Romeos, cailleachan and spiritual undress

I went on an outing with Balaich an Trust last week, and, after a relatively brief car journey with one of them, discovered I was an item of clothing short. Searching high and low, I could not find it anywhere and was forced to confront the fact that I was out minus  that which no respectable Lewiswoman willingly divests – my cardigan. 

What rush of blood to the head, you ask, had overcome me, to the extent that the knitted reputation-saver had been lost . . . 

I remembered in my confusion, my father’s tale of a woman at whose door the vehicle of a well-known lothario was frequently parked. My father – driving for the dry-cleaners – went one day to deliver freshly laundered garments of which it turns out she was in dire need. She had been, he told us, many years later, up to no good with the visiting reprobate. ‘How do you know that?’ myself and my sister scoffed, believing our own generation had a monopoly on shenanigans. His answer was hard to argue against: ‘Because’, he said decisively, ‘when she answered the door to me, she had taken off her apron’.

The implication, of course, was that she had been carried away. Such had been the allure of the local romeo that she had lost her head – and her wrap-around floral pinny. If you are unfamiliar with the complexity of these garments, let me assure you that it’s unlikely one was ever removed by accident.

We set a lot of store by clothing, don’t we?  Apparel has a kind of cultural importance, beyond the merely practical one of preserving decency and keeping out the cold/midgies. I was reminded of this when visiting the fabrication yard at Arnish that cardiganless day. Aside from the hard hat and hi-vis jackets, we were told to don steel-toecapped footwear that will always be referred to here in Lewis by those of a certain age, as ‘Arnish boots’. They achieved currency during the heyday of the yard, and have come to be inextricably linked with its name. 

I can remember, too, when the windows of local clothing retailers, Murdo Maclean’s, and its rival, Nazir Bros, would be filled with ladies’ hats, deftly to coincide with communion season. For most who still attend church assiduously, headgear is not part of their wardrobe, and so the shop displays no longer reflect what was once very much a local event. Of course, we still celebrate communion but it is less of a community affair now.

My own personal dress code for public worship has relaxed somewhat over the years. I have come to the conclusion that the outward trappings don’t matter too much. God listens to me when I pray at home in my pyjamas; I can’t imagine for a second he’s going to turn his face from the earnest petitions of one of his own, just because they’ve gone to church in jeans. Truthfully, I would rather see our pews packed with folk in biker leathers than sparsely populated by ‘correctly’ attired ladies in hats and posh frocks.

I have found, anyway, that there is really only one outfit necessary to the Christian: armour.

Ephesians 6 tells us what ‘the whole armour of God’ consists of: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, feet shod with the readiness that stems from the gospel of peace. All of this should be accessorised with the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit, and the helmet of salvation.

Do I agonise over this outfit as much as I might over my outward apparel? Is it my habit to make an inventory, checking that all the pieces are in place?

Honestly? No, I don’t always. Sometimes I go far too long in neglecting to fasten and refasten the buckles that hold everything together.

In recent weeks, something happened to remind me about being a better soldier. I had not been in prayer so much, I had spent less time in the Word, and I had skipped the means of grace far more frequently than was wise or necessary.

And then I was brought up short by an incident. Petty, anonymous hatred of the most insidious and accusatory kind, intended to steal my peace. It reminded me of a very precious truth: the world is poles apart from God, and it is, therefore, not my home.

We will have troubles here. People might let us down, hurts will come – but we should receive these as they are intended by God: to persuade us that we really do belong to him. For me, the whole sorry debacle was an opportunity for the Lord to show me the truth of Joseph’s words to his brothers, ‘you intended to harm me, but God intended it for my good’

He brought me swiftly back to his side, where I am safest. And I have straightened out my armour, reattaching what had worked loose, and preparing both my sword and shield so I might follow him more closely.

But, even in that fray, when I was undoubtedly tussling with Satan, there was one element of my outfit that did not move.

As with any soldier, it will remain fixed until the battle is over.  That gives me comfort because I know I will fail again: my arm will flag in holding up my faith as a shield, and I will try to fend off the blows without it.

But the one item I will never – indeed, can never – lose, is the helmet of salvation. Christ puts it in place, and only he has the authority to remove it.

Which no soldier does until the battle is over.

Fools to make war on our brothers in arms

When the national media got hold of the fact that the Muslim community in Lewis was building its own meeting place in Stornoway, they scented blood. The expectation was that the narrow minds in black hats would be out in force, that a trench would be dug with Muslims on one side and ‘Christian fundamentalists (whatever they are) on the other.
Disappointingly for the usual suspects, that is not actually what is happening on the ground. As David Robertson points out in a recent blog, commentators from outwith – and, indeed, within, I would add – our island, fail to distinguish between the different denominations of Presbyterian churches represented here. Far and away the largest denomination is the Free Church of Scotland.

Its size and reach is, I guess, why the responsibility for influencing the Comhairle, rigging elections and intimidating old ladies falls fairly and squarely on the Wee Frees. Other denominations may have taken a different view, but the minister of the largest Free Church in Lewis has voiced what most of us believe: we would prefer that everyone saw the beauty of Christ and gave their lives to Him, but we will not achieve that by force.

Actually, he has articulated an important facet of the misunderstanding many harbour about Christianity: we really are not about power, we are about love.

However – and it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to say this – we need to be better at walking the walk. I can say as many times as I like to the unbelieving public that we are holding them up to God in love, but words alone are not enough. We have to be able to demonstrate our love to win the unbelievers over.

In a famous passage – 1 Corinthians 1: 13 – Paul speaks of the futility of Christianity without love. The older translations render this ‘charity’ which, as we all know, begins at home.

We need to be able, as Christians, to love one another demonstrably, before we are capable of winning the world over. How will an unbeliever be convinced that I am lovingly concerned for him, if I cannot show first that I love my brethren?

As Christ led us to expect, and as my church prepared me for, I have been reviled for my witness. There is no need for me to repeat here what has been said and done against me for His sake. It is because God is the stronghold of my life that I have weathered the excesses of
secular hatred; it is His armour, fastened and refastened by His loving people, that has protected me from the fiery darts of Satan and his – sometimes unwitting – workers.

But who will protect us from one another? When, in the middle of what is undoubtedly a spiritual battle, Christians waste their energy and misdirect their concern, in judging one another, who will make the peace?

Still punch-drunk from having my private grief used against me by unfeeling strangers, I was accused by one of the brethren of being ashamed of my Lord. His justification for this was that I had not, in my election campaign literature, explicitly said that I was a
Christian.

Another of the believing community took it upon herself to ‘name and shame me’ as unsuitable to hold elected office because of . . . well, my many failings. We do not, she said, share the same theology. Indeed
we do not.

But we do share the same Saviour. He is Lord, we are His church – and when we do this to one another, we offend only Him.
The world loves it. I know that unbelievers seize on any chance they can to justify their lack of faith, by pointing to the failings of Christians. It is not, ‘see how they love one another’, but ‘see how
they fight amongst themselves’.

This is a plea to my fellow Christians, of whatever denomination, to think about who it is you wound when you publicly rebuke one of your brothers and sisters in Christ. If we say something that you consider theologically unsound, or otherwise damaging to the cause, then I
believe the correct course of action is private counsel. The Bible has much to say on this subject, but nowhere does it
mention public pillorying, or shaming before the baying mob. In fact, Matthew 18: 15 tells us that our starting point, if we have a grievance against a brother, is to speak privately to him about it.

That’s privately – not on Facebook, not via a letter to the ‘Gazette’, not from a public platform in the Town Hall.

If you are certain that your position is the right one, as a Christian that means right in the eyes of God, and according to His Law. You need, therefore, no other witness than Him, and your erring brother in Christ.

He laid down His life for us; all He asks in return is that we crucify self, and see our brother as greater than we are. If we love our family in Christ, any error is not a subject for public shaming, but for private reconciliation.

Wee Frees and Wise Men – Not Mutually Exclusive

When the Calvinists of the Free Church in Stornoway are not busy oppressing the people who want to exercise their free will by swinging a golf club on Sundays, we like to sit around, oppressing one another. Old Christians try to prevent young Christians from enjoying themselves, men keep women in their place (the kitchen), and, I suppose, the ministers whack the other elders on the knuckles with a wooden ruler if they overstep the mark. Our times of fellowship are an endurance test, with the first person to laugh put outside by the bins.

It is remotely possible, though, that we are just harsh and humourless by nature. I mean, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame everything about us on Calvin. The atheist intelligentsia has been doing that for a long time – they blame him for destroying Gaelic culture, for taking art and music from people’s lives and they blame him for stealing Christmas.

John Calvin, a.k.a. The Grinch.

There was, it is true, a tendency among the Reformers to distance themselves from these holy days which had been so much a feature of the Roman Catholic church. Nonetheless, Luther permitted its observance and Calvin . . . well, Calvin’s position was not exactly as it has been portrayed.

The celebration of Christmas had already been abolished in Geneva before he went there, and it was later reinstated during his temporary expulsion from the city. By the time he returned, Calvin had either mellowed somewhat, or had not been strongly opposed to it in the first place, but he stated his intention to allow Christ’s birthday to be marked as the people had become accustomed to doing.

Knox shared Calvin’s reservations about the celebration of a day not explicitly prescribed in scripture. Christmas was eventually banned in Scotland by an Act of Parliament in 1640. Despite its repeal 48 years later, it continued as a very low-key festival, not becoming a public holiday until 1958.

Now, however, more and more Presbyterian churches in Scotland are tentatively marking the religious significance of Christmas. In what looks like a binning of the rule-book, the dour men in black are decking the halls. Or something similar.

Well, what does the rule book say about the matter?  The Westminster Confession of Faith says that, in addition to the Lord’s Day, there is room for. ‘solemn fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner’.

It is the manner of the celebration that matters: the spirit in which it is done and the intention behind it. If the primary objective is to point to Christ, to glorify God, then the marking of Christmas is entirely compatible with the ethos of every Calvinist church.

Of course, the Westminster Confession of Faith is itself based on Scripture, and it is back there we must go if there is any doubt about the rightness of such a move. One of the objections levelled by people like Knox himself was that the Bible does not offer any authority that December 25th is the birth-date of our Saviour. Far be it from me to call poor Mr Knox a pedant, but . . . Surely the material point here is not when the Son of God was born, but that He was born. Only last weekend, we reflected in church upon the startling fact that, in the storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee, it was God who slept, in the person of His Son. That was the real miracle – that God, as John Betjeman wrote, was man in Palestine.

He was born, then, and we have several accounts of how this came about. In John 6:38, He Himself addresses the why, ‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me’.

From that incarnation stems everything that we have as believers, starting with hope. Hope was born the day He came into the world, and gathered in strength towards the cross and finally the triumph of the empty tomb. It is because of God incarnate that we have been redeemed from the bondage of our own sin and the certainty of death.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I cannot think of anything more worthy of celebration.

Not celebrating as the world celebrates. The bloated excess of Christmas as it is marked and commercialized these days would turn the least sensitive of stomachs. In that feast of self-indulgence, all that remains of Christ is the name – and there are those who would expunge even His name from the proceedings.

Last year, Christmas Day coincided with the Lord’s Day and we concentrated in church upon Mary’s Song, and upon the importance of unwrapping and making our own the gift which God has given us in His only begotten Son.

This is the message of Christmas when told properly. The world took Christ, it beat Him and abused Him, and it finally crucified Him.

Now, it is doing the same with His very name.

It was appropriated, and all the meaning with which Christmas is redolent has been leached out, to be replaced by a consumerist frenzy.

Advent is all about waiting. It is about silence. And it is about anticipation of the greatest event our world has ever known. This year, I am grateful that I will be able to draw aside with God’s people, singing His praise for what He did all those Christmases ago:

Sacred Infant, all divine

What a tender love was thine

Thus to come from highest bliss

Down to such a world as this.

In unity to dwell . . .

Many years ago, my granny used to tell a story about an indignant woman from her own neck of the mòinteach who once nailed a list of her grievances to the door of the manse. While I would in no way suggest this as the best means of communicating with your minister, it certainly would be a non-confrontational means to tell him . . . oh, I don’t know, say, how much he hurt your feelings by implying you wouldn’t get a singing voice till Heaven. If that had happened. Hypothetically-speaking.

Generally, though, nailing stuff to doors is not the way to get taken seriously. Particularly, I would imagine if, like the woman in the story, your missive culminates with a threat to ‘cud of’ the hands of anyone removing your notice. Such dark ravings will only ensure that people avoid you in the street, while also keeping your exploits alive in folk memory long after you have passed away, hopefully to that place where – apparently – everyone will have the voice of an angel. She added, bitterly.

There’s one fellow, though, we remember for the door-nailing carry-on, not because his behaviour was eccentric, but because his influence was so far-reaching and long-lasting. Martin Luther did not like what the church had become and so he took very direct action, according to tradition, hammering his 95 complaints into the door of Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517.

This set in motion the chain of events which history recognises as the Protestant Reformation. It was not a time for subtlety, or gentle implication. Objections had to be nailed to doors, not whispered in corners, or written into politely phrased letters.

These days, though, perhaps we need to hammer our concerns to the inside of the door. It really takes someone exceptional to effect change from outside and, in the case of the church, isn’t it always better that we work together for the greater good, rather than react to external forces?

Luther, and the other Reformers are not remembered and revered because they created the ultimate schism. Surely, we celebrate their legacy because their eyes were opened to the truth, and they were used by God to relentlessly spread that message, whatever the personal cost.

One very important facet of their message was that Christ is head of the church, no one else. As such, then, it is His church – not ours. Logically, therefore , the outworking of that is for us to treat the church as we would wish to treat our Saviour. Of course, I hardly need add that by ‘church’ here, I mean the people, not the building.

Who has not been moved by descriptions of His plight at Gethsemane, and at Calvary? Which Christian has not shed tears over this perfect man being made sin for our sake? And yet, which of us has not harboured ill-feeling towards one of His sheep? Haven’t we had partings of the way which were unedifying and unnecessary? Most would agree that there are few things sadder than a family divided. How much more true is that of God’s family?

Besides, if we are of the reformed faith, then surely we must remember that the Bible is our guidebook. Too often, we act on our own instinct, which is never a good idea.

I don’t know about you, but my instinct is governed and guided by ego, by self-interest, and by pride. I may even be the guiltiest of the sinners in my church; I wouldn’t be surprised.

Nonetheless, I cannot be the only one whose judgement is constantly clouded by self. Yet, if we allow ourselves to react to every perceived slight and wrong and hurt inflicted upon us, and if we think our own behaviour beyond reproach, then we will always be at odds with a church which is full of imperfect people.

Sinners saved by grace are still sinners. I had heard about conviction of sin before, but really only felt the guilt of it once my prison door was opened. This, I imagine, is a truth which applies to all Christians – that we struggle daily with sin.

And as such, ought we not be moved to help one another, rather than to judge? If sin is our common enemy (which it is), we have more to gain by sticking together, and by helping one another with our burdens. The thief, that is Satan, comes to steal, and kill, and destroy. He knows better than any of us that a divided household cannot stand.

That love which we are exhorted by Peter to have for one another, is the same love which he later tells us covers a multitude of sins. When a Christian stumbles, the world purses its lips, and gleefully crows that he is no better than anyone else. It takes pleasure in his misfortune, and holds up his sin as proof that Christianity is a sham.

This is no more than we have come to expect from the enemies of Christ.

If his brothers and sisters in Christ do likewise, however, or stand aloof in his misfortune, how are they different from the world? And how are they showing obedience to the Lord that forgave them so much?

As Christians, we are the body of Christ. One body, of which no part can be afflicted without it causing suffering to the rest. That is why we are to love one another, to help one another, and to bear each other’s burdens.

Armour was always easiest to put on with help from a friend. If the breastplate of righteousness should work loose, who will help me tighten it, if not my brothers and sisters? And if I see theirs slipping, my hand should be first to help, and my lips silent of all reproach.

 

 

 

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.