Ask not what your church can do for you

Last time, I wrote of how the church in its Christlikeness, has stepped into the breach left by my husband’s death. My goodness, they take it seriously – one of the elders even nagged me about my driving on Sunday. All it needs now is for one of them to ask me periodically how many pairs of shoes a woman really needs, and they will have fulfilled their role entirely.

The feedback I get from writing, however, often provokes me to further thought, and this was one of those times. I have always believed that Jesus’ words to Peter,’this is for me and for yourself’ are meaningful. Indeed, the comfort of the text, ‘this sickness is not unto death’, which my mother kept getting throughout Donnie’s illness, did not depart when he died. It simply took on its full and – I believe – intended meaning. Our situations are surely for ourselves to learn from, for the benefit of others and, most importantly, for the glory of God. If we see ourselves in the context of eternity (as best as our finite minds can discern it), then it becomes easier to see the trials of this world as a light, momentary affliction.

And we owe it to our Saviour to follow His example. Who suffered more than He? It is not just the reason for His suffering, nor the extent of it which often strikes me, though: it’s His conduct in His unimaginable affliction. He bore it in order to redeem His people; and those of us who would seek to sincerely imitate Him are surely never more like our Saviour than when we suffer. But to be like Him, or as like as we can be before our sanctification is complete, surely how we suffer matters too.

So, it follows that there is a flip-side to the question of what the church should be doing for widows. And that question is surely: what can widows bring to the church?

The starting-point for answering that has to be a reminder of whose church it is. I’m not speaking here of any particular denomination, or congregation, but the wider church of Christ. When the Holy Spirit changes our hearts, then we are on a journey of becoming like our Redeemer. We do as He requires and take up our cross.

But that is not all. We are to have a spirit of service for Him, treating the least and the greatest the way Christ would have us do; giving of time and means; being generous, and not grudging anything .

I will hold my hands up readily and admit that I don’t do enough, and I don’t always have the right spirit. That’s something I need to work on, to pray over.

But it’s also worth remembering that serving the Lord takes many forms.

I remember many years ago hearing the story of a woman, newly-converted and full of zeal. She attended every service, every meeting of the church, and still thirsted for more. One day, she spoke to the minister, and said that she wished she could do more for the Lord. ‘He has given you a family to care for’, the minister replied wisely, ‘and you serve Him best by attending to what He has blessed you with’.

He gives us all a role in life; He gives us talents; He gives us responsibilities. As Christians, we are who and what we are for a purpose.

There is no point in denying that I am on a path I would never have chosen for myself in life. I would certainly not have elected to be a widow.

Then again, left to myself, I would not have elected to be a Christian either.

But I do believe that this is what I was made to be. God is good, and He doesn’t inflict unnecessary suffering. So, what is my grief for?

Well, of course, many things are not revealed to us. However, I think that, much as it goes against my selfish and egotistical nature, I have to realise this: it isn’t all about me.

Every Christian has a story – or stories – of the way that God has worked in their lives. Each account is different, but for one common denominator: the Lord.

So the story that we are all part of is about Him. We are, if you like, minor characters, all pointing to God through our individual experiences of His grace.

The logical outworking of that, therefore, is that my suffering is not my own. In Christ, as I have said elsewhere, I have not been left to get on with it alone. My Saviour and His people shoulder it with me, and sometimes for me. It is theirs as much as mine, because we belong to the one body. It is theirs to learn from, and gain blessing through if I share it as I should.

That is, I think, what grief and loss may be for. I have been blessed through it, learning the absolute truth of the verse in Ecclesiastes that says it is better to go to
the house of mourning than the house of feasting. Hard though this journey is, what companions it has brought me along the way! It isn’t, however,their job to be comforting me incessantly.

It is my job to share what God reveals to me in my situation, that it might somehow be a blessing to others. And it is our job, together, to see that no sickness is unto death, but that all our afflictions would be to the glory of God.

It is His church; He is sovereign. Trials are not for breaking us, but for binding us closer in Him.

Secularists in the last stronghold

This week has not been great for my self-esteem. It began, last Sunday, when an elder introduced me to the congregational fellowship in terms of who my dog is. It’s probably because the dog is male and, therefore, the closest thing to a reliable head that this household has. Then, there was the class on Martin Martin which evidently wasn’t as exciting for the students as it was for me. And, of course, there was the realisation that there are people out there who think I’m a selfish, narrow-minded, entrenched bigot.

That’s never nice to hear. Not even, I imagine, if it’s actually true. I am certainly selfish and entrenched about some things, but definitely not narrow-minded. Some of my best friends are Church of Scotland (disclaimer: this is artistic licence and somewhat of a fib).

Calling me a ‘bigot’ is, to their minds, the most offensive insult the secularists could conjure up. I’m not bothered, though, because I realise that it’s a term they use for anyone who opposes their worldview.

Their worldview, incidentally, is something they’ve created for themselves. In their canon, they have no god but Richard Dawkins, no law but that of, ‘do what you like as long as it harms no one else’. The mantra that they claim for themselves is ‘tolerate everything’.

Except, not quite everything. They want a secular society – separation, they will tell you, of church and state. Some of them can get quite verbose on the subject.

‘Blimey’, you might very well think, ‘these people have real drive and enthusiasm. This message of theirs must be worth hearing’.

Lewis has been a six-day society as far back as any of us remember. Sundays are quiet, the pace is slower. It is altogether more . . . well, Hebridean, on the Lord’s Day. Is it selfish of me to want the island that I love to go on being itself for as long as possible? I don’t want to watch it being exploited, stripped of its charm and character, and robbed of its Christian heritage.

I used to be mildly amused by the epithet, ‘last stronghold of the Gospel’, applied to our island. Now, however, it feels true. Or, at the very least, it feels like one stronghold. It is under attack, rattled, battered, miscalled and degraded.

Christianity has given Lewis a lot of its character. Only this week, I attended the evening worship in connection with the death of a neighbour. The Gaelic singing was beautiful, rising and falling gently like a breeze across the machair. Our cadences, our vocabulary, even our unique island humour, have all been enriched by this Christian heritage. It is ours; it is ours as surely as the Gaelic language is ours, as surely as the sharp pain of cianalas for home and loved ones is ours when we are parted from them.

If you are acquainted with our history as Leodhsaich and as Gaidheil, you will also be aware that this is not the first time people who know the price but never the value have tried to take away our identity. It has been done elsewhere too – in the United States it has been called, ‘taking the Indian out of the Indian’.

They tell us we’re backward, ignorant, narrow, bigoted, stuck in the past. It’s what they said to stop us speaking our language. Then they used it to beguile people onto emigrant ships. And now it’s being used to try to remove Christianity from public life.

But, you say, this cannot be mere iconoclasm. These secularists must have a mission, a message, something bold and beautiful to replace te Son of God.

Sure they do, it’s: coffee; swimming; films.

We don’t do enough of those here in Lewis. The Lord is selfishly taking up the space where more cappuccinos and 12-certificates could go. Those who quite like Him being around are reminded constantly that this is a symptom of their native ignorance. Only a stupid, knuckle-dragging maw still believes in Christ. What kind of daft yokel wastes their Sundays on Him when they could be drinking a frothy coffee in a noisy restaurant?

I have said before that the secularists are anti-Christian, and so they are. But I think that may be letting them off the hook a little too easily. Let us go on in the spirit of telling it like it is. We know they don’t approve of fairy tales, preferring unvarnished truth, like the mature, 21st century people they are.

So, here it is. The truth. Secularists, I’m talking to you.

You are not simply attacking the beliefs of many Christians when you glibly call us the many names you have used; you are attacking Christ. When you try to disrupt the Lewis Sunday, you are not merely inconveniencing a few folk in the Free Church; you are offending Christ. And when you talk of Scripture as fantasy and folktales, you are not simply laughing at those who live their lives by it; you are mocking Christ.

Please don’t think that I’m trying to frighten you, or that this is about control – forget what you think you know about Christians. I was once as you are now, and I might still be that way but, quite literally, for the grace of God. No one scared me into putting my faith in Christ; no one could. And no one is trying to do that to you.

We know Him and we love Him. And because of Him and His perfection (certainly nothing in us), we want you to know the same peace, the same joy.

The apostle Paul once persecuted Christians, but came to love his Lord and exhorted others to be ambassadors for Christ. We make a poor show of it frequently, I know, but as long as we are looking on Him, just ignore us, and follow our gaze.

Lewis is not the stronghold; the Free Church is not the stronghold: Jesus Christ is. Make your home in Him and you will always be free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Christianity and the Art of Motorcycle Accidents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t feel your pain, but I know a man who can

Recently, I read a blog post by the late Rev.Dr. Iain D Campbell, in which he reflected on his own father’s death. As a minister, he said he felt that he owed an apology to many families for having failed to fully appreciate the pain of parting with a loved one. I rather think he was being a bit too severe upon himself.

You cannot feel someone else’s pain for them. No matter how much you empathise, it can only go so far. If I ever complained to my late husband of an ache, a pain, or a bad day, he would make all the right noises and then say, ‘but, look on the bright side, at least I’m ok’! Of course he was joking, but there is some measure of truth in it.

My father passed away at the age of eighty-one and, when the minister came to visit my mother tried to play down her situation, mentioning the death of a young man that had happened the same week. ‘But’, the minister said, ‘everyone’s loss is painful to themselves’.

There is a limit to how much of another person’s burden we can shoulder, because we are not them. In the moments after the news was broken to me that my husband would die, the nurse said that, were it possible, she would take it from us. I think on that often; I’ve probably written about it elsewhere. But, of course, she couldn’t take it from us. We had to carry it ourselves: first, both of us together; and then, just me.

I had prayed, of course, that God would heal Donnie in a dazzling miracle, and restore him to me. God is unfailingly merciful, though, and doesn’t play with people’s emotions. He didn’t put false hope in my heart. Instead, He opened my eyes to what healing really is.

But my desperate petition reminds me of something else. Our Saviour also asked that the bitter cup of sin and death should pass from Him. In His very humanity, He flinched in the face of what was to come upon Him. And small wonder that He should.

What a uniquely lonely situation He was in: only He knew just what a weight there would be in the sins of the whole world; only He understood what it would mean for us to be parted eternally from the Father; He alone knew that the hope of salvation rested squarely upon His shoulders. And, of course, He alone has viewed death from both sides.

Although Jesus knew that He would raise Lazarus from the dead, He still wept with the man’s grieving family. And although He knew that He was fulfilling God’s redemptive plan at Calvary, He still experienced fear and pain. No one could take that away from Him either.

We have to remember that He was also wholly God, which makes Him uniquely capable of understanding our pain. And totally human, which made Him desire to be freed from His fate.

That very fact means  He is weeping alongside every person going through a difficult time – through family troubles, through loneliness, through illness, through death. He wanted to push it away from Himself, but still drank that bitter cup to its very dregs for us. This is no well-meaning, aloof God, patting our hands and saying, ‘there, there’. Jesus has experienced all the horror of death so that we never have to.

I would be lying if I said that the bereaved Christian does not suffer. Of course they do. There is a sentiment I hear expressed in prayer for the bereaved from time to time in church which, I feel, sums up the great emptiness of it. ‘We pray for those who have lost loved ones – how difficult that a familiar voice is gone and that the home is now silent’. That is unendingly hard, it’s true.

Throughout Donnie’s illness, my mother kept getting the same text: ‘This sickness is not unto death’; she and I both clung to that promise. We forgot something, though. Our understanding of death, and God’s meaning in these words, are simply not the same.

After all, it doesn’t end there – it continues, ‘but for the glory of God’.

My home is a lot quieter these days, and a much-loved voice is gone. I would have him back, but I also know that if there are bolts on the doors of Heaven, they are sure to be on the inside.

I have nursed my husband when there was hope he would recover, and when there was none. And I have done many things I had believed were years away – cleared his wardrobe, stopped his mail, picked his headstone – but I cannot feel the pain of other widows doing the same things. Of course I empathise with bereaved people, and yes, probably more now than ever, but I am limited in what I can take on of their suffering.

Jesus is not limited. He is limitless. Our Saviour weeps with us, binds up our broken hearts and gives us not only the one comfort to be had, but the greatest comfort that could ever be: death shall have no dominion.

This Jesus, on the brink of a savage death, was afraid. He suffered unimaginably, but He went through it. My prayer for anyone whose home is silent because of death, is that they would speak to Him. Speak and He will answer. He will not leave or forsake you. He knows what you are feeling – better even than you do yourself.