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.

Humiliated, redeemed, thankful

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

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

He saw that there was no man,

and wondered that there was no one to intercede;

then his own arm brought him salvation,

and his righteousness upheld him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identifying as a Wee Free Widow

‘Identity’ is a word much in the news these days. Gender identity, ethnic identity, community identity . . . It’s the jargon of the time in which we live. Much like anything else, though, once the label goes on, the thing in the jar is already dead. We use the word, ‘identity’ so much because we have lost any real sense of who we are.

There was a time when, if I told my GP that I saw myself as an Irish tomcat, he’d probably have me quietly removed to a place of safety, having first said, ‘no, you’re a boring white maw lady’. But these days, you can – according to the right-on thought police – identify as anything you want.

I have trouble with this on several levels. There is an aspect of my own identity which I don’t like. Much as I may joke about it, I’m reconciled to the Carloway/Achmore/Harris genes; and I’m happy to be fluent in the language of Eden, even if we Gaels are more endangered than the corncrake.

It’s never troubled me too much that there are only two genders to choose from either because you don’t actually get to choose anyway. Occasionally, when my brother would receive his ‘Beano’, and I was stuck with dull old ‘Twinkle’, I’d wish I was a boy. However, antipathy towards Nurse Nancy and her implausible job at the dolls’ hospital was hardly the basis for such an upheaval, so I let it go.

Besides, if I’d mentioned that I seriously wished to switch genders, my father would have counselled me in the time-honoured way of all sensitive Lewismen, ‘Ist, oinsich.’ Conversation over.

The aspect of my identity I’m least comfortable with is the w-word. No, not ‘witch’. Not ‘weirdo’ either, thank you. It’s ‘widow’ I don’t much care for. And I think that a large part of my discomfort stems from the fact that it makes others uncomfortable too.

I keep remembering CS Lewis’ description of himself following the loss of his wife, as a ‘death’s head’, reminding all couples of their inevitable parting. Often, you fret that your very presence will upset people who are ill. Equally, I worry about ruining people’s parties and gatherings – I don’t want to be the hollow-eyed spectre at the feast while others try to make merry.

The problem is mostly in my head, though not entirely. After Donnie died, the MacMillan nurse advised me to change my shopping routine – ‘otherwise’, she said, ‘you’ll meet the same people you always do, people you know. And you’ll spot some of them trying to avoid you, which will hurt.’ She was right: I spotted people ducking up aisles in the supermarket, or suddenly becoming very interested in displays of teabags as I passed by. There were colleagues who never acknowledged my loss, and there were many expected visitors who did not come.

Two years on, I’m probably deemed safe – unlikely to burst into tears, or embarrass anyone by prostrating myself with grief in public. But I’m still a widow: a forty one year old widow. What are people supposed to do with that ? For that matter, what am I supposed to do with that?

Well, it’s simple. I decided from day one that I was going to be as easy as possible to be around. (Yes, this is the manageable version). If you want company, you owe it to people not to make it more of a challenge than it needs to be. That often means being the Catriona people expect even though I’m not the Catriona I expected. Smile though your heart is aching and all that jazz. My grief is mine, and I have no right to thrust it upon other innocent bystanders so long after the event. Two years is a long time. Unless, of course, you’re the one who has lost someone.

But this is where one other facet of who I am comes into play: my identity in Christ. Even in church, I can feel out of place. There are couples everywhere, and there is so much emphasis on young families that it’s easy to wonder where you fit. The answer, though, is in Him, and the answer is: ‘in Him’. He it was who, as Newton put it, brought me safe thus far. And, He intended my widowhood.

That’s the most startling and challenging thing of all. It’s only natural for people who are condoling with you to say how awful it is for Donnie and I to have been parted so young. We view it as though this world is everything, and to be taken out of it is punishment. Donnie wasn’t taken early; he was taken when and as God intended.

The logical follow-on is, therefore, that I was widowed when and as God intended.

So, God meant me to be who I am right now; this has a purpose. I am not where I am as the result of some unhappy accident. Providence knows no accidents; and Providence doesn’t want my self-pity. I do have such periods when I feel hard done-by  – because I’m a self-indulgent, egocentric sinner.

And then I am reminded of the cup that did not pass from my Saviour’s lips, despite His repeated prayer.

If you catch me feeling sorry for myself, remind  me that whoever I identify as, that’s who I’m identifying with – and He suffered unimaginably so that I wouldn’t have to.

 

Lost Causes & Bringing Cutlery to Ness

A former minister of Stornoway Free Church once impertinently suggested that I had a bit of a preoccupation with lost causes. His evidence was my membership of the SNP and the fact that, at the time, I was a development officer in Ness. Well, the SNP has done okay since then; and I’ve heard that the Nisich are now – mainly – literate, and able to use cutlery. So much for my causes being lost.

He wasn’t entirely wrong, though. I’ve always known what it is to be in the minority. Being a Gaelic-speaking Calvinist marked me out from most of my fellow men; and now, a follower of Christ, I am a confirmed oddity in the eyes of the world.

Recently, I was interviewed for BBC Alba’s religious programme, ‘Alleluia’, and was asked what kind of upbringing I had received in terms of faith. I think I said it was ‘gu math àbhaisteach’ – fairly standard. Most households had some kind of church connection, and most attended services, even sporadically. For the time – the eighties – it was indeed àbhaisteach. So much so, indeed, that I fear we took it for granted.

Chatting to one of our more senior elders this week, he said that he and his wife had returned to live in Lewis during that very period. The pews were so full that one had to arrive half an hour before the service in order to be guaranteed a seat. Those greeting the congregation at the door had no time to do more than catch their hands and encourage them inwards, a gesture reminiscent of sheep being guided through a dipping tank.

It was easy. All they had to do was unlock the doors, and people would come. Elders and ministers were held in high esteem in the community. Even people who were unconverted, or unchurched for that matter, would go to some lengths to avoid giving offence to Christians. Bad language was refrained from in their presence. There was a culture of respect for the things of God, and even those who thought it foolishness had more manners than to say so.

It is easy when everything is as you would want it. The SNP in the Western Isles had seventeen years of Donald Stewart MP, a man universally admired and respected. When he retired, they had to adjust to a whole new world. I remember those years. Repeated election campaigns when you knew in you heart that things were not going your way. Knocking on doors, only to be told that you were a nuisance, or a gullible idiot. Having your campaign literature torn up in front of you. Being called unrepeatable names and even, on one memorable occasion, being spat at.

Scottish nationalism, though, is no longer the social embarrassment it once was. It has gone mainstream. Properly political now, affiliation with the SNP is not, by itself, enough to get you a reputation for eccentricity. Being a member of the SNP is never going to win you universal approval either, but at least people no longer patronisingly say, ‘oh, so was I – until I grew up.’

The cause of the lost, on the other hand, looks to be in a bad way. Churches are emptier, people no longer trouble to refrain from giving offence to Christians here in Lewis – indeed, some seem to go out of their way to shock. Secularism exercises its vocal cords at every opportunity. Only this week, the results of a questionnaire survey show forth the anti-Sabbatarian agenda rearing its tedious head yet again.

Now that the church in Lewis commands little respect from those who do not share its views, then, are we to assume it has become an irrelevance? Should the Free Church pack away its psalm books and sell its buildings so that they may be converted into pubs, or gyms, or coffee shops – something that people do want?

Of course not. Recently, our congregation heard that the world hates the Gospel, but it needs the Gospel. This is the dichotomy that means we must persevere: it echoes the Great Commission. None of us knew we needed Christ,after all, until He made Himself known to us. We love because He first loved us.

When we thronged, as a community, to church every week, it may very well have been just ‘the done thing’ for many. Teenagers went to please parents, adults went out of habit and obedience to societal norms. But many who went there carelessly were eventually saved.They may have gone for months, or even years, under duress, but their bonds would sooner or later be removed by the truth which sets all who hear it free.

Being unwanted in society is not a new experience for the church of Christ. The head of our church was slain by a culture hostile to His message, yet His mission persevered. He was despised and rejected of men, as is His church – and for that very reason it must endure.

We forget, don’t we, that the cause of the lost is very far from being a lost cause. Indeed, Christ is already victorious, enthroned in Heaven. And so, His triumph should surely be foundational to our worship.

Worship is in the Spirit. Neither preaching, nor praise, nor prayer are mere words. And the same indwelling Spirit who compels our private and corporate prayer can compel people into His presence, no matter how far removed they may be from thoughts of Christ.

The only lost cause, it turns out,  is that of fighting irresistible grace.

 

Hats, hymns and the Holy Spirit

I got a bit of a shock last Sunday night. After the evening service, I met my mother. No, that’s not the shock – I’ve known her all my life. But something was different . . . It took a few minutes before I realised: she wasn’t wearing a hat! My first thought was, ‘I knew it – she’s gone back to the Church of Scotland.’ Subtly, I glanced to see if she was carrying a hymn book, and then it occurred to me that I didn’t know what one looked like anyway. Besides, surely I’d have heard if my own mother had absconded back from whence she came.

Actually, she had just got fed-up of hats and decided, at seventy-eight, that it was time to join the aotrom* throng of bare-headed Free Church women. She really does believe in doing things in her own time, and for that . . . well, I take my hat off to her.

The hat-wearing ladies have long since become a symbol of more so-called ‘hardline’ Presbyterian churches. Somehow, people got the idea that the hat symbolised male dominance and female subjugation. As if the Session appointed a committee to discuss such things. ‘What was in style ten years ago?’, the chairman might ask. After consulting a long out of date JD Williams catalogue, one of the elders would say, ‘pillboxes, with a small veil’. Two hours later, an edict would be issued to the local shops – ‘Stock only pillbox hats (with or without veils) and sell these to our women. No gaudy colours – they’re vain enough as it is.’

The hats are fewer and further between with each passing year. You will see more people (of both genders) wearing jeans to church, and fewer men are opting for the suit and tie look.

Last Sunday morning, the preacher mentioned that thousands of others had once occupied the pews in which we, the congregation, were sitting. In the more than 150 years since the church was built, successive generations have indeed sat under the Word there. Fashions changed many times over that period, and so many ministers have mounted the steps to preach in that very pulpit. Even the language of worship has changed. And the light-fitting, the Habitat-esque monstrosity which replaced – I am reliably informed – two perfectly charming pulpit lamps, was also a reflection of the (lack of) taste and mode of the time.

Were it possible for some of these Victorian worshippers to return to Kenneth Street now, they would undoubtedly be struck by some of the outward changes. They might be confused about standing to sing and sitting to pray, or the purpose of the camera, to say nothing of references to soup and pudding, Tweenies and newsletters. And I am certain that they would wonder why the whole affair was being lit by something resembling an oil drum.

But then, the reading from the Word would reassure them that all is still well with their old church. The preaching is as Bible-centred as it ever was, and the congregation hears the truth, however unpalatable that sometimes can be to us. There may not be much in the way of pulpit-thumping or histrionics from the minister, but the message remains the same. One and a half centuries on, the building still resounds with the Good News. People in varying states of grace are awakened, comforted, challenged and fed, depending on their spiritual need.

What you see may be quite different, but what you hear is the same: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.

And what you don’t hear, or see? That would be the Spirit, abroad in our midst, opening ears and eyes, and changing hearts. He was there in the nineteenth century, and He is there in the twenty-first. The church he occupies isn’t, though, the lovely edifice on Kenneth Street but, as 1 Corinthians 3:16 puts it:
‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in you?’

With heads covered, or without, in jeans, or suits, or Sunday best frocks, it doesn’t matter a bit. The world sees and laughs either way. The Holy Spirit is as out of style as the pillbox hat, but His work goes on regardless. And the world rejects the Holy Spirit because they cannot see Him. To them, it is all reminiscent of the Emperor whose new clothes were not merely invisible, but nonexistent.

Christians, nonetheless, are to clothe themselves in the Spirit. That garment supersedes trends or fads, and resists the restless human desire for novelty and innovation. Whichever church you go to which claims Christ as its head, this will be the dress code: come as you are, and He will do the rest.

 

Notes

* lit. Light, insubstantial – used colloquially to denote spiritual superficiality. 

 

Keep the Faith for Sunday Best (Part 2)

This is the second part of a guest post by Andy Murray of Ragged Theology. Challenging and thought-provoking stuff as ever.

Men like Thomas Guthrie and William Wilberforce inspired a movement rooted firmly in Micah 6 v 8.  They called the church and nation to love justice, show mercy and walk humbly with the God of the Bible.  They wrote, they spoke, they preached, they persuaded and they campaigned for change to the way the poor were treated.  The work went on long after they were dead.  Their work changed whole communities, changed laws and changed the direction of our nation.  When Guthrie died in 1873 not only was education about to be offered to all, but thanks to Christian social reformers children were finally being offered protection and care instead of exploitation.  Men like Guthrie and Wilberforce were hated and opposed because they challenged the powerful vested interests in the alcohol and slave industries respectively.  But through all the challenges, they had an unquenchable hope in the redeeming gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  A hope that the most visionary and noble secularist cannot offer.  This is why secularism soon turns to pessimism.  As Blaikie says:

thomasguthrie2

Secularism may try to keep up its spirits, it may imagine a happy future, it may revel in a dream of a golden age.  But as it builds its castle in the air, its neighbour, Pessimism, will make short and rude work of the flimsy edifice.  Say what you will, and do what you may, says Pessimism, the ship is drifting inevitably on the rocks.  Your dream that one day selfishness will be overcome, are the phantoms of a misguided imagination; your notion that abundance of light is all that is needed to cure the evils of society, is like the fancy of keeping back the Atlantic with a mop.  If you really understood the problem, you would see that the moral disorder of the world is infinitely too deep for any human remedy to remove it; and, since we know of no other, there is nothing for us but to flounder on from one blunder to another, and from one crime to another, till mankind works out its own extinction; or, happy catastrophe! The globe on which we dwell is shattered by collision with some other planet, or drawn into the furnace of the sin.

It is the Christian gospel that has been the great agent of change in human history.  Has the church at times been corrupt?  Absolutely.  Has it at times disregarded the poor and even abused them.  Unfortunately, it has.  But what has been the fruit of the revival of true Christianity?  It has always been love, particularly for the poor.  The spirit of self-seeking is supplanted by the spirit of service and love.  Vice is replaced by virtue.  When men love God in sincerity, they will love their neighbour, particularly the poor and the outcast.  The church at its best lives by that early ‘mission statement’ in James 1 v 27 ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’  As Thomas Guthrie said about the kind of Christianity that brings transformation to communities;

We want a religion that, not dressed for Sundays and walking on stilts, descends into common and everyday life; is friendly, not selfish; courteous, not boorish; generous, not miserly; sanctified, not sour; that loves justice more than gain; and fears God more than man; to quote another’s words – “a religion that keeps husbands from being spiteful, or wives fretful; that keeps mothers patient, and children pleasant; that bears heavily not only on the ‘exceeding sinfulness of sin,’ but on the exceeding rascality of lying and stealing; that banishes small measures from counters, sand from sugar, and water from milk-cans – the faith, in short, whose root is in Christ, and whose fruit is works.

 

Cracking Pots & Wee Free Code

Those who are out both ends, and follow this up by coming out on a Wednesday night, are often expected to go forward. In the Free Church in Lewis at least, this has been the time-honoured course of things. It is code for regular attendance at Sunday services, leading to appearances at weekly prayer meetings, culminating in a profession of faith.

The fact that we have our own terminology surely suggests that it’s of some cultural significance. A social anthropologist would call it ‘ritual’, which word on its own used to be enough to make any respectable Wee Free faint. ‘Ritual’ evokes images of candles and altars, and . . . I’ll stop there out of respect for any of my denomination who might be reading this in possession of a pacemaker.

It is, however, a cultural norm. Not one set in tablets of stone, though. Contemplating going forward, I used to think of all the things I’d be more comfortable doing. Having a chemical peel, bathing the cat, parachuting out of a plane . . . and I settled it with myself that I wouldn’t – couldn’t – do it. You see, I had an image of what it was going to be like. Let me paint you a picture . . .

I knock on the door of the session room. The hubbub of voices from within ceases immediately. There is a long pause. Heavy, Calvinist footsteps. With a creak, the door opens a fraction.
‘Yes?’ the elder says. He doesn’t smile. Their smiles have been left on the pegs outside, along with the black coats and hats.
In a tiny voice, I mumble my desire to profess faith. A moment of silence, then a long, drawn-out sigh. The door is opened wider. Behind him, I see a scene exactly like David Octavius Hill’s famous Disruption painting. My eye falls on the minister, who is looking at me in disbelief.
‘You? Really? I mean, really – you?’ he asks incredulously, as the whispers of, ‘who is she?’ rise to a crescendo behind him . . .

IMG_0475

My horrified imagination would go no further and I nursed the label, ‘secret disciple’ to myself. Our cultural norms give you plenty opportunity to justify secrecy. There was, historically, a strange sort of almost-pride in not going forward. It was suggested that such and such a person ‘could’, or even ‘should’. No one ever said it explicitly, but it was always implied that what kept them back was a kind of superior humility – oxymoron, if ever there was one. Nevertheless, secret disciples were a thing and I could be one.

The Lord was having no more of my nonsense, though, and smacked me between the eyes with two truths. First, if He has healed you, you have to tell. Second, if He is everything to you, you must be ready to defend that hope to those who do not yet possess it. And he smoothed my path to obedience. Going forward was not a grim ordeal. There was no one there from the 19th century, but instead a group of Christian men wishing to welcome another person into the visible family of God.

Last Sunday, our church commemorated the Lord’s Supper again. Many outside of this situation misinterpret it. They think those who sit at the Lord’s table see themselves as beyond reproach, perfect and holy. In reality, those who partake of the sacrament do so because of their imperfection, their awareness of the sin that is woven into every fibre of their being. God, we are told, is of purer eye than to bear looking at our sinfulness. We, on the other hand, are of such a sinful heart that we cannot fully appreciate His purity.

Yet, in this sacrament, we are given the chance to contemplate it more deeply.

What a privilege you deny yourself by hanging back. The Kirk Session is not a Heavenly court; it is a group of sinners saved by grace. If you have submitted to your Father in Heaven, what is stopping you from telling them? We allow cultural norms to over-complicate what is actually very simple.

And if the Free Church gets anything right, it is simplicity.

Christ did not ask His church to have lavish festivals in order to commemorate Him; He doesn’t need candles, or gilding, or acres of flowers: His beauty is in His love for us; His love for us is manifest in His sacrifice. That, He asks us to remember.

And how? We are told to remember Him in the two simple elements of bread and wine. These are broken and spilt, as His flesh was broken and His blood spilt for us. His people share these things in communion with one another and their Saviour. To sit at His table is to say that you belong to Him, that you wish to come apart from the world, to die to self, and to identify your life with His.

A perfect man or woman would not need Christ. There is real beauty, therefore, in imperfection – He is the golden weld that mends the pot of clay.

 

The Minister and the Otherworld

‘Our minister’s away with the fairies’, might very well have been the intimation from the Rev Robert Kirk’s pulpit following his disappearance in 1692. You see, his congregation did not believe that he had died, but rather, that he had been kidnapped off to fairyland. His interest in the creatures of the Otherworld had finally – they thought – been his undoing.

What was his interest? Well, strange as it sounds now, fairy belief was so prevalent at the time that Kirk felt it necessary to write a treatise on their nature. Two common ideas – that they were the spirits of infants who had died without baptism, or that they were fallen angels – could not be countenanced by him, or by the church. Instead, he sought to displace these heretical theories by investigating for himself and laying out his findings in a book, ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies’.

His conclusion was that they were ‘of a middle nature, twixt man and the angels’. It’s an unusual statement for more than one reason. Firstly, well, a minister who believed in fairies. . . If that was nowadays, the very least he could expect would be some odd looks at Session meetings. Secondly, anyone with the most rudimentary grasp of scripture will know that God made man a little lower than the angels, so Kirk was essentially placing fairies above mankind. Above us, yet not perfect like the angels. The fairies required appeasement, and careful handling. Without warning, they might mete out punishment, or simply take from mankind what they coveted.

The writer, Ronald Black, described the function performed by fairyland for our ancestors as similar to modern soap opera. It was a medium for exploring and working out social dilemmas and concerns. To put it another way, it was humankind trying to sort itself out in a way that excluded God. Poor Kirk was somehow trying to accommodate fairy belief into his theology, but it was always going to end badly.

If we humans are proof of anything, we are proof of our own lostness. No matter how bad we make things for ourselves, we still think it’s somehow up to us to fix it, and that we’re capable of fixing it. And, in the absence of God, we have constructed our own doctrine. Just be nice, do no wilful harm, be kind to the poor. Tolerate everything as long as it hurts no one. It will all be fine in the end.

Not like that, it won’t.

Kirk was making the kind of mistake you would hope no modern minister would make. Sometimes, what secular culture thinks is fine, is really not. There are times when what the world wants has to be opposed by Christ’s church. You can’t always accommodate it and you shouldn’t always try. It falls to His followers to hold up a hand and gently say, ‘no further’. And it’s a challenge. No one wants to be called a killjoy, or a bigot, but then, they called our Saviour worse.

I see our local Christian Party candidate being soundly mocked and derided by the usual social media suspects. He has had the temerity to subscribe to Biblical teaching and not conform to the right-on views of the secular lobby. As far as I can make out, his approach is informed by God; their view is shaped by no authority superior to their own. By that logic, if they say his beliefs, or my beliefs are stupid/bigoted/immature, well, then they are. They probably think I’ve been told by my church to vote for him as well. (Obviously I haven’t – the elders don’t know that women have the vote now, and I’m not going to be the one to break it to them.)

Christians have to live in this world for a time, but they should never belong to it. Kirk’s mistake was to think he could walk too closely with worldly ignorance and still be safe. There were two things which might have released him from the enchantment which held him: iron and salt.

We must pray for a good measure of both in our walk through this world.

A Highland River of Life

If I had to pick just one day out of my life to relive, I might choose the first time I walked the Dunbeath strath with the man who was, the following summer, to become my husband. It was May holiday, 2002: warm, sunny, just one of those perfect days that stands out in my memory for reasons too insubstantial to put into words: you had to be there; and of the two who were, I am the only one left.

Part of the magic was that this was Neil Gunn’s strath. He has been my favourite writer for many years now and I can still recall the delight I felt as I recognised places mentioned in his novels – the meal mill, the House of Peace, the Prisoner’s Leap. Most of all, it brought to mind his 1937 novel, winner of the James Tait Memorial Prize – ‘Highland River’. Ever since reading that unique book, I found it impossible to walk beside any river without thinking of Kenn, the central character, making his journey towards the source: the source of the river, the source of his own identity.

Gunn believed that the Gaels were united by more than a mere language, that they were bound together by common experience, and by landscape. He was a great believer in the collective unconscious: Jung’s idea that people may share a second-level consciousness which cannot be related to their own direct experience. It describes what we might otherwise call ‘instinct’.

Calvin was a proponent of instinct in a way too. He argued that the light of nature – natural man’s awareness of God’s existence – is in each one of us, however distorted by sin. This was, and is, not to be confused with the light of the world in the person of Jesus Christ. In no way was Calvin suggesting that the sensus divinitatis, this awareness of God, was sufficient in itself; without the Spirit’s illumination, we cannot know God savingly. As the Westminster Confession of Faith has it:

‘Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.

As Kenn nears his final destination, the source of the river, he feels a strong sense of his own abiding solitude:

‘That was his destiny. He saw its meaning in his people, even in their religion, for what was the Calvinist but one who would have no mediating figure between himself and the ultimate, no one to take responsibility from him, to suffer for him.’

Well, true in part: Calvinists do not place their trust in priests, or bishops, in confessionals or man-made absolution. Calvinists, however, do believe in the great and only mediating figure. He has already suffered and taken responsibility for our sins. If, knowing this, we choose solitude and suffering for ourselves, we are not Calvinists, but fools.

Far be it from me to disagree with Calvin – that’s not how I was brought up. There is, I believe, an instinctive awareness of God in us, which the Creation further demonstrates. That, however, is surely as far as one can go with that. You can be aware of the existence of the Creator by witnessing the work of His hand, yes – but you cannot know Him apart from the Son and the Spirit. To truly know Him, you must know how He has dealt with mankind, how He has dealt with you. You must know the sacrifice He has made.

When I go back now, in my mind, to that strath, and to that day, I see Him there. Yes, in the beauty of the river, in the brightness of the sun and in the fragrance of nature. All of that, but this too: He planned that day, we two, and all that would become of us. Not just planned, but ordained, brought into being: authored and finished.

The mere, dim light of nature is not enough. It will leave us like those poor Greeks at the Areopagus, with an altar ‘to the unknown god’. If He is unknown to us, that is not because He is unknowable, but because we have not yet traced the river of our life back to its source.

‘For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light do we see light.’