Ministry of Offence

When I first started this blog, I felt like a very tiny speck of humanity, shouting out into the unknown from the middle of a vast wilderness. I didn’t represent any particular group, or enjoy the protection of an organisation- I was just a newly professed Christian, shooting her mouth off about salvation.

Then, though, a miraculous thing happened: the unknown whispered back.

Messages began to come from people I’d never met, saying that my writing encouraged them and how they could put their ‘amen’ to much of what I shared. Most unexpected of all, some even began to thank me for my ‘ministry’. 

I had never thought of myself as having such a thing. It’s not that I’m so narrow-minded as to think this is the sole dominion of coves in collars, not at all. Ministries, as I understood them, were the province of churches, and all those people you hear prayed for on Sundays. They’re the missionaries, the organisers, the bakers, the committee people – and they’re under the auspices and jurisdiction of their denomination or their Session. 

My blog doesn’t tick those boxes. I didn’t run it past the Men in Black, far less wait to be asked. If you wait to be asked, as a Wee Free woman, chances are you’ll be waiting forever. Well, I ain’t a waiting kind of gal.

And I’m kind of glad now that this is the case. Of course my blog is a ministry. It isn’t enough to be healed – you’ve got to tell people how it happened; and you have to be ready to defend the reason for that burning, bright, unquenchable hope that is in you. God led me to profess my secret faith with those messages, and he’s not going to let me re-cap my pen until the last ordained syllable has been laid down. 

No Session, no church committee, will ever give you that torch. Nor should we expect them to. Every Christian has it in them to be a minister for Christ . . . it’s just a question of how. 

Some people – myself included at times – thought it was mainly cheek a’ mhuncaidh that propelled me on. Again and again, I was asked where I’d found the courage to just speak, when no one had actually invited me to. It isn’t courage though, folks: it’s compulsion. I cannot shut up about Christ because . . . well, look what he’s done for me.

Time and time and time again I denied him. I knew he was there, but I fooled myself and others into believing I was doing it all by myself. Life was great because God had heaped blessings on my ungrateful head. And never – not once – did I say to him, ‘this is too much – give it to someone else’.

Not until the first day I thought I might lose my husband. Then, though, I considered God to be giving more than I deserved. He was exposing my brittle heart to the reality of death. So I cried out into the unknown, ‘how can I bear this’?

And a miracle happened: the unknown whispered back. Even more miraculous, it was not the unknown at all, but a dear and familiar presence that had been with me always, saying, ‘We will bear it. I will never leave you nor forsake you’.

This Jesus. That’s what our ministry is about. It’s not to tell people the answers, but to lead them safely to a Man who IS the answer. 

I may not carry a label that says ‘officially approved by the FCOS’, but written across my heart are these words: ‘redeemed by the blood of Christ; free indeed’. So, even although I don’t have a governing committee or a policy document, I’m going to stop cringing when you lovely people refer to Post Tenebras Lux as ‘ministry’ – it IS a ministry for Christ and it is my privilege to serve at his pleasure.

And if I’ve ever encouraged you in anything, let me encourage you in this: don’t wait for the ‘church’ to call you – get your mobilisation orders directly from its head. He has fewer rules about who can serve.

Every Breath You Take, Every Tear You Shed

Every move you make, every breath you take, I’ll be watching you. Unsettled? You should be. Imagine me turning up everywhere you go, keeping a weather eye on all your doings. Not anyone’s idea of a good time, least of all mine. Most of you are probably very boring, putting bins out and booking chiropodist appointments, not working for the secret service or dating celebrities on the Q.T.

Anyway, it’s just a quote from the song, ‘Every Breath You Take’, which has been jokingly renamed ‘the stalker’s anthem’ – and it popped into my head while sitting in church on Sunday morning. Now, before you all start fidgeting in your pews and eyeing one another nervously, don’t bother – it wasn’t any of you who prompted the thought; it was the minister. And, no, he needn’t be rushing out to get a bigger padlock for the manse gate either. It was actually something in the sermon that brought the song to mind:

God has a record of all our woes. The beautiful psalm 56 tells us that he stores up our tears in a flask. 

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had some big sorrows in my life, the kind that feel as though they’re carved into my very heart. But every droplet that fell from my mourning eyes is numbered and bottled by God. He knows the depth and breadth of my grief in a way that even I do not.

Still more extraordinary, though, is the fact that he also has an exact record of the hurts that I’ve forgotten. I mean, I have cried over a lot of situations and a lot of people that long since passed into oblivion. There were emotional storms that seemed seismic at the time, but that I have certainly no word of now.

Yet my Heavenly Father remembers. Those tears are counted too. God is more tender towards me than I am towards myself.

And that is why, masked up and a metre from all my nearest neighbours, I added a couple more droplets to that eternal flask. These were not tears of pain, however. Relentlessly, psalm 56 unfolded in beauty, and I glimpsed – if only for a brief moment – the inexpressible heart of God.

You see, he not only collects the tangible record of our sorrow. In order to do this fully, he also follows us in all our wanderings. That is, he not only accompanies us on the journey we ought to take, but watches us when we stray from the path. 

Well, of course he does. A parent may smile at their child, safely sleeping in his own bed; but how much more watchful is that gaze when the little one is in danger? It was this that wrung the tears from my Sunday morning eyes – remembering all the foolish times I had tried to do things without him, never knowing that he was coming with me anyway, whether I acknowledged his presence or not.

The context for all of this is a familiar theme in the psalms – strength in the presence of the enemy. It asks the oft-repeated question, ‘what can man do to me’?

I have been afraid at times. Undoubtedly the most frightened I have ever been was when my husband fell ill with cancer. A few days ago, I overheard a television character being asked if he was afraid of something or other and he replied, ‘No. After my wife died, the worst had happened and so nothing else frightens me’. 

That is not how it is for me. When my husband died, before that, even, God caught me in his arms. He was more than sufficient in the worst fear I have ever endured. So, because of THAT- because of HIM – I cannot be properly afraid of anything else. I may get upset, I may be angry at the enemy, but I cannot fear him.

Sometimes in dealing with the onslaught against my faith, whatever form it takes, I forget to leave it with God. I get caught up with trying to tackle the situation myself, and I do so on my own (nonexistent) strength. 

It goes without saying that I make a hash of it. My repetitious tendencies in this regard have been a worry to myself.

Yet, there in church on Sunday morning in Stornoway, I felt a new surge of love and humble gratitude. One metre removed I may have been from my fellow worshippers, but my Father and I are never more than a hair’s breadth apart. Thanks entirely to him. He doesn’t permit that the stubbornness of my heart should lead me anywhere that he does not also go. 

So, why should I fear? Until the stopper is finally placed in the flask, and I reach the place of no more weeping, every move I make, every breath I take, he’ll be watching me. 

Now Only Three

On Sunday morning, I was driving through the neighbouring village of Gress. To my left, the carpark was already starting to fill up, and people were unloading an assortment of beach toys, dogs and children. Over to the right, the cemetery lay quietly, an eloquent reminder that even in the midst of life, we are in death. As I continued onwards, I fell to pondering what visitors make of our cemeteries, plentiful and prominent as they are.

In fact, like our primary schools and churches, the burial grounds are a testament to the way in which Lewis was grown. Each village was a world entire for the people who belonged to it. And note my use of language- it’s something those from outside of the islands would do well to take on board: we make no claim of ownership on these communities, but they have a claim on us. That’s why, to a degree, the concept of community ownership in the literal sense is a bit alien. Traditionally, our relationship with land has not been proprietorial.

Indeed, our relationships were always described in terms of claims on, and not by, us. Where do you belong to? Who do you belong to? 

Thus, the villages had their churches to nurture the spiritual lives of the people, and schools to educate. Land was tenanted, not possessed, and the whole patchwork stitched together by fellow feeling, common experience and mutual understanding. 

The cemeteries are a part of it. One of the first things I did as a grown-up, married woman was to pay the lair fees for myself, my husband and my mother in-law. I began life in Tolsta paying nine pounds, then six . . . and now only three. It is an annual memento mori, a gentle pecuniary reminder nach e seo baile a mhaireas. Unlike many other townships, Tolsta’s cemetery is less prominent and so far removed from the village that you could go your whole life without glimpsing it. That’s a shame, I think, because when burial grounds are at the centre of a village, they do serve as a normaliser of death as something natural. For most villages, too, until very recently, burial itself occupied a central role in community life: everyone turned out to local funerals. 

Lewis funerals were the ultimate act of community – a public solidarity with the grieving family, and a respectful acknowledgement of the deceased person’s place in the tapestry of their lives. We understand better than most how someone you barely knew, or knew only by sight or who was just a name to you, still touched your life in some way, however small. They existed, they shared your heritage, they were a part of the same things you are. And thanks to our very civilised and healthy relationship with death, we are able to give them that dignified place at the end of life. The patronymic system ensures that their memory lives on, a chain linking those of us still in life to the relations and neighbours gone ahead into eternity.  It connects us, across the continents and oceans also, to the emigrated loved ones, keeping them a part of our community in life and in death, just the same.

We are losing our hold on what has kept these communities through the centuries. The church building may be where it was placed, at the centre of our villages, but the actual church is rarely at the heart of community life. And because of this, our relationship with death is also changing, turning into something sour and unhealthy.

It is darkly ironic that the unbelievers who call Christianity ‘a death cult’ are so prepared to argue against the sanctity of life themselves. If an unborn life is inconvenient, terminate it in the bud; if a person’s health is deteriorating or their quality of life poor, remove the burden now. Don’t wait on God’s providence, don’t trust him: push his hand away and do it for yourself. Somehow, we think that a life untrammelled by difficulty or pain is our birthright, and if it isn’t provided for us we must take it for ourselves. That justifies breaking the commandment to protect life. What does God know of our suffering?

The people who placed their churches and their cemeteries at the heart of community life knew better than to turn their faces from him. In accepting his seasons of providence, they showed great wisdom. ‘Fatalistic’, some have called it, but I don’t see it that way. They trusted him with all the moments of their lives. We are linked to them, through that patronymic chain, through all the words of prayer uttered by parents for children, by sisters for their brothers and vice-versa, and by pastors for their flocks.

Let us find our way back to a place where God is permitted to be God, and we accept that it is both in and to him we belong.

Hail to the chief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repentance is for Life

‘You won’t be allowed to visit’, my mother told me on Tuesday evening, with what I thought was unseemly glee. She hid her despair well when I reminded her that I am a lone householder and entitled to socialise with the rest of my bubble. Remembering that this meant herself and my brother, the telephone line was quiet for a moment. Still, she rallied her spirits tolerably well when I mentioned that Mr Roy was also part of the package.

Every cloud, you see.

It appears to have hit people harder this time. There is lockdown fatigue. We have no summer on the horizon to cheer us. And there seems to be a determination abroad in our land that we will not fall into the same trap as our wartime ancestors, proclaiming that it will ‘all be over by Christmas’. Instead, a gloom has settled, to the effect that nothing will ever be the same again.

Nor will it.

But that need not cause us any despair. I am familiar with the concept of things never being the same again, when unwanted life-altering 

events come and cut a swathe through your settled contentment. You do not ask for it; you do not want it – and yet, by God’s grace, you profit from it.

By God’s grace. In his providence. Not, as we seem to think, by our willing it. This is were we have to ignore all the cheerleading from politicians and community groups, who tell us that we will ‘get through this together’, and that we need to ‘be strong’.

No, no, no: everything in my experience of God screams in frustration at these well-meaning proclamations. In fact, friends, we need to be the very opposite of all the things that populism tells you is required. We need to be humbled by this providence, we need to be weakened by it, we need to be contrite. It is now we must turn to God with outstretched, empty hands and beg his forgiveness.

And the crucial word there is ‘we’. There are no exceptions, for there is none righteous among us; no, not one.

Christians like myself have wasted our God-given time, thinking we are witnessing, when all we are doing, really, is judging. There is no Christ in our condemnation of the broken people among us. I was at a meeting on Tuesday evening, where someone spoke movingly of how believers should witness to unbelievers. He said that we must go to them humbly, as saved sinners, and as broken people ourselves. So we must. Otherwise, how are we showing them Christ? Speak to unbelievers first of their sin and we make Pharisees of ourselves; speak to them first of Christ and we enact our true knowledge of his sufficiency.

As ever, I am speaking primarily to myself. I do not believe that Sunday opening, or Sunday golf will be the things that exclude people from, or admit people to, God’s eternal presence. Sometimes, in my love for the Saviour and his day, perhaps I have given that impression. Nor am I saying that I believe these conversations to be unimportant – just that we cannot approach witnessing by asking first for outward conformity.

That way, we create for ourselves a hollowed-out church, with no Christ at the centre.

The danger there, of course, is that a hollow church offers hollow worship and empty witness. Its words are ashes in the mouths of those who thirst; its succour colder than midwinter charity. Christ would never allow his church – his portion in the world – to become a dead thing walking. No, the Lord chastises those whom he loves.

What we are seeing now is chastisement. It is humbling, if we would only receive it as such. We ask over and over again for revival and receive, instead, plague. Our prayers are for exaltation: not of God, but of ourselves. Send us the numbers, we demand, so that the world of scorners will be silenced. So that we can be proved right, and placed on a pedestal.

Not so that God can be glorified.

Give us back our comfort, our routine. Let us smile and shake hands and return to our pews. Let us have normality.

And when I get my normality back – my warm winter coat and my expensive shoes, my nearly-new car in which to step out to Sunday worship – what of those others? Does everyone get their normality back? Me in my comfortable home or my centrally-heated church, and the homeless beggar on the street. Unbelievers back to opposing the need in their souls for salvation, and us answering it with harsh words and judgement.  

If our nation had not been permitted to move so far from God, they would know that the guilt of their suffering belongs in part to an unrepentant church. That they do not know, and that they believe human endeavour is the cure, shames me to my very core. Because of our negligence as a church, the people have forgotten God’s sovereignty.

Righteousness exalts a nation. Tell me, do you think we deserve to be exalted? Have we earned a return to what we had before? Or should we not, perhaps, give thanks to God that he has removed us from comfortable familiarity to a wilderness where we might draw near to himself, and turn our people back to a place of safety. 

The Loneliness of the Socially-distanced Worshipper

We are now in that post-lockdown wilderness I dreaded, where no one seems very sure of what is safe, or what is lawful, to do. As so often happens with we humans, it has caused discussion of our plight to degenerate to levels rarely witnessed outside of the playground: ‘but they’re doing it, why can’t we?’ or ‘it’s not fair’, and, of course, ‘because I want to’.

Pubs, shops, hairdressing salons, and even restaurants are beginning to open up – just not places of worship. Children are scheduled to return to the classroom here in mid-August, but there will be no Stornoway communion at the month’s end. You may visit the zoo to stare at rare breeds, but the Leòdhasach èildear cannot be seen in his natural habitat (the suidheachan mòr) until late phase four, whenever that will be.

And, you know, I’m fine with that.

I will undoubtedly be called ‘selfish’ for saying so, but this is a personal blog, so it’s only to be expected that what you get is MY opinion. Here’s  my thinking.

The government did not wait until the virus had been eradicated, nor till effective treatment or vaccine was found; they opened up shops and businesses because this country, this world, is driven by money. It isn’t a Tory thing, or an SNP thing: it’s a people thing. Sadly, it’s all we know. Money is our security blanket. Without it, we are at the mercy of charity, and the mercy of our fellow men. Ask the 29,000 Scottish homeless how that’s working out for them, and you can begin to understand why we were all afraid for ‘the economy’.

So afraid were we that, suddenly, it was safe for businesses to reopen. And then it became okay for folk to stand one metre apart instead of two. Ask yourself why it is now we’re being told we must wear masks while shopping – could it possibly be that the government knows it has done something unsafe in permitting us to mix in such numbers?

So, yes, it’s the economy, stupid. That’s why pubs are open, but not places of worship. It’s why kids are going back to school in August, but I’ll probably be teaching my classes from home. The students I teach don’t need their mammies to stay at home with them, like the school kids would.

Churches are not businesses. Furthermore, they can do their thing perfectly well at a distance. We have been able to be out both ends on a Sunday whilst staying in, we have had our midweek prayer meetings and – I believe, ged nach e mo ghnòthach e – the Session meetings have also carried on. There has been Sunday school and youth groups. I don’t know about others, but my elder has conducted virtual visits, ensuring that his charges receive the usual high standard of pastoral care.

Besides all that, or, indeed, above all that, we have been open in ways that we have never been before. People are coming under the word who previously felt unable to attend church. That has to be a challenge for us, and the uncomfortable part surely is to ask ourselves why. What does online church have that physical church lacks? Or is it the other way around? Maybe it’s us, the visible church, that puts people off. And perhaps God is keeping us in this holding-pattern for that reason. Amidst all the cries of ‘I miss church’ and ‘I just want to get back’, could it be that God is reminding us that it isn’t all about the comfort of the saved. Is it just possible that he wants us in the wilderness, drawing others to him, instead of back in our time-honoured malaise of Sunday best and ‘fellowship’?

Besides, what would the benefits be to opening up? People like to cite the importance of gathering together. We are doing that. Online church is a gathering together in the spirit. It is possible to see and hear one another, using certain platforms. No, we cannot hug, kiss, or shake hands, but we won’t be allowed to do that anyway. And, I have a massive, personal objection to returning now. This, I guarantee you, will be a reservation shared by many.

Social distancing dictates that family groups and couples may sit together. Individuals – single, divorced, widowed – will have to sit alone in church. It can be a lonely enough experience going to church by yourself, but to have your singleness, your aloneness underlined in this way strikes me not only as uncomfortable, but unnecessarily cruel. I won’t be subjecting myself to it because it will not add a single thing to my relationship with the Lord. He is with me, here in my home, every minute of every day.

He has been in many homes these last three months. I cannot see online church as inferior because, in many ways, it has accomplished part of the great commission in which we were failing. The Gospel has been taken to the people where they are. God’s servants have stepped up to the plate and learned new ways of transmitting his message of hope.

Let’s not lose sight of that in the clamour to get back to ‘normal’. Normal is overrated.

But if not . . .

I was set a challenge this week, by one of the overbearing blokes of Stornoway Free Church. ‘Shut up, woman’, he ordered, ‘your blog titles are too long-winded – and who permitted you to have ideas, anyway?’ Or words to that effect; no doubt I am paraphrasing somewhat. ‘Write about this, and stay out of trouble’, he said finally, firing a Biblical reference at me and departing.

He had quoted Daniel 3: 18 and, specifically, these seemingly negative, doubting words: ‘but if not’, uttered by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, when King Nebuchadnezzar is telling them of their imminent punishment in the fiery furnace. Their answer is along the lines that we always expect from believing people: do what you will, our God will protect us, and pluck us out of the flames.

‘ . . . but if not . . .’

So well-versed in Scripture was the wartime generation that a naval officer at Dunkirk telegraphed only these three words home and had the Allied plight immediately understood. The situation was desperate. Indeed, in the ordinary sense, the situation was hopeless.

Was that officer telling his loved ones to prepare themselves for German invasion, then, for the loss of all Allied hopes of success? Not any more than Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were preparing for the possibility that God might leave them to a fiery death. He was, in fact, telling the people at home that whatever happened, God would be with them.

We have our own ideas about how we would like the Lord to salvage a situation. It may be that we pray for a desperately ill loved one to be cured; it may be that we want him to stop our enemy’s mouths; it may be that we beg him to not send us into a particular situation. These are all prayers I have uttered, some of them many times. And in every significant example I can recall, God gently shook his head, ‘no’.

At this point, the unbeliever scoffs. The book of psalms brims over with examples of the enemy mocking and asking, ‘where is your God now?’ In the world, they see our relationship with the Lord as being similar to that between a small child and Santa Claus, or perhaps Aladdin’s genie. He is not, though, a capricious granter of wishes. God hears my prayers before they leave my heart, before I know them myself. But he is wiser than to let me direct him in how these should be answered.

When I prayed for my husband to be cured, and was comforted by the verse, ‘this sickness is not unto death’, I was hearing only what I wanted. I was stopping short of the next clause  ‘but to the glory of God’. In my understandable human pain, I wanted God to make everything all right, to make it stop hurting there and then. In his infinite goodness and wisdom, though, he took my request and granted it more fully and completely than I would ever have the grace or courage to ask for myself.

In times of sore oppression – verbal, rather than physical, lest anyone feel the need to accuse me of exaggeration – and slander, I prayed that God would silence those who lifted their voices against me in hatred. The chorus only intensified and became nastier and more vitriolic. Far from stopping their mouths, God seemed only to lengthen the lead to give them more latitude. And, in the end, the freedom of that leash became the rope from which their unkindness swung, for all to see. He caused them to stop their own mouths.

There have been situations I wanted no part of and asked God to let me go around. These requests he has also denied. I have lived through confrontations, through spiritual and emotional difficulties that I would have just as soon avoided. More times than I like to admit, I would ask God, ‘why have you put me through this’, and concluding over and over that my soul seems to require an inordinate amount of honing! But hone me he does. Every trial, every mistake, every misunderstanding between me and my brethren, every word I say out of turn, every relationship that I enter into, every partiality I show, every decision I make for good or ill, God is there.

That is what those three little words mean: ‘but if not’. They are immediately followed by an affirmation that, even if God does not deal with them as they have proclaimed, still they won’t turn from him. It is the same submission to his will that caused Christ to ask for the cup to pass from him, and then to add ‘not my will but yours’.

‘But if not’, however it sounds in the mouth of an unbeliever, is the very opposite of doubt. It is faith, born of an intimate knowledge of this God, who does everything perfectly. It is the confident proclamation of the believer who knows that he may not always take them out of the fiery furnace, but neither will he leave them to suffer it alone.

I hope this blog encourages you to believe, or to remember that God is with us always – but, if not, he is, just the same.

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against More Rough Wooing

Were John Knox alive today, I don’t think the Protestant church in Scotland – if such a monolith existed – would be wise to choose him as a spokesperson. He had a somewhat unfortunate way with words, and a bit of an uncompromising manner, particularly when it came to ladies in government. It’s not that he was sexist, just that he believed female rulers were an abomination and ought to stay at home having babies.

And, like an awful lot of people – to be fair not all of them men – once Knox had said a thing, that was it. He was not a fan of taking back ill-chosen words, nor of admitting when he’d been a bit of an insensitive twit.

He even managed to contradict Calvin. Pause for dramatic effect. Yes, THAT Calvin – the one who gets the blame for the unfortunate personality traits of dour Wee Frees, Wee Wee Frees, and Wee Wee Frees to the Power of Three. Calvin had used biblical examples, such as Deborah, to demonstrate God’s willingness to raise up female leaders. Knox wasn’t having any of it, though and maintained that women ruling was a breach of the God-given order.

He inadvertently annoyed Queen Elizabeth I of England, and steadfastly refused to apologise. In typically winning fashion, he corresponded instead with her (male) adviser, Sir William Cecil . . . but, let’s just say, he didn’t win any prizes for diplomacy there either.

The worrying thing for me is that I’m not entirely persuaded that our church WOULD keep Knox away from the microphone. I can almost hear the arguments in his favour: ‘oh, but he’s so godly’; ‘oh, but his theology is sound’; ‘oh but he’s not afraid to speak the truth’. Knox would undoubtedly possess the courage and the drive to speak for the church in Scotland: but are those the only qualifications?

Let me circumvent any misunderstanding. I’m not referring to ‘the church’ in terms of an institution, or as a specific denomination. What I’m speaking about is Christianity, the cause of Christ. There are many in Scotland who love the Lord and who wish to see some restoration of truth to public life. But if we’re ever going to get there, we need a wee bit of the ‘s’-word: strategy. Strategy backed up by prayer and trusting to God, absolutely, but still, a strategy.

First up on my planner, therefore, is ‘silence all the would-be Knoxes’.

Knox was all kinds of things: courageous, straight-talking, and a champion of Christ. We have people like that, though obviously not of his stature, today. And sometimes, I’m afraid that when they speak, I cringe.

It isn’t that I usually disagree with the fundamentals of their message; how could l? Nor do I belong to that camp which feels that Christians need to water down the challenge of the Gospel. God IS love, indeed, but we also have to preach about sin and hell and judgment, and the danger of not accepting his free offer of salvation.

No, it’s about presentation. It’s about the fact that there is no use in battering unsaved sinners over the head with the fact of their sin. I cannot show them their sin and neither can you. Why? Because we’re sinners ourselves. They need the mirror of God’s perfection to see themselves in that light.

So, when Christians speak on moral issues, we do not need a John Knox to remonstrate with people for their sin. We need those who are gifted with diplomacy and, yes, the wisdom of serpents, tempered with the gentility of doves. Every man or woman who professes faith is not destined to champion it effectively in the public arena, and we have to find ways to channel gifts prudently.

I would like to see, for example, more female Christians being encouraged to speak on issues like abortion. It sits uneasily with me when the pro-life lobby is represented by men. Yes, they have as much concern and as much right to a view; but that’s not the point. Knox, no doubt, would be very willing to speak on ‘Reporting Scotland’ about protecting the unborn child – but that doesn’t mean that he would be the best person for the job. Whether we like it or not, perception is important, and we do nothing to win over the hearts of a hostile world by playing up to the stereotypes.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not actually talking about gender. This is not me saying, ‘shut up, men, and let the girls talk’. What I’m trying to say is that we need to get better at representing our cause, by equipping our people to speak. There has got to be love, grace, intelligence and common sense. And, yes, there has got to be strategy.

The church needs people who walk with God, who pursue a holy life, and who are chiefly concerned with glorifying him. However, the world needs a church that can speak comfortably to it, in ways and words it will understand.

We are not going to win Scotland’s soul back with another rough wooing.

And the prisoners heard

Sunday afternoon sunshine lured me outside to sit on my recently-painted decking to read, write and contemplate. There were birds singing in the trees and lambs bleating in the croft beyond, but not a sound other than that to pierce the stillness. I had recently risen from morning worship with my congregation, and was in exactly the right frame of mind for a bit of contemplation.

I was also filled with an enormous sense of wellbeing. These are days filled with uncertainty, trepidation and, for many, grief. None of us knows when it may be our turn to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet, we know that God is with us, and that ,while a shadow may well encroach, it can never devour.

So, while the world’s media is talking in terms of a global crisis, of catastrophe and lockdown, God is enabling me – and many more besides, I think – to experience this as the day of small things which we are warned not to despise.  As I sat in the warmth of this early spring day, I thought about the week just gone by, and the ways in which I have met with Christ in the long hours of solitude.

There is his word, of course, and prayer. These are constants. Normally, though, they are the launchpad for what Lady Bracknell disparagingly referred to as ‘a life crowded with incident’.

I am rediscovering my inner introvert, however. This week, I have  delivered a number of lectures and tutorials, spoken on the radio about my favourite Scottish novels, attended a meeting of the Stornoway Trust, and participated in a whisky tasting – all without budging from my dining table. In between, I walk, cook, clean, read and write. In the evenings, I chat to friends and family, listen to music, and catch up on television programmes, films and podcasts that I’ve missed.

Friday was glorious. I finished classes, and took the dog for a long ramble on the machair. Confusedly dressed in wellies, linen trousers and a cashmere hoody (I like to acknowledge all seasons in one outfit), I got spectacularly rained on. Showered and pyjama-clad, I lit the wood burner and laid out my various samples of Jura whisky and wild water from the Stornoway Trust Estate in time for the Instagram tasting event.

It was not, I am quite certain, the 46.7% ABV 21-year-old malt that gave me the feeling of complete serenity, but the sense that this was a day of privileges, dispensed by the hand of a gracious God. He has enabled me to continue doing my job, and fulfill other obligations while remaining safe and not feeling isolated in the least.

Discussing this with a Christian friend on Sunday evening, she said that she was concerned by the number of people – believing people – who are not doing so well. She hears from folk who say that lockdown is beginning to pall on them, who say they miss the human interaction of church. These are by no means all people who live alone either.

All of which set me wondering what’s wrong with me that, six weekends in, I am still only able to see the positives.

I have come to a number of conclusions. Ultimately, I don’t go to church for the social aspect. In fact, quietly and without anyone else noticing, I ceased attending organised fellowships of any kind more than a year ago. Church has been a place of worship for me, and that continues to be possible by God’s grace through the technology which it is our privilege to access and enjoy. Yes, there are people whose society I miss, and I will be glad to see them when we are once more able to share a pew. Until then, however, I am getting the essential parts of the church experience at home.

Like many others, I am gratified by the way in which being a church quite literally without walls has enabled new people to join us for worship. An open door may theoretically be welcoming, but there is still a threshold to cross which can seem like a journey of a thousand miles to the stranger. Online worship presents no such barrier.

A lot of Christians are invoking the image of Israel’s captivity to describe where we are at. I don’t disparage other people’s feelings or experiences, however, when I say that this is not my view of things at all.

Christ has freed his people, and we do him no justice if we consider ourselves captive still. We ought to be like Paul and Silas who sang and prayed in their cell at midnight. The walls could not contain them because their hearts were fixed upon worshipping God. He was there with them, he is here in my house too; and he is with all his people wherever they are. Ask the suffering and persecuted church if you can’t believe a Wee Free woman.

My favourite part of that account, though, is the following four words: ‘and the prisoners heard’.

Those who are still enslaved, not by government lockdown, but the bonds of sin – what is our witness to them? Perhaps he has brought us out of our comfortable churches into the information super-highway so that they will hear us, not weeping and complaining, but lifting up our voices in praise of the Christ who will never leave nor forsake us.

Empty pews & the fellowship of the Spirit

I feel like a child in a fairytale. It feels as though, just by wishing hard enough, I have made the thing happen. ‘Which thing?’ you ask, fearing that I’m going to say I’ve met a handsome prince, and that you’ll have to send someone to show me that really it IS only a frog. No, not that thing. The thing I needed, the thing I secretly longed for has happened.

The world has stopped. And I have been able to stop with it.

For the few (I’ve lost track of how many) weeks of lockdown, I have been harbouring a secret. It has made me feel out of step with everybody else, but at the same time absolutely wonderful. And, if this really is just an enchantment from which we will all soon wake up, it’s safe to tell my secret, however it may shock.

In fact, I know it WILL shock, because right from the beginning of this, the Christian church has been chided for its readiness to embrace online worship. ‘You should be weeping for what you have lost’, we were told, the very first week, ‘you should grieve the loss of fellowship and count electronic services a poor substitute’.

It has been said before, of course. In the book of Numbers:

‘And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat!

We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”’

Am I being harsh? No, I don’t think I am. We are shown repeatedly in Scripture the danger and folly of looking back to halcyon days that were less than the perfection in our minds. God took the Israelites out of Egypt for a good reason: it was not their home, of course, and it was a corrupting influence, teaching the cults of paganism and idolatry. Their longing for the varied diet of the oppressor as opposed to the wholesome manna provided by God needs no interpretation.

It is this which makes us all repeat the mantra, ‘when we get back to normal’. We are human and we want what is easy and familiar. That’s hardly surprising.

Surely, though, the church cannot want to go back to what it was before. I cringe at the repeated requests that we not get too comfortable with live-streaming our worship. Why? What is ‘too comfortable’? It’s the provision God has made and there is no better application for man’s creative ingenuity than tribute to the Creator himself, who made it possible. Of course, I’m being deliberately obtuse; I know very well the point that’s being made.

What about fellowship?

Well, I’m here to tell you that occupying the same physical space does not add up to that. Fellowship is spiritual, not geographical. It is literally ‘of the Spirit’: we are united in him, wherever we are, and have the concern and care of one another, regardless of proximity or distance. How else can we have brotherhood with the global church or a heart for mission?

Is there not a very real danger that, when life is too easy and the pews too – figuratively speaking, obviously- comfortable, we mistake merely being in the same place twice-weekly for the deeper spiritual bonds of Christian fellowship?

Perhaps, then, God has removed that privilege for a season, so that we would understand its illusory effects.

As for the exhortation to weep, I don’t have much time for that either. Grief can paralyse in ways that do nothing to aid spiritual growth. Witness psalm 137:

‘By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” ‘

They sat down. They hung up their lyres. Grief and looking back rooted them to the spot and dried up their praise.

WE are in a strange land and never more so than now. This, though, is all in God’s providence and we must – surely – be called on to be like Paul and to worship him in all circumstances.

Which brings me to my secret. I know it is fated to be misunderstood, but still I think it’s worth airing.

I am glad the churches are closed.

On a personal level, it’s a relief. Life for me was so out of hand busy that, frankly, Sunday had ceased to be a day of rest. It was frequently one more day on which I had to drag myself out of the house and follow a timetable. More often than not in recent months I went to save face and to avoid answering awkward questions.

I was exhausted and verging on burnout.

Please don’t misunderstand me: this was never about coldness towards the Lord, his word, or his people. It was the cumulative effect of too much everything.

Now, I have the joy of worshiping without the tiredness. I can pare it all back to essentials and focus on the word and the praise.

This is not about one person’s convenience, of course, though I do wonder how many others feel as I do right now. It is about what the Lord is saying to his own people. We still have the privilege of corporate worship; he has not taken that from us.

I take two things from the current situation. First, he has demonstrated that fellowship is not a closed shop. We have been forced to go public and it is a real joy to know that the unchurched are finding comfort in acts of online worship. It is, as far as I am concerned, the ‘go’ of the Great Commission being partly fulfilled.

Second, he is chipping away at our complacency. To be together means much more than haphazardly sitting under one roof. It is love, care, gladness to be a people, concern for one another, sharing one another’s joys and woes.

If I survive to see the end of this pandemic, I will be glad to go to church. I pray that I will be doing it – that we will all be doing it – with a new heart and a new vigour. This is not a make-do and mend situation; God is giving us a blessing by keeping us apart, so that we might better learn what it really means to be together.