is how the Gospel has to be presented – urgently. All who hear His call must know the truth, that it is a straight choice between falling in with Christ, or dying eternally.

Of course, you have to know where the people are. Otherwise, how can you obey the great commission and ‘go’? We don’t have to trudge across the region, or gallop on horseback, though, to go where the people are.

They’re right here: online.

We can’t assume that methods of communication which don’t work in the real world are going to be any more successful on the internet, however. If people don’t want to walk into our churches, then, why are they going to follow us on Twitter, or click on our Facebook posts?

At Stornoway Free Church we have recently been stepping up our use of social media. This is not in some painful effort to make ourselves cool. (Mo chreach, I’m just not sure we’d know where to start).
We simply recognise two things: Jesus wanted us to go to where the people were with His message; and where the people are, the Devil is always prowling. It is incumbent upon the church, therefore, to bring light into the darkness that can sometimes exist online just as it does offline.

Christ’s church exists to glorify Him, which I think we can sometimes forget, even with the best of intentions. We think it’s up to us to devise the initiative that will be the golden key, the thing that brings people flocking to us.

What will bring people to us, actually, is grace and that is not within the gift of the Free – or any other – Church. We must surely accept the Holy Spirit’s divine authority. So, we ask for God’s guidance, and we continue worshipping and spreading the Good News.

And, we show forth who Christ is, and what He has done on our behalf. That is sufficient. Using social media is just another way of ensuring that people know the truth. We don’t have to do anything more: there isn’t anything more to be done.

If God becoming man, God suffering and hanging on a cross to die for us is not enough; if His defeat of death is not enough, then we are not people who can be satisfied. Gimmickry and hashtags will certainly not impress if His name leaves you cold. But then, if His name fails to rally our heart to His cause, we must be prepared for the consequences.

Like the Jacobites, we should use every means at our disposal to spread the news. But in passing this fiery cross to others, we have to let them see that its terrible beauty and power lie in something not unlike the original crann-tara.

The cross we hold up before them is dipped in the blood of the Saviour, and fired with the power of His salvation offer. How we pass it on hardly matters. He is not willing that any should perish, and so we may be quite sure that it will reach all those who belong beneath His royal standard.

A Silent Voice And The Stronghold Of My Life

Three months after my husband died, I was mildly surprised to find myself sitting under a tree in the grounds of the Cabarfeidh Hotel, meditating upon Psalm 27. It was an unexpectedly special moment in the midst of what was an awful time.

I hadn’t just randomly decided to do this – whatever else I may be, I am still a strait-laced Wee Free. It was an activity in the program of events at a Christian conference for women. And I think those thirty minutes of peaceful contemplation did more for me than the rest of the day put together.

It was against my better judgment I was there at all. Closed in with Christ, but not yet ‘out’ as a Christian, I had been persuaded into it by a lovely friend who has done more for me than she can ever know. She has been to me what her namesake was to Mary: a trusted and comforting presence in a time of change and new life.

When I arrived at the hotel in the morning, feeling like a fraud, the first people I saw were nurses from the hospital. I wanted to turn and run. It had not been long enough. The wound still felt raw and I was vulnerable.

But then, there was psalm 27, and silence.

It was already my special text. God is the stronghold of my life, He is my light and my salvation. How often I had prayed those words, knowing in the midst of my grief that this much was true.

And then, it was as if He had reached down and placed a comforting hand upon my shoulder. Here was my psalm; our psalm. In the midst of all these women, here I was with my Father.

Silence. I needed it and had not realised. The long battle with cancer does not make room for this kind of silence. There are so many words you do not want to hear. And when there are no words, there is no peace – just anxious waiting and that knot of foreboding. And then, after death, a different kind of silence. It is an absence of something in your home and in your heart. For years, I had lived for Donnie. And for months, I had willed Donnie just to live.

In the last week of his life, I spent every night on a recliner by his bedside. I wanted to hear his breathing and I wanted to be there if it should stop. Nothing could make me go down the corridor to the room that was ready for me. My mind recoiled from the idea of leaving him, and even more from the thought of being sent for.

That last silence came gently. He was just no longer there. It was many things, but it was – most of all – an end to his pain, and if not exactly the beginning of mine, a step-change in it.

Sometimes, I feel my widowhood most in the evening when I wish he was here to read and pray with me. I don’t want to be the head, and the whole household too. In my darker moments, I have ceased praying because I am fed-up of my own voice.

But He is the stronghold of my life and, somehow, even when I’m by myself, I am not alone.

There is silence, though not because I feel that God has gone away. In fact, I am aware of His presence constantly in my home. If He is silent, it is because He is waiting for me, or because He is drawing breath, about to speak. And I have learned to let Him.

It is always in my expectant quietness that He has spoken. And when He speaks, He speaks peace. Hearing His voice only deepens my desire not to utter a word, but just to listen. This, I always feel, is real prayer: His heart speaking directly into mine.

That is one of the reasons that I do not, as a Wee Free woman, feel deprived that I cannot pray aloud at public worship. What can I ever say with my lips that my heart cannot tell Him more honestly?

Last year, the Free Church held a national day of prayer. It remains a special memory for two reasons.

The day began for us in Stornoway with an early prayer meeting. For me, to share my morning devotions with others was beyond beautiful. There is something about the morning and prayer, anyway, but this was so lovely.

Our evening meeting closed with five minutes of communal prayer. I don’t know how many of us there were, but to have every heart joined in that way was moving and powerful. And it was silent.

I have come to the realisation that God does not need to hear our voices, or the words we try to say. We, on the other hand, should learn to simply be quiet sometimes, and let Him speak to us.

Only in the stillness can we hear Him.

Silence for the believer is not mere absence of noise; it is the presence of God.