Downcast, but not Outcast

Usually I look at the mirror only out the corner of my eye. I figure that’s the kind of glance most others will give me throughout the course of the day and anything that doesn’t scream at me out of the reflection – giant spot, cow’s lick etc – is unlikely to be noticed by a passing stranger either.

Sometimes, though, I’m brought up short. Lately, the circles under my eyes are darkening, and bags are starting to form. Altogether, I look uncannily like my Carloway granny. This will mean nothing to most of you, but suffice it to say that my late husband, when he wished to pay me a compliment, would remark on how lucky I was to have taken after the other side of the family. Let me tell you, things are bad when you’re hankering after the days people thought you might be from Achmore.

Eye bags and blemishes notwithstanding, this is still not the most disturbing reflection I have encountered this week. I have to confess to something of a struggle; one of those challenges to my faith that cannot simply be brushed aside. It is something I have heard often from others, and always tried to talk them out of – but lately I find myself tested by the same question: what are we supposed to do when the church behaves worse than the world?

There is no sense in pretending that this is not sometimes so. The Bible provides us with plenty examples of it – righteous men, like Jacob, for example, using deceit to achieve their own ends.

So, if it’s there in God’s word that a cheat can still enter the kingdom, who are we to doubt it?

This week, I have been disappointed by the behaviour of some fellow Christians. It is not something that needs to be discussed here, but it has caused me much reflection. And, as always, God provides direction. I shared a favourite Bible verse on Facebook – Peter’s exhortation that we should always be ready to give a defence of the reason for the hope that is in us – and I expressed sadness that no one ever asks for a reason; they merely mock my faith.

Might that not, however, someone pointed out, be my own fault? I should clarify, he wasn’t being unkind, and he didn’t single me out – he actually said ‘the fault of believers’. However, I am singling myself out, because he was absolutely right. If I don’t show forth the hope that is in me, who is going to ask about it? The very same day, in the course of searching for something else, I discovered an old tweet in which I was described as representing Christians the same way that Richard Dawkins represented atheists.

Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place. Unbelievers have consistently described me as ‘bitter’ and ‘hate-filled’ – because that is how I come across to them. I have failed to go where they are, to get alongside them, and to represent Jesus as what He is to me, and what He could be to them. Hung up on protecting our Christian heritage, I have somehow managed not to show love, but judgement.

This was never my intention. It just shows you, though, there’s a wide gulf between the person we see in the mirror and the face we present to the world.

We have to be careful of that. I am not suggesting that we compromise on the message, but that we have to be careful of its presentation. Of course, I know that a certain amount of whatever we might say will always be met with derision, regardless. At the weekend, I inadvertently offended a whole lot of the Twitterati by sharing the petition to retain prayers in parliament. It was deemed arrogant, and I genuinely don’t think that it was anything I wrote which gave this impression – simply the fact that some are determined to despise public expressions of faith.

I am downcast, but I have been downcast before. Failure in the Christian life is actually an opportunity to relearn that we are not to do this on our own strength, or in our own wisdom. Ironically, that’s exactly why I think all public bodies should preface their daily business with prayer.

We have, as Christians, to be doubly careful because, as the quote goes, the world may not read the Bible, but it will certainly read us – our lives, our conduct, our motivation, the way that we treat others. Instead of me being disillusioned by what I perceive as unChristian behaviour in others, I need to work a lot harder on the page I am presenting to the world myself.

Am I displaying Christ, and the unparalleled hope, the joyous freedom I enjoy in Him? Yes, I write about it, and I talk about it too – but am I living it? Do those currently outside Him look at me, and at my life, and see nothing there to recommend this path? Am I actually hiding the marvellous light from them, instead of testifying to it in a life filled with joy?

I am reminded of an old lady who was asked if she ever doubted her salvation. She replied that she would often pray to God that if He had not already begun a good work in her, please would He start now. It’s never too late to begin.

God doesn’t speak in order to dishearten us, but so that we might rebuild the wall where it may have tumbled down. He has given me my answer – never mind the speck in their eyes, but worry about the beam in your own. All the while I’ve been getting bent out of shape over the behaviour of others, I have been drifting away from where I ought to be. That is not God’s plan, but the enemy’s.

Sunday Is Not About Religion At All

There have been one or two articles in the last week, written in defence of the Lewis Sabbath from a non-church perspective. At their heart, they say basically the same thing – Sunday is not just for religion.  While I welcome their input to the debate which has hitherto consisted mainly of secularist blackening of the church through the medium of stereotype and ignorance, I cannot entirely subscribe to the sentiment. As far as I am concerned, Sunday is not about religion at all.

Of course, centuries of tradition have created this situation where Lewis continues to observe a commercial shutdown on Sundays. It does indeed date back to times gone by when the norm throughout Scotland would have been that the population rested and worshipped on the Lord’s Day. While other influences have reshaped and changed other parts of the country, Lewis continued to plough its own furrow as far as Sabbath observance was concerned, partly because churchgoing continued here at much the same level as it always had. Elsewhere it has been dwindling at an alarming rate, though 44% of islanders still maintain the practice of regular worship.

That is roughly the same percentage of regular worshippers as there are Gaelic-speakers in Stornoway, and it would take a very ignorant person indeed to suggest that the language is culturally irrelevant.

It is part of that tendency among those of an unbelieving bent to wish to rubbish and revise anything which interferes with their agenda. They do not wish it to be the case that the Christian church has had an influence on shaping the local heritage here in Lewis, and so they simply deny that it is so.

Worse, they imply that the people have been too stupid to resist the wiles of sinister ministers and elders who, on some non-specific power trip, have had things all their own way these three centuries or so.

But I’m tired of that argument. It isn’t up for debate anyway – the facts speak for themselves. Much of what we can all regard as precious about life in Lewis has been shaped, one way or the other, by the influence of the Presbyterian church.

I’m more concerned by the turn that this whole tired issue is taking, that we ought to preserve the Lord’s Day because ‘it isn’t just about religion’. This is a standpoint that should shock Christians into speaking up for their Lord’s Day.

Or are we honestly going to remain silent, and leave it to our non-Christian friends and neighbours to argue for the preservation of the Lewis Sabbath based only on tradition?

Well, shame on us.

The importance of keeping the Lord’s Day is not, for me, a matter of tradition, ritual, or even religion. I would imagine I also speak for my brothers and sisters in Christ when I say that it is about my relationship with Him. He it was who said that Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.  Of course, like many more of His words, these have often been used by people to suit their own ends. However, I think that He meant the day as a gift to His believing people, when they could expect to put aside work for one day, and have the time for spiritual rest and refreshing.

Last Sunday, I slept a little later than I can during the week. I walked the dog a little further. My coffee was finished at home, instead of being decanted into a travel mug. The time I had for devotional reading and prayer was more relaxed. I drove for twenty minutes to get to church, through some of His best work – turbulent seas to my left and the green sward of machair to my right. It was a leisurely preparation for the hour of worship.

At the door of the church, there was a mixture of warm welcome and downright cheek from the two elders on duty. I approve of that Lewis brand of cheek – the gentle mockery that is very much a family thing.

And inside, contentment. Catching up with news. The silent subtle passing of the mint imperials. Psalms in Gaelic. Prayer. Preaching.

The sermon was about a man I can identify very much with. We both started out the same way, Nicodemus and I: secret disciples, the pair of us. He hid his interest in Christ, but eventually came out on His side.

We, both of us, finally came out for Him because of His death. For Nicodemus, it was right there and then, after the Lord had been crucified by the very people that he himself had feared. He had feared them and hidden his allegiance from them; and then he had faced their derision when he identified publicly with Christ.
For me, it was at a time of commemorating His death that I too finally felt the last shred of resistance falling away.

I have faced what all Christians in this part of the world do – being mocked and derided for my beliefs, sometimes from people who should certainly know better. It is not violence, of course – not yet – but it can be very trying just the same.

Sunday is a day of rest for me. I do not go ‘ religiously’ to church, nor do I read my Bible ‘religiously’. Sadly, I am monumentally selfish, and could never keep up such a religion.

Christians need this day. It offers the peace that St Augustine summed up so well – ‘ our heart is unquiet until it rests in you’. It is a different kind of rest because it is in Him.

He gave and gives and will give. Sunday was His precious gift to us. If we have identified with Him once, I would say now is the time to show that forth once again.

And again.

Sunday is not precious in Lewis because of religion, that much is true. It is precious because of Christ. And because of Him, we surely have the courage to say so.

You Can’t Make Them Drink – But You Can Lead Atheists To The Well

I was advised by the minister a while ago to take my needle and thread with me wherever I might go. Yes, I thought, typical of the patriarchy, remind the wee woman of her domestic responsibility. He wanted me to be ready, I supposed, for the moment one of the brethren might lose a cuff button in the course of wagging an admonishing finger at a flighty, hatless lady.

But I realised afterwards that he was speaking metaphorically. In recommending I leave my scissors at home, he was simply reminding me that the role of anyone who is going to faithfully witness for their Saviour must surely be that of peacemaker.

It was apposite advice for me, whether he knew it or not. Far too prone to sarcasm, I do need to keep a guard on the things that I say.

Recently, however, I  have come to the realisation that there are certain things which will offend, no matter how you couch them. It is a valuable lesson in humility that, no matter how well we express ourselves, or how carefully, not everyone will receive our message with gratitude.

And so it was that I reached a point in the week where I decided just to shut up. You may not have noticed, of course, because it was really just that . . . a moment.
It has been an exhausting time, this almost-year since starting the blog. I have had a little anonymous hassle, some upfront vitriol, and more than a few broad hints that I’m getting on people’s wicks. When things rile me, or trouble me, things that are happening locally, I sometimes wonder if it’s just me that’s bothered. Am I giving the secularists the oxygen of attention they so obviously crave? Would I be better advised to simply ignore them and let them carry on as they are doing?

During my brief, slightly dusk hour of the soul, I genuinely posed these questions to myself. Was I taking to do with things that are nothing to do with me? Am I stirring the pot unnecessarily? In short, was I taking a great big pair of scissors to a tiny tear, instead of quickly stitching it together?

The best advice I can give myself now is not to fall into the trap that the secularists have: not to keep looking outwards and blaming other people. Look inward to check whether I am guilty, and look upward for everything else.

People like to mock and taunt Christians by asking them, ‘what would Jesus do?’ We do have to put this question to ourselves, though, in a serious manner. He it is we are imitating, after all; His is the perfect nature we would love to emulate as far as possible.

When he met the woman at the well, he did not throw her adulterous and immoral lifestyle at her, he didn’t rail against her for it, or try to make her feel ashamed. But he didn’t avoid the subject either. In fact, he simply said it as it was.

If he met those people who think Stornoway needs a secular lifestyle, I don’t think he would waste valuable time on telling them where they had gone wrong, or on debating the finer points of human rights to spend Sunday in a manner of their choosing. He would, as he did with the Samaritan woman, simply tell them what he offers and, in the light of that offer, their demands would fall away. His word is power and is capable of taking the most unrepentant unbeliever from the jaws of death.

But how are they going to meet him? Will they find him in letters condemning their behaviour? Or in blogs critical of their attitude to a Sabbath they don’t understand?
I am in no position to second-guess what he might be doing in their lives right now, or how directly he may be speaking to them. That said, I am in a position to know that his own people are called on to witness so that unbelievers may at least meet him in them.

And so, whether I am working with the needle and thread, or applying the scissors, he is the pattern I should be following. He is truth and wisdom and love.

Ultimately, those who meet with him will always feel their wrongness without being told. Perhaps the fault is mine if I don’t introduce more people to him. It is just possible that I have been looking at this whole sorry mess the wrong way.

I cannot save people’s souls. The church cannot save people’s souls. But we could work harder at introducing them to a man who can. Instead of wasting everyone’s time reasoning, imploring, or worse – hectoring- we would be better employed living as we should so that the blindest of the blind might see Christ in us.

Then, like the Samaritan woman, they might go about relating their own experience of him. Instead of talking about how narrow and bitter and strict Christ’s followers are, as they do now, they might see past us and our failings, to that man who will tell them everything they ever did.

Lewis Sundays: A Love Song (Not a Lament)

Traditionally, this island has marked itself out from other places by continuing to maintain a six-day culture. On Sunday, everything winds down and the pace of life slows to something a little closer to the ticking of nature’s clock.

People rise later, eat a leisurely breakfast, walk the dog a little further. And yes, for some, it affords better quality time with their family. Children don’t have to be bundled into clothes and hurried off to school; parents’ heads are not already half-filled with the cares of the working day before they even leave home.

A slower day. Time to listen. The opportunity to talk, and to take pleasure in one another’s company.

It is an oasis in the midst of a world which increasingly lives at breakneck speed. My late husband and I used to enjoy our Sundays to the maximum. We would save the Saturday papers and enjoy a lazy wallow in the supplements with a breakfast of croissants and toasted muffins. Then, we would head out for a long walk or a drive somewhere, before coming home to prepare a roast dinner and watch a film.

In my last post, which I thought was about my sadness at the vandalism of the Lewis Sabbath, and my pity for the architects of its demise, I was accused of being self-righteous. I can only assume that those making this accusation thought I was saying that I was somehow better than them because I don’t want An Lanntair to open on Sundays and they do.

If that’s what people think I’m saying, then I am really not being clear enough, and for that I apologise.

How could I possibly think myself better than them when I was once as they are now? I used to think that it was okay for myself and Donnie to spend Sundays the way we wanted because we only had the weekend together. He worked away from home all week and we felt this entitled us to be a little selfish with the time we did have with one another. We felt this, even though neither of us knew just how short our time together would be.

I understand better than the secularists think because, like them, I was comfortable in my rebellion. It suited me; I was happy. If someone had said to me then that what we were doing was wrong, I would not have understood. Perhaps I would even have been offended.

But all of that changed when my eyes were opened to the truth. Living as you please, spending time with the people you love, doing the things you enjoy – yes, that all feels wonderful. What, though, are we made for? Are we really just here for endless days of doing what feels good in the moment? At the end of a long life, would I be content to look back on all the Saturday supplements I’d read, and all the potatoes I’d roasted, and say, ‘that was a life well lived’?

The change in me is not the thing of which I boast either. If I am self-righteous, my conversion cannot possibly be the source of it. Any Christian will tell you that they are not chosen by God for His mercy because they deserve it, because there is anything in them which causes Him to think, ‘this is promising – I can do something with her’.

After all, if I deserved it, we would hardly call it mercy.

A friend of mine – an atheist – said of my new-found faith, ‘I’m not surprised – you were always a believer’. It was a low point for me because her words caused me to realise afresh the huge gulf of understanding that exists between the Christian and the atheist. She was referring to the fact that I had always believed in the existence of God.

As any Christian will tell you, though, that is not believing. The kind of belief we mean is not something you do with your mind, or your imagination – it is something that consumes and occupies your whole being. It is not a lifestyle, it is not a choice, it is not a philosophy.

When I read the comments on social media from the people who think that they have struck a blow for freedom by opening a cinema on the Lord’s day, I feel sorry. It is sad that they think so little of their community that they would triumph over their friends and neighbours in such a way.

I am not sorry, however, because they have spoilt things for me; they haven’t and they can’t. My source of joy is immutable and unshakeable. Nor do my feelings stem from thinking I am superior to them; for I know I am not.

In truth, I know better than them, because one of the things that separates us is the fact that, while I have been in their position, they have not experienced mine. Not yet, that is. For now, I have the advantage, but no desire to preserve it.

Meantime, perhaps their little victory with the film is not so pyrrhic after all. It has moved more people than ever before to pray for the unbelievers in our midst.

And the Christians here in Lewis have no desire to impose, or prevent, or bully. If Sunday consumerism is what people think they want, so be it: no one can stop us praying for a change of heart.

May The Force Be With Us (The Real One, That Is)

So, the newshounds  have finally caught up with An Lanntair’s plans to open one Sunday each month. It is a big deal for them, and for those people living in Lewis who don’t like the island very much the way it is. For the media, it is an excuse to point the quaint, wee island out to mainland sophisticates, so they can laugh at our eccentric ways. Somewhere, right now, I guarantee you, a ‘journalist’ is writing copy that contains the words, ‘they’ve only recently been allowed to hang their washing out on Sunday’.

People outside of Lewis love this. To them, we are hilarious anachronisms in black clothes. The only modern thing about us is the microchip implanted in our heads, controlled by the minister from his study computer. Him and his big, fluffy, white cat.

We are other. And we always have been. It makes us fair game.

Here, I’ll empty out the sack of cliches, and you can write the headlines yourselves – just pick and mix. Strictly Sabbatarian. Narrowly Presbyterian. Deeply Religious. Chained-up swings. Swimming prohibited. Wee Frees. Disapproval. Opposition. Planes. Ferries.

You know, the usual sort of thing. Journalists are after a couple of hundred easy words, so I suppose it’s no wonder they resort to rummaging in the stereotype bin. Tomorrow, they will be casually ripping into someone else’s community.

The people I really don’t understand are the ones who live here in the island. I get that they want to make it like everywhere else; no one can punish them for the fact that they apparently lack any feeling for the uniqueness of the place. We have a saying in Gaelic, ‘an rud nach d’ fhuair Niall, chan iarrar air e’. Similar, I suppose to the English: what would you expect from a horse, but a kick?

But do they never stop, in their endless, whining, ‘but I waaaaant’, to think about why Lewis has not ‘caught-up’ with the rest of the country? Could it possibly be because Lewis did not need to be like other places, having enough of its own character to stand apart?

However, the decision is made. The cinema will open one Sunday a month. To begin with. And then the gallery, the cafe, the shop. Will that be enough for our restless secularists who apparently can’t be alone with their families even one day a week? Of course not. Already they are talking about the swimming pool. Then it will be buses, shops, supermarkets . . .

Then, though? Then, they will be satisfied?

Not even then. Discontentment like theirs knows no end. That’s why they are building themselves this house of cards – they think, ‘one more blow against the Lord’s Day and we will be happy; one more victory over Christ and we will have Him beaten’.

They expect opposition from the church. No – correction – they want opposition from the church. It entitles them to rail against religious privilege, if anyone representing an island church raises even one objection to this latest ‘development’.

Well, they won’t get it. The time for that is long past. They are using their God-given free will to spend their time as they choose. Nothing I or anyone else can say will change that. Already, they know that it’s wrong to keep none of it back in tribute to Him. Oh, they’ll deny it. But they know.

It is called the Lord’s Day, not because He commands us to spend it in chains, bored, and reading the Bible without understanding.
He wants us to fulfil our purpose, which is twofold: to glorify Him, and to enjoy Him.

This is not the language of bondage, but of freedom. God wants us to choose to spend time in His presence – He doesn’t compel, or command; and He will not drag you to Himself kicking and screaming.

Though, one day, you may wish He had.

And, even though this step has been taken, it does not mean the atheists have won. They are not victorious in any sense that I can envy. I can say that even though the auditorium will be full on the first open Sunday, because every ticket has already been sold.

It was calculated that way. Some savvy person knew that these superior beings who will not allow their children to be duped by fairytales from the Middle East, would like nothing better than a Sunday afternoon watching aliens and spaceships.

Harmless escapism? I suppose that all depends on what you’re fleeing from.

Meantime, we Christians will be invoking that much talked-about religious privilege. We only have the one, but it really is all we need. ‘The force’, you might call it.

It is our privilege to pray for those who will not pray for themselves. We pray that their eyes will be opened to the folly of what they’re doing; we pray that they will get a heart of wisdom.

Closed minds and deaf ears will not hear our protests; but God is waiting for our petitions. Not – lest they wilfully misunderstand and take offence – petitions that He should smite them, nor anything of that nature. This isn’t Star Wars, you know.

No. Prayers that they will see Him as He really is. And that they will take hold of that for themselves. This is not about power, or imposing a Sabbatarian lifestyle on others.

For the Christian, this is much more important than lifestyle – it is about life. We would have everyone choose that themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

Health Warning – Being Offended Kills

‘Sinner, not singer’, the minister said reprovingly to me. I thought this was a bit much, seeing only a few days before he’d been emphasising the need for us all to join in the psalms, regardless of vocal ability. And then I realised he was merely pointing out a typo I had made, not suggesting I stick to what I do best.

Oh well, another opportunity to take offence goes by the wayside. Although, if he had been calling me a sinner, it’s only what half the country imagine goes on in Wee Free churches up and down the land every Sunday anyway. Ministers, jumping up and down, frothing at the mouth and thumping the pulpit, castigating all before them for a stiff-necked people, mired in sin.

Don’t get me wrong, sin is mentioned quite a bit. They would be somewhat failing in their duties as pastors not to mention the one thing which stands between mankind and God.
A minister may tell a congregation of two hundred believers that they are all sinners, and they will not flinch. But say this to two hundred unbelievers and there is an outcry.

The first group openly admits that they believe in the existence of sin, while the second says sin is a social construct, invented to keep people in their place. Yet, those who don’t believe in sin are more offended to hear it mentioned.

How come? What’s the difference between the two groups?

Knowing the Great Physician: Jesus Christ.

Because Christians have a saving knowledge of Christ, they know that they are sinners. Sinners saved by grace, but sinners nonetheless. They are more offended by sin than anyone – but by the reality of its hateful, destructive power; not the mere mention of it.

Unbelievers, meanwhile, hate the word being levelled at them, yet, with a fearful irony, take no issue with the reality of sin in their lives.

Why, then, do these people who claim no belief in God, or the Devil, in heaven or hell, take such offence at being told they are sinners? This had puzzled me for a long time, until I experienced something of an epiphany in church recently.

In the context of a sermon, the minister addressed the objection raised by many unbelievers against hell – that God would condemn someone to eternal damnation for living a ‘basically decent’ life. It is an argument echoed by Stephen Fry’s famously blasphemous description of God as ‘mean-minded and capricious’, and it is a device which has flummoxed many would-be apologists in their armchair fights with a would-be Dawkins.

And, like so much else, it is built on a staggering foundation of ignorance. In this case, the minister pointed out, their argument betrays their misunderstanding of the nature of sin.

Sin is not something mean we do to one another. The bad things we do, feel, think, and say, they are the fruit of sin. But at its root, sin is our state of being at odds with God. People are looking at it from the wrong end, so to speak.

In recent weeks, in various conversations – mostly online – I have had to point out the same thing repeatedly: God’s creation was made perfect in His own image. We dismantled it and remade it in ours. Now, standing in the half-built wreckage of the world, we point accusingly at Him, the God of all Creation. And what do we say? What great arguments have Fry and Dawkins, and others like them given their disciples?

Why, the same two excuses that children caught out in misbehaviour have been using since the Fall:

‘He made me do it’, and, ‘It was already broken when I got here’.

It’s pathetic in the absolute, deepest sense of that word. I pity them in their failure to see that God does not condemn them to eternal damnation; they condemn themselves. They listen to false prophets like these blasphemous men who are lauded as clever, erudite, and incisive, and whose great argument against Christianity is ‘your God doesn’t exist, but He’s wicked and cruel’.

The hypothetical two hundred believers who do not flinch at being called sinners are not hardened in their hearts. They do not balk at the diagnosis because they have already begun the cure. I think the devastating news of sin would be impossible to bear if we did not always receive it simultaneous to the remedy. Yet another of God’s great kindnesses to us, though, is that we only feel the pain of being at odds with Him when He has already begun the work of restoring us to life.

But the great question for all such sinners saved by grace is: how do we persuade the afflicted to hospital when they don’t realise they are ill?

 

 

Better a Bible in the post than being post-Bible

The local patriarchy of the Free Church this week played a blinder: they allowed a woman to share a platform with actual men. She was asked for, and allowed to express what can only be described as opinions.

Of course, it was a safe enough move – they probably know that they have brainwashed her so thoroughly that whatever she says is really just furthering their agenda.

But what is their agenda? Well, that depends on who you speak to.

The people of superior intellect, the ones who really know where it’s at, they say it’s about hanging onto power. That’s why these men want Lewis to be a six-day island, why they want folk going to church and reading their Bibles. It’s about maintaining status and holding sway.

My dizzy wee brain has been working on this problem for a while now, but I can’t for the life of me figure out the nature of their power.

Some of them have a strong handshake. And there are others who can lift a pretty flat rendition of the psalms out of the doldrums. Is that the power?

Or maybe they mean something a bit more, well, mysterious.

On communion Sunday, I’ve seen a few elders do a deft, wee trick in which they simultaneously shake your hand and take your token. That?

Or, perhaps it’s the power to drive cailleachs in minibuses to church. Or the power to visit the housebound. Perhaps it is, when all is said and done, the power to be a stoical presence for you in the worst moments of your life.

I have not forgotten the elder, despite all the hard times I give him, who came to me after my husband’s funeral service, and put a comforting arm around my shoulders. Or the minister, up off his sickbed, to visit and pray with me on my first morning as a widow.

Nor do I forget the moments of real empathy I have experienced from men who had plenty other things on their mind, but still saw how fresh grief for others might reopen old wounds for me.

They are counsellors, encouragers, friends. I see them as what they are – men who love Christ and try to serve Him in an increasingly hostile world. Many of them are husbands, fathers, grandfathers. Some are retired, the rest are in a wide variety of jobs.

Among them are people who can’t hold a tune, who are handless in the kitchen, who can’t match a tie to a shirt, who are hopeless at small talk, whose jokes are a bit corny, who are simply not for turning.

These men are human. Real. But they are making an utter hash of being an exploitative patriarchy.

Not one of them has ever whacked me over the head with the Shorter Catechism (or the Larger, which has more impact). They do hover protectively about the pulpit steps as I pass, but I don’t think they actually expect me to try storming it.

Or maybe it’s all a clever ruse so I won’t spot their real agenda.

The Presbytery event they permitted me to attend marked 500 years since the start of the Protestant Reformation. This was, amongst other things, a reaffirmation of the complete sufficiency and authority of the Bible.

In other words, if you are trying to figure something out and popular opinion says one thing, while the Bible says quite another, scripture gets the final say. It’s well worth being clear on that point – scripture, not ‘the church’, and certainly not individual men within it.

Recently, a shopkeeper in Stornoway was sent a Bible by the Lord’s Day Observance Society/Day One, accompanied by a supporting letter. She, it would seem from all the media coverage, felt threatened and harassed by this, which I would assume was not at all their intention in contacting her. Their motivation I think I can guess at. They were trying to remind the lady that, whatever she thinks is right and acceptable, the Bible says otherwise.

This, to the unbeliever feels like an imposition, like the dark-suited men of the church trying to assert some authority. They are – but not their own. It is not about control; it’s about love.

I know already what the response to this would be: ‘I don’t believe what you believe. Live your life the way you want and leave me to do likewise’.

However, the plain truth of the matter is that, regardless of whether you believe or not, God’s supreme authority as revealed to us in scripture is that: supreme. For a Christian to accede to the ‘leave me alone’ request would be a denial of one of the central tenets of their faith. When you have been plucked out of dangerous waters yourself, you do not sail blithely away, leaving others to drown.

Remembering the birth of reformed doctrine is not just an idle look into history for Christians. The man credited with sparking the birth of Protestantism – Martin Luther – is an example of that. He also felt the weight of unwarranted authority pressing down on him and, like many non-Christians, regarded God as a distant figure, threatening damnation for every misdemeanour.

And then Luther’s eyes were opened, and the chains which bound his heart fell away. He risked his life to bring that same freedom to others – all because he opened scripture and really read it.

Receiving a Bible should not offend you: it means that someone cares for you very much, and wants you to have all the chances they’ve had.

 

May I Speak to Whoever is in Charge?

When I was a teenager, I used to ask my father questions about God, many of which were greeted with, ‘Ist, a Shàtain’. After one such conversation, I overheard him telling my mother that my ‘atheistic streak’ worried him.

But I remember it differently. I was actually trying to better understand this God who, whatever my parents may have thought, was always real to me. So, when people question and criticise Him publicly now, I flinch and fear for them, but it also causes me to hope.

For myself, I was never further away from Him than when He was totally absent from my thoughts.

So, it doesn’t do to dismiss their challenges out of hand. If we disregard people’s concerns as foolish or wicked, there is a risk that we detract from the seriousness of the argument, or fuel the notion tha He is just a fiction and not worth defending . We may say that it is wrong to challenge God – which it is – but it is equally careless of us not to take the opportunity to increase another’s understanding of Him.

Last Sunday, in passing, I heard the familiar verse from 1 Peter ‘always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you’. Those were the same words ringing in my ears when I professed faith for the first time. In the final analysis, it all comes down to confession. I knew in my heart and soul what the Lord had done for me, and I could no longer deny it before others.

Equally, then, when someone takes it upon themselves to accuse God, am I not required to gently say, ‘no, you have that wrong’? If they are maligning Him, should I not interpret that as an opportunity to defend the reason for the hope that is in me?

When a person walks into a church (or a school, or a park) armed to the teeth and bent on murder, I do not believe that God is behind him, spurring him on. This is sin, and our Lord has nothing to do with, can have nothing to do with, sin. We are in possession of free will. If, every time I was about to commit a sin, God reached down from Heaven to stay my hand, I would no longer be free, would I?

Yet, if my fellow human being commits such an atrocity, does that not mean that I also have the same capacity for sin? What has stopped me from doing what this man did in Texas? Why do I choose to take a seat among the worshippers instead of turning the full force of anger and murderous intent upon them?

Is it my innate goodness? My kind-heartedness? My immunity from wickedness?

Of course it isn’t. It is nothing in me. Remember that old-fashioned saying, ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’? That is the reason: His grace. You have it too, even if you don’t believe in Him, you have benefitted from His grace, just as surely as you bear His thumbprint.

After all, if this God is really a despot, why has He not already struck you down for your unbelief?

And if He really is God of all, why would you not speak to Him about what troubles you in the world?

There is a reason why the Christian response to the events of last Sunday was, ‘pray for Sutherland County’, and it isn’t anything to do with ducking the arguments about gun control. These same Christians are, in fact, praying all the time. They pray for themselves, for their families, for their friends, their colleagues, their communities – they pray for this broken, tragic world.

Even if you don’t pray yourself, there’s a good chance that someone else is doing it on your behalf. Someone who cares about you is holding you up to God’s attention and saying, ‘have mercy on them, and open their eyes’.

I could try to tell you who God is and what He is, but you wouldn’t believe me. He isn’t a cold, careless egomaniacal deity, randomly pushing people off cliffs, or sweeping them to destruction. God loves this world, and He sorrows over what we have made of it. Our purpose is, and always has been, to worship and enjoy Him. Sin, however, has so warped that relationship that we commit evil against Him daily and have the temerity then to blame our actions on Him.

If He exists, that is.

So, please, if you don’t already know, find out for yourself who He is. Talk to Him. I promise you this: He’s waiting for you to speak His name. Ask Him to reveal more of Himself to you. Pick up the Bible and read it prayerfully.

You won’t ever get to know Him by alternately denying He exists and calling Him names. And, if you’re a reasonable person, you won’t denounce Him as a fiction whilst trying to hold Him and His people responsible for all the ills of the world.

His grace has given you every chance to see Him as He really is: take it, please. We are praying that you will.

A Chain that Makes Us Free

I inadvertently insulted our entire Kirk Session last Sunday evening, by referring to them as thirty odd men in suits. Of course, I intended to say thirty-odd men in suits, but these distinctions only really work on the page. One of them was even in the room as a witness, but he was busily trying to prise the tambourine from his wife’s hand, so he probably didn’t hear. He needn’t have bothered, anyway, it was a youth group meeting, so I think percussion would have been acceptable.

It was my first time at a Christian youth group, and I’m forty-two. I am glad that such gatherings still take place, and more than a little regretful that I left it so late to attend one. The feeling that I had on Sunday, the feeling that I am increasingly aware of every day now, is that we really need each other. We need to be supporting each other, and loving each other, and simply being community.

We are God’s portion in this world. Already, we are a peculiar people, set apart by Him, and redeemed by Christ. The Christian knows what it is to be a guest in this world; more and more, the Christian feels an unwelcome guest. His liberties are being eroded, his right to speak from the heart, his right even to think freely – all these are being infringed. This temporary home of ours is in a self-proclaimed ‘tolerant’ society where everything is permissible. That is, everything that chimes with a Godless, liberal agenda. Oppose it and, well . . .

Lot lived in a place like that too. He made his home in a city so depraved that its very name has become synonymous with immorality: Sodom. Earlier on Sunday evening, I had heard this text preached on.

There is an element in our society – and yes, it’s here in Lewis too – which despises Christ. It wants Him, His Word and His followers eradicated. Oh, they would protest that, I know they would. In fact, I can tell you what they would say: ‘We don’t mind what you do, just stay out of our schools, our government, our public spaces. Let us do as we want, and don’t interfere’.

But that is not possible. That wouldn’t be Christianity; that would be Pharisaic, walking by on the other side. Christ did not come into this world for His followers to be silenced by political correctness.

We will not be silenced at all.

I realised something afresh this very day. Speaking to our Scripture Union at work about the woman with the issue of blood healed by Jesus, it struck me that everything He does for us and in us is for ourselves, but for someone else too. That was at least part of the reason why He arranged things so that she would have to talk of her healing.

He used the woman’s story to compel me to talk of mine.

And I remembered something else the minister said on Sunday – Christians are a chain, each one linked to the rest. When one receives a blessing, they share it with the others; when one receives a burden, the others help carry it. We are to be mutually encouraging and supportive. By this, the world will know that we are His, that we love one another.

It is difficult to be a Christian in Lewis right now, because there are such attacks directed at the Lord. Everything that bears His mark is despised by the world.

And it was a real challenge for Lot to be the only righteous man in Sodom.

Before God removed him to safety, He allowed Lot’s sojourn amongst those sinners to continue. I had never thought of this before until I heard it preached on Sunday night; my focus had always been on Lot himself.

God was giving the inhabitants of Sodom a chance, by placing Lot in their midst as an example of a better life. They didn’t take it, of course, but the opportunity was there.

And this is, therefore, a solemn thought. The God that atheists want excised from our world, He has His people. They are precious to Him, and He will not harm them. As long as they are present in the world, the Lord stays His hand from striking against His enemies.

Atheists, don’t despise your Christian neighbours. Their presence in this world might be helping keep you safe.

And, do you know what else? These Christians are praying for you so very earnestly. While you try to pull down the edifice of God’s teaching built so faithfully by your ancestors, the Christian community in Lewis is buttressing it by bringing you before the throne of grace. It is not a prayer for vengeance, nor even rebuke: it is a prayer for your hearts to change.

It is a prayer that, even now, God is forging you to be the next link in His chain.

 

Broccoli and the Secular Delusion

When I was shorter than I am now and even more ignorant, my parents entrusted me to the state for the purpose of obtaining a rudimentary education. It was 1980 and here in Lewis, anyway, it was reasonably safe to assume that the state and my parents were, broadly speaking, pulling on the same oar.

So, when I would go home and bore them with details of the school day, neither of them batted an eyelid at mention of the Lord’s Prayer. Every morning, before a stroke of work was done, our chairs were scraped back and thirty or so little heads bowed to recite the old, familiar and beautiful words.

It’s only now, writing this, that I am struck by the privilege we enjoyed and our parents also, knowing that we were in the care of people who had their priorities straight. Whatever kind of home a child came from, these teachers were helping each and every one to commit their day into God’s hands.

At other junctures in the week, the Psalms would be learned, recited individually, and sung in unison. There were Bible stories – Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, wonderful stories of faith and strength in the Lord. We learned the Ten Commandments, not just by rote, but really, truly learned their relevance and that they were foundational to all other laws. And yes, we learned action songs: Mr Noah Built an Ark, We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder . . . we were children, and we loved these stories in whatever form they came.

I can’t speak for anyone else in Laxdale Primary, but as I grew up, I grew away from the Bible. There were fallow years when I scarcely considered God. As a student, I briefly entertained the childish notion that there was no Creator and that all of this . . . well, it just sort of happened.

My formative education did not prevent me from asking questions, but rather, it gave me a starting point for my questions. Without even a rudimentary understanding of God’s covenant with mankind, how could I possibly question it?

Nor, indeed, did it make me ignorant of other faiths. In secondary school, we were given an overview of the major world religions. Having first had a grounding in Christianity both at home and in primary school, our teenage years seemed the appropriate juncture to introduce us to what others believe.

So-called secularists don’t want this sensible pattern, however. They want children to be taught about ALL the major world religions from the beginning of their school career. This is – supposedly – going to equip the little ones to select their own faith, or dismiss them all out of hand as their parents have.

A child can no more select his own faith than he can select his own gender, or his own ethnicity. Their faith is an inherent part of who they are, and should surely come from within the home and the wider community. It is not a teacher’s place to lay the kinds of foundations that responsible parents used to provide, making the state responsible for their son or daughter’s very identity.

Of course, it is the parents’ prerogative to not believe in a deity of any description. If that is the case, however, surely there should be consistency. Children who are opted out of religious observance cannot then complain if they are excluded from marking religious festivals – Easter, Christmas, Diwali. Parents object to this on the grounds that their child will ‘stick out’ socially. Sorry, I don’t get this. You say that Christians are trying to brainwash your child with harmful doctrine, but you might be prepared to put your little one in harm’s way if it makes him popular with others?

Besides religious observance, there is religious education. Most of the right-on brigade seem to be of the view that it’s alright to teach about Christianity here, as long as other religions are given equal place. If that is the way our education system is headed, I think I would prefer that Christianity was not taught at all.

It is not an alternative to Islam or Sikhism in the same way that the Lib-Dems are an alternative to the Tories. I am offended by the infantile suggestion that people should be offered a smorgasbord of religions, choosing the one that most appeals to their worldview.

Faith informs your worldview. Not long ago, I was asked how important my faith is in my life, a question which is very difficult to answer adequately. It is my life. It pervades and inhabits: it is the eyes through which you see, the heart with which you feel and the force which drives you on. My instinct recoils at the notion of faith as a decision, a garment coldly chosen from an array of others.

If people think that Christianity is just a philosophy which you may reject because the gods of another belief system seem more attractive, or the mode of worship is more poetic, then they still don’t know what Christianity is. Only this week, an atheist told me that he would ‘consider it if you show me the evidence’. He has the evidence already, of course. The point is that he will not consider it.

When I was a child in Laxdale School, I didn’t like broccoli. Oh, I hadn’t tried it, but I knew by the look of the thing, and by what other children said about it, that it wasn’t for me.