Your Lord or Your Loved Ones?

Jesus didn’t go by the adage, ‘he travels fastest who travels alone’. He was almost always to be found at the centre of a group, whether just his own 12 disciples or, as in Luke 8, a more extended company.

For me, one of the interesting features is not the number, but the composition – ‘many women’. At least one of these was a married woman. She was only obeying Jesus’ own command to leave her family behind to follow him. It is what he asks of all who wish to throw their lot in with his; it is what he asks of us. Our loved ones are to move into second place,  behind our Lord.

When my father died, we discovered a letter he had written to us, the family. In it, he expressed his love for us, something a Lewisman of his generation would never verbalise. I don’t for one minute believe, however, that he thought we doubted his feelings for us. That was not the purpose of the letter.

He told us what we already knew, that we had been so happy together that two lifetimes would still not be enough time. 

Yet, he added that he was content to go to be with Christ, which is far better.

In one sense, this is an example of a father putting Christ before his family. But, in another, it is an illustration of that great Christlikeness which is the fruit of faith. He was using his love for us in the service of a greater love: he was saying, ‘you know how we feel about one another; well, here is something far more to be desired’.

He used this last communication to us as a witness for his Lord.

Leaving your family to be with Christ is not the cold sacrifice that it may sound. In fact, it can be a far greater act of love than remaining in the place where they are.

Is this He?

We can’t really know why John the Baptist sent his messengers to Jesus, to ask whether he was indeed the Messiah. In the solitude of his prison cell, was he really starting to doubt – the same John who recognised Jesus in the womb?

It would be wrong to utterly dismiss that as a possibility. I am sure that all believers doubt at times – their faith guttering like a candle in a draught. Mine wavers. There have been dark moments when I truly questioned where God was. The trick, though, is to try keeping so close to him that you never have to wonder.

John the Baptist, I’m certain, was much better at that than the likes of me.

I favour a different explanation. It is possible that he sent his men to ask Jesus, not because he doubted, but because he feared that they might.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t always answer the question put to him. Nonetheless, we can be sure of receiving the response we need to hear. In this case, Jesus pointed to the best evidence he had of his status as Messiah: his own works, done in his own power and on his own authority. Who else but the true Son of God could accomplish this?

This morning, I am grateful that this is the Messiah. Here is authority; here is might; here is glory.

But, oh my word, here too is compassion.

Not only is the Lord walking among the very lowliest in society, and healing those shunned by others, but see how he deals with them. Jesus is astonished by the faith of the centurion; Jesus takes pity on the weeping widow.

Jesus does. The Son of God. 

Imagine your faith astonishing, or your tears moving, the heart of the second person of the godhead?

Stop imagining. It is so. This is our Saviour; we need look for no other.

Sabbath Fury

We have had a lot to say about the Sabbath here in Lewis – so much so that Luke 6 actually makes uncomfortable reading. 

Jesus is rebuked for permitting his disciples to pluck grain to assuage their hunger. Later in the passage he offends the Pharisees again by healing a man with a withered hand who is in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

Many thought the Sabbath twice broken by Jesus because he permitted the hungry to be fed and caused a disabled man to be healed. Jesus himself, of course, saw things differently.  As a man in this world, he didn’t concern himself with outward conformity; and as our intercessor in heaven, he is just the same.

The Lord sees us in ways we cannot see each other. He knows our hearts and our needs – and he knows our motives.

Was it love for Jesus that moved the Pharisees to keep the Sabbath?  Perhaps. But ask another question: was it love for Jesus that made them enforce it so rigidly on behalf of others?

We have our answer at verse 11, ‘But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus’.

Nothing that fills us with fury is good. It edges out the love that ought to dwell in the hearts of all Christians. Sabbath-keeping, to my mind, is one outward sign of love for the Lord: we keep it because we are glad to do so. But it is not, in itself, loving him. In fact, this chapter shows us that it is possible to adhere to the outward so rigidly that we can remove Jesus from the throne of our hearts.

Spoiler alert: at no point in the following 18 chapters will Jesus demonstrate his care of the people through Sabbath-keeping. That is a desire that comes from a changed heart: it comes from within; it is not imposed from without.

We have to be so careful as Christians because we cannot see others as our Lord does, from the inside out. It is a challenge, then, not to punish the unchanged hearts for lack of conformity and lose the privilege of truly witnessing in the process.

Let us find where Jesus harangues the lost for breaking the Sabbath, and then we can emulate his example.

The Nets Were Breaking

Have you ever felt like you might be crushed under the sheer weight of the world, of your own failings and disappointments? It’s a rare person who has not. We have all been in situations where it feels as though, no matter how hard we try, no matter how justified our actions, our efforts are doomed not to bear fruit.

If we are Christians, that sense of inadequacy comes with a side-order of guilt, because we are well aware that our failing is often a result of cutting God out of the picture. And yet – if you are anything like me – in situations like that, we still persist in doing it our own way.

We know, but we somehow don’t believe, that God will do it better.

When we trust in him, though, he does amazing things. I can’t count the number of times I have put myself through agonies – what should I do, should I speak up about this, is it up to me to act, have I been wrong, is my anger justified – and why? All because I do not carry everything to God in prayer. And finally, when I am broken by my own complete inadequacy, and I go to him, arms out like a hurt child, what happens?

He astonishes me all over again.  

If only I would remember that, then, and not repeat the mistake of thinking I’m doing this alone. Luke 5 spoke to me so boldly this morning about the difference between my puny efforts, compared to those that are done in the strength and wisdom of my Saviour. 

We have to ask ourselves, when the going is tough, is the Lord withholding his blessings from us, or are we keeping ourselves aloof from him? Is our profession of faith truly bound to the way we live? Are we saying we trust in Jesus, but keeping our own hands on the steering wheel?

I know I am very guilty of this. Here, though, in Luke 5, is the reminder I need.

By myself, I am fishing with no bait; leaning on Jesus, the nets are straining to hold all that he bestows.

An Opportune Time

The devil never quite goes away, does he?  I know that I’m not alone in feeling that he seems to be, if not a resident, then definitely a very frequent visitor to my home. He is an expert in my badness, and my weakness. This knowledge is then used to tempt me away from God, to make me act rashly, to speak unkindly, to doubt my salvation, to steal my peace.

Whenever I find myself in a situation where there is strife and difficulty, I will invariably start to doubt whether I really am saved. ‘No Christian should . . .’ says that insidious inner voice.

But in this, as in all things, I can look to Christ. We often hear quoted that he was ‘tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin’. The second clause could easily discourage you because such perfection is beyond any human being. Concentrate on the first, though, and see what it’s saying: your Saviour understands what you are suffering; he has been here first.

It would be easy to see the temptation in the wilderness as an isolated incident. The devil comes to Jesus, not when he is low, but at a spiritual high point, after his baptism. Jesus relies on the truth of scripture and defeats his foe, going off in the power of the Spirit to begin his public ministry.

So, that’s that. Jesus in his perfection has kicked the devil into touch and commences his work in peace. End of Jesus’ experience of temptation.

Hardly. 

Note what Luke 4:13 says about the devil’s departure ‘until an opportune time’. I take comfort in that because it is the pattern of my own life: spiritual highs followed immediately by spiritual attack; the sense of the devil being defeated, only for him to return and redouble his efforts when I least expect.

But that is when I need to forget my own strength, or my own guile and cleave to the Lord. Satan did not tempt him once and give up, anymore than he does with me or you: he merely waited until an opportune time.

The loneliness of Jesus at the end of his life made that just such a time, and the devil doesn’t waste chances. Our Lord dealt perfectly with him, though, surrendering his own will to the Father and relying upon that strength against the tempter’s power.

With me, with you, he is just the same. His retreats are temporary, always until an opportune time. But our protection is the same as that which surrounded Christ in the desert and at Calvary.

Immanuel

In the second year of Harold Wilson’s second government, the twenty third year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and the first year of Comhairle nan Eilean, Catrìona was born. ‘Abair naidheachd’, I hear you say. Nighean Mhurdanaidh Catrìona Dhòmhnaill Iain Ruaidh. ‘So what?’ you add carelessly.

Well, so what indeed. We were all born sometime and we all had parents of some description. It’s part of being human. We take all that for granted.

Why, then, does Luke place a fairly lengthy genealogy of Jesus in the middle of chapter three? Surely, when you are poised for the awe and wonder of the Son of God walking this Earth, such a mundane interlude is simply so much extraneous information. 

Look, though, where it is placed. 

Jesus is baptised, and the Holy Spirit alights upon him. It is then that God’s voice from heaven declares, ‘this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased’.

Extraordinary. Everything about the scene tells us that this is indeed the Son of God, the promised Messiah. This is how we would have him be: exceptional.

No sooner are we growing used to this, however, than Luke intervenes. The genealogy places Jesus firmly where he was of his own free will. It reminds us not only who he was, but what he had come to accomplish.

And, for me this third of December, that is the really outstanding thing about the chapter. We know that Jesus is the Son of God, and it is no surprise to hear the Father praising his perfection. 

What causes wonder every time, though, is the other part of the story: that Jesus set his glory aside to be born into an ordinary human lineage. Then you see his remarkable baptism in a different light too. 

He was not an ordinary man, extraordinarily blessed; he was God with us. The alighting of the Spirit, and the blessing of the Father represent the total alignment of the trinity in a common purpose.

Most awe-inspiring of all is what that purpose was. 

My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation

In Alexander Mackenzie’s famous book, ‘The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer’, his prognostications are divided into various categories, including those which have been partly fulfilled, and still others, the fulfilment of which is doubted. There is something about this classification which tends to make the already shadowy figure of Coinneach Odhar even more indistinct. We suspect both he and his gift to be less than genuine, and the visions which have not borne fruit do nothing to restore them in our eyes.

Unfulfilled prophecy in the Bible, however, does not represent failure. Because of its source, we can trust that it will come to pass. At least, we ought to, if we are in a right relationship with the Lord.

Simeon, in chapter two of Luke’s Gospel, is always a challenge to me for the simple reason that he did not give up on the promise that he would see the Saviour. It is difficult to imagine a faith so steadfast. He is rewarded in full measure, though, when he holds the infant Jesus in his arms. For me, this echoes Moses seeing the Promised Land,upon which his living foot was not destined to tread. The old man in the temple is presented with a child. All his life, he has waited for this Messiah, and when the moment of fulfilment arrives . . . there is only a tiny, little boy.

I wonder what I would have thought in Simeon’s place. Would I have been inclined to disappointment? All that waiting – and then a mere baby. Really, was this not just another promise to replace the earlier one? This child could not deliver his people from their bondage. Might I not have felt cheated that this was all God would reveal to me? Isn’t it possible that I would see only salvation postponed?

Probably, for I lack the faith – or the faithfulness – of Simeon.

But he gave thanks to God. It’s interesting that he did not say ‘for my eyes have seen the instrument of your salvation’. No, ‘my eyes have seen your salvation’. Jesus is not a means to an end; he is, himself, our salvation. Simeon in his wisdom saw that. He did not have to witness the resurrection, or even the crucifixion, to believe that here was the fulfilment of God’s promise.

Today, taking Jesus into my heart anew, I echo Simeon and give thanks to God. Not only have my eyes seen his salvation, but my soul has felt its redeeming power. An infant in the arms of a faithful old man, and the risen Christ indwelling the souls of his people are one and the same astonishing, beautiful Messiah.

Benedictus

I hope to blog my way through the Gospel of Luke, which is the ideal reading material for advent. In studying one chapter each day of December, I will have read a complete account of Jesus’ life by Christmas Eve. Therefore I expect to be more fully focused on him, the true meaning of the season by the time it is finished.

And expectation seems the right mood in which to embark on this endeavour. Chapter One is all about the anticipation of two births: John the Baptist’s, as well as that of Jesus Christ. By the end of the chapter, however, John has been born and his hitherto mute father, Zechariah, opens his mouth to prophesy.

When any child is born, into whatever circumstances, people will try to anticipate the blessings that life may hold for him. The people in the vicinity of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home were no different, asking, ‘What, then, will this child be?’ There is a sense of awe and wonder and of infinite possibility. John’s is a life consecrated to his Lord from before birth, and the curious events surrounding him have caused all who hear of them to expect wonders.

The prophecy of his father, therefore – the Benedictus – is filled with that eager anticipation of John’s great purpose in life. Few parents, at the birth of a child, can have hoped for such a life of service, of self-denial and of subordination to another. But Zechariah places his son’s personal destiny in the context of God’s mercy to Israel. What higher purpose was there, than to be the prophet of the Saviour, proclaiming him and preparing the way of the Lord?

The beginning of Advent permits all Christians to become that child in faith again. As I begin at the beginning once more, I feel a new hope and expectation. For us now, it is not the birth of a child we look forward to, but the second coming of our victorious Messiah, by whose stripes we have been healed.

And he is refreshing me through his word, reminding me through this chapter of two things:

  • the infinite possibilities that the Christian life holds, not just at the beginning but through its repeated renewal;
  • the meaning that service to Jesus will give to the humblest of lives.

Do I feel as Zechariah did on his son’s behalf? Am I re-embarking on this journey at the start of Advent, knowing that my role is to serve, and rejoicing in that?

And am I full of that joyful expectation that grants meaning to the waiting – the waiting of Advent, and the waiting that is part and parcel of a life fully entrusted to Christ?

Hail to the chief

Nobody likes to lose. As we watch the United States struggle to put a leader in the White House, it’s worth asking ourselves how well we handle defeat. It is felt by everyone, I think, as a wound to the soul: rejection and relegation are not what our hearts desire.

I’m certainly not good with it. You’d think all those years of campaigning for the SNP in the wilderness might have taught me something. ‘Smile’, someone would hiss as television cameras panned around the throng attending yet another predictable count. We tried our best not to sound too bitter or look too dejected. And, when fortune smiled upon us, a very long time later, the challenge, equally, was not to be too brash or ebullient in victory.

We were told in childhood that it was proper to be ‘a good loser’. I don’t suppose anyone taught  poor Dòmhnall Iain that, though. As far as he’s concerned, I’m sure, the two words don’t belong in the same sentence.

But the art of losing gracefully is also the touchstone of wisdom, I think – and that is why no one is very surprised that the 45th president of the USA seems disinclined to go out with dignity. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a wise man. Like all of us, he is flawed and overly directed by his ego. 

And he is a lesson, a cautionary tale, if only we – and he – would see it that way.

Four years ago, when he was first elected, a small number of our church congregation were interviewed about what we would do if he visited Stornoway. I think we were supposed to talk of Presbyterian fatwahs, of shunning, and of banishment. The footage never saw the light of day, however, because what we DID say failed to fit the popular message.

Now, at what appears to be the end of Donald J Trump’s short-lived presidency, we very much need the world to hear what we had to say then. And we very much need to mean it.

Christ is the head of the church, and his church turns away no man. It doesn’t matter at all how the world sees Donald, or how Donald sees the world – there is shelter in the Lord for everyone. That grandson of Lewis could have gone to Christ fresh from his inauguration, or he could go right now in the ashes of defeat . . . and he would be received in exactly the same manner. The angels in heaven could not rejoice more over his soul if he were saved as President of the United States than if he were a tramp whose home is on the streets.

I know what it is to have the closeness of my God in the very worst and loneliest hours of my life. Only God can see the very rawest parts of our griefs and sorrows, only God counts our tears. And when we are brought low, he raises us up – not on our own feet, but in his arms, from which height and safety we come to realise it was never our strength bearing us anyway.

With all my heart, I wish this for Donald J Trump now. Few people are so publicly broken; what a great testimony it would be to see him publicly healed. Oh, I don’t mean in that stagey, tele-evangelist way that is so offensive to anyone who has suffered or witnessed suffering. Not the ‘God wants you well’ message that is really just another way of telling us that this world is everything. I mean quietly, humbly, meeting with his Saviour, even at the well of humiliation.

Imagine then, Donald Trump rushing to tell all to the people – to address the ones who spoke against him, who campaigned for Biden – and boasting, not of himself, but of God. Think of him being astounded to hear all the things he ever did, from the lips of Christ, and not poured out in boastful pride by himself.

If you’re reading this and thinking it highly unlikely, or even impossible, that such a change could ever come to be, then you haven’t met with Christ either. 

Perhaps if we knew him better, we would not feel the need to disown our leaders with childish hashtags like ‘Not my president’. The Christian view says, ‘this is not only your President, your Prime Minister, or your First Minister , but your neighbour also’. 

It’s a challenge. Not everyone we are called on to love will be loveable. Then again, perhaps we’re not that loveable ourselves. Yet, when we were still mired in sin, Christ redeemed us.

Perhaps the miracle of power for which Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser prayed this week will come in ways that neither she, nor we, imagined. Her God does his best work with the broken and is, ultimately, the only one who can speak truth to power – for he is both, himself.

A Home For All Seasons

I am writing this blog as a howling gale rages outside. Myself and the dog are tucked up by the woodburner, enjoying the warmth and safety of home. And it occurs to me, as I pour another cup of Dark Grey no.4 (tea, incidentally, not malt whisky), that it could all serve as a metaphor for the life that I live.

The house was built many years ago by the father in-law that I never met, as a home for his growing family, of which my husband was the baby. In time, it became his, and I moved here with him as a bride in 2003.

Over the years, we carried out work that made it more our home, including the installation of the Morso Squirrel woodburner upon which I am currently toasting my cable-knit slippers. And Donnie became a tree and shrub aficionado, growing obsessed with screening the house off from the world. I remember saying to him, as we made yet another pilgrimage to Maybury Gardens, to please not mention the word ‘privacy’ again. ‘David Iain is going to think we’ve got something to hide’, I said, as we both laughed at the thought.

It is on a feu, and it is not mortgaged. So, when my beloved Donnie passed away in 2015, I had the comfort of knowing it was completely mine. No one could take it from me. He had, in the last few months of his life, been single-minded in ensuring that I would be secure in every way that he could make certain of. That was always his instinct. 

I remember one evening, a few years before the shadow of death crossed our path. He had filled up the log basket and gone out to close the gates. ‘That always feels good’, he said, shooting the bolt home, ‘everything secured for the weekend, and both of us safe inside’. It was why the trees were so important too: he was putting a circle of protection around what meant the most to him. This house was everything: it symbolised his parents and siblings, and his marriage to me. It was everything warm, safe and positive in a life kindly and gently lived.

So, when that legacy passed into my keeping, I felt very keenly that it was like having his protection still. He cannot put his arms around me now, and I cannot go to him with my troubles – but I have our home, with all its happy memories and warm associations.

Every metaphorical storm – and every literal one too – that has blown since I lost him, sent me to the solace of this place. Here, I feel close to him, and safe. 

But there is an additional reason for this. No, not additional – it is, in fact, the foundation that was there all along. It was what motivated Donnie, it was what sustained us both as we walked through the valley of the shadow, as much as in the sunlit uplands of happiness.

Love. Real love, that is. Not the Mills and Boon sort, nor the kind that breaks under pressure. The original, the best, patented by the Creator.

Over my sitting room door hangs a sign that says ‘The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?’, the first verse of psalm 27. It speaks volumes to me of what home is, of what it always has been. I understand God’s protection because I have always been blessed to have the shelter of a loving home.

Now is no different. I have a home that was built with love, and – as my husband wrote in the last of his diary entries – was always a place of happiness. That sort of legacy is not meaningless, and I don’t hold it lightly.

Not long ago, a friend of mine was talking about a widow who had some slight bother with her neighbours, and kept saying, ‘this wouldn’t happen if Murdo was alive’. I suppose he thought she was full of self-pity and being melodramatic. But I believe that she probably had a point, because people do treat you differently. Kind people treat you more kindly, and those who are only out for themselves seek to exploit your solitude. 

God has a heart for the fatherless and for the widows, though. I don’t just believe that; I know it. He has given me to have a safe place in storms of all kinds. Sometimes, he causes them to be calm, and sometimes he lets them rage and fume and blow themselves out.

But always, I am here, in the warmth and safety of my home. When the forces outside batter and buffet me, I look up and I read once more:

‘The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?’

The answer is this: no one. I am safe in the shelter of one who can silence the storm with a word. 

A humbling thought if you have ever glibly said of yourself, ‘I am the storm’.