Long-suffering in the Free Church (it’s not about the pews)

Going to church can have unintended consequences – unintended by yourself, that is, of course. I went this morning, thinking that after a week on antibiotics for the mother of all dental abscesses, I knew the meaning of long-suffering. Indeed, perhaps I could even be perceived as the living embodiment of it myself. Three sleepless nights, endless pain which didn’t respond to any amount of ibuprofen, salty mouthwashes or stern talkings-to, and yet I had retained my sanity and even some humour. Perhaps, I allowed myself to think, I am a paragon of putting up with adversity.

You know, though, when you’re leaning towards seòladh àrd of any description, there’s always a Calvinist minister, just waiting to take you down. ‘Think you know what it is to be long-suffering’, they mutter as they stab their sermon notes out on ancient typewriters (in my imagination), ‘just wait till you hear what I have to say’.

Now, let me be clear on something. The take-down for myself this morning was in the substance and message of the sermon, not the delivery. I am in no way suggesting that a Free Kirk service is an object lesson in fad-fhulangas, however hard the pews.

This is all the more remarkable because it wasn’t a sermon on long-suffering, but on unity. It was Ephesians 4, and Paul’s call for unity in the church of Christ. Lack of unity grieves the Spirit, and it grieves him because he is a person of the godhead. In a quite beautiful image, the gift of unity was compared to the gift of Eden: just as the garden was given to Adam to tend, unity in the Spirit was gifted to the church for us – all of us – to nurture.  I am tempted into a segue here, but some things don’t need to be repeated, far less hammered home. We are all capable of meditating upon our own role in caring for what we have been given, and growing it to God’s glory.

I can and have picked holes in how we are as a church. Not gratuitously, I hope, but out of a real, prayerful concern that we are not as we should be. In reality, no Christian needs me to point that out – and there has to be some measure of gratitude for the fact that, to paraphrase Newton, we are at least not as we were. Crucially, though, we are not as we will be: we are the Spirit’s work in progress. And, listening to that sermon today, the unintended consequence for me was that I was both reassured and comforted, yet chastened and humbled also.

Christ did all that he did. He lived a life of service, putting everyone else first. A deserving everyone else? An impeccably behaved everyone else? Far from it. He poured himself out for a world that despised him. Even his own followers were not always faithful, taken up with a wrong vision of the Kingdom. James and John even jockeyed for a status of power within a government that was never intended to be built on any such thing. It must have been so disheartening for Jesus, not to have one wise friend, one close confidante to whom he could go for counsel. There was not one he could trust implicitly to do the right thing. 

This was why the answer to ‘whom shall we send’ and ‘who will go for us’ inevitably came back round to Jesus, for there was indeed no man.

Add to all this that he had no place to call home, no door he could close and be alone with his Father when disappointment and disillusion assailed his heart. Yet this same Jesus went willingly to the cross for those inconstant disciples, for a world that bayed to see him crucified and chose a criminal to be his substitute for mercy. Still, he elected himself our substitute for punishment, in the full knowledge that we deserved no reprieve.

And we fall out over the merest thing. Ironically, while waiting for the service to begin today, I overheard a whispered conversation regarding another congregation who are ‘together, but with undercurrents’. We are not long-suffering in the least. I forgive and excuse my own bad behaviour most readily, but I’m not so merciful to others. The slights and insults, the wrongdoings of my brethren are placed under my magnifying glass, while my own shortcomings, well, they’re easily excused.

What an absolute plate I have. Unity is a gift of the Spirit to which all of us who profess union in him must tend. The only way to that, the only way to anything worth the having, is through Christ. I am going back to one of the books I read assiduously as an apprentice secret disciple, ‘The Imitation of Christ’. Surely I should remember these words of Thomas a Kempis: 

‘Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be’.

Christ can, though, for all of us – and he will finish the good work once it is begun.

A House Divided

There is an amusing scene in the Scottish film, ‘The Bridal Path’, when the naive protagonist goes to withdraw some money from his bank account, and is asked ‘what denomination’? He replies – of course – ‘Church of Scotland’.

In my own part of Scotland, denomination has been all too important, time out of mind. I wonder how many of us feel that we belong to the Church of Scotland, or the Free Church, or the Free Presbyterian Church before we belong to the church of Christ. And I equally wonder how Christ, the head of the one church there is, feels about denomination. 

How have we come, in a town like Stornoway, for example, to have two Free Church congregations, three Churches of Scotland, a Free Presbyterian Church, a Free Church (Continuing), an Associated Presbyterian Church, a Reformed Presbyterian Church, and sundry other congregations?  It would be nice if the answer to that was that no one building could contain all the worshippers. That, after all, is the only acceptable justification to have the saints of God distributed across a multitude of churches.

I know this is an awkward topic, and some people don’t approve of it being aired – but we are bound to review our own conduct in light of God’s presence. And like the adulterous woman at the well, we don’t need to hear any accusing words from Him to be convicted of this sin.

Because that’s what this is. It’s pride. Resentfulness. Self-righteousness. It’s putting ourselves and our traditions first. 

Now, I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I like the plain worship style of the island Free Churches, with no accompaniment to our Psalms-only liturgy. Heck, I even like the pews. But, if the necessity and blessing of online church has taught us anything (as I believe it was meant to), it’s that the building isn’t the church. And if the building isn’t the church, the denomination with all its committees and rules and manmade fol-de-rols sure as fate is not the church either.

Yet, we cling to these divisions as though they might be important or worthy. With no outward embarrassment, with no attempt at unity of even the most superficial kind, we have our own separate rule books, our own General Assemblies, our own identities.

As if the identity conferred by belonging to God is somehow less than that of some combination of the words ‘church’, ‘Presbyterian’, ‘Reformed’ and ‘Free’. We declare ourselves freed in Christ – free indeed – and yet, still, we entrench ourselves, not for Him, but invariably for some ‘principle’ that has us standing on our dignity. And while we bicker amongst ourselves (the children of God, mind you) about how to worship, He not only goes unworshipped, but the banner of His beautiful cause sags into the mud. The unsaved watch, open-mouthed, as those of us who profess Christ act like we have never even heard His name.

You think I exaggerate, perhaps – that I’m being harsh and judgemental?

There are four seats on Comhairle nan Eilean Sitar’s Education Committee, which are allocated to faith representatives. One, by statute, is occupied by the Church of Scotland and two, by custom, by the Roman Catholic and Free Churches as being together representative of the islands’ faith profile. The fourth has in the past been filled by the Free Presbyterian Church, but the Chief Executive of the council this week told members that he’d had representations from another denomination, suggesting that they should provide the fourth representative instead because – and I quote – they have a larger membership. 

Let that sink in: Christians – Reformed Evangelicals between whose confessional positions you could not slide one page of the KJV – trying to best one another for a seat on the Education Committee. 

Thanks to their unlovely one-upmanship, it looks like that seat will be shared with other faith groups, including some that are non-Christian.

That, folks, is an object lesson in what denominations do for the cause. The sad truth is that we show no intention of dwelling together in unity, and actually pour more energy into preserving superficial difference than pursuing the one thing needful: togetherness in the Church of Christ.

What a witness we are for the Saviour; what an example to the unsaved. My advice to the council would be not to let any of us near an Education Committee until we grow up.

Keep A Thing Seven Years

There’s a Gaelic saying which suggests that if you keep a thing for seven years, a use will be found for it. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t take that long.

This Sunday, I will have kept my grief for seven years. Like many new possessions, I carried it with me everywhere for the first while, moving it around as self-consciously as a child walking in stiff, leather shoes. When it was worn in a little, I started to forget for minutes at a time, only to be assailed by the reality of it when I least expected. In the last few days of Donnie’s life, I had been painfully aware that some time very soon I would no longer be a wife, but a widow.

I didn’t like the word and still less the idea that it represented.

Yet, in seven years, I have been taught to wear the mantle with something approaching acceptance. Instead of being allowed to push the garment from me, God has gently shown me that it IS mine to put on, every day. Traditionally, it also took seven years to train a piper, before they would be allowed to perform in front of an audience. There was no such apprenticeship for me, though – just straight in at the deep end.

I often think how this might all have been, had but one thing been different.

These seven years would have seen me grow bitter, perhaps, or reckless. I might have spent my time in wishing my husband back, or wishing I’d never met him – anything, in short, to remove the excruciating pain. The memory of his suffering could have tormented me to who knows what depths of anguish.

The one thing, though, which saved me from all of that was the hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t simply Christ saying, ‘I’m here, you can lean on me’. That would have been wonderful enough. In fact, his message was subtly different. He was actually telling me, ‘Remember I’m here. You know what to do’. This wasn’t the beginning of a wonderful new relationship, but a life-changing development of one that I hadn’t truly known I was in.

While I have carried – and will carry – Donnie in my heart, it is not loss which dominates my reflections over these seven years without him. It is gratitude. I had such a marriage that I didn’t think I could live without him. But God used that blessing to show me a much deeper and more enduring love. He has fulfilled me in the years of my widowhood, and shown me that, in Christ, all situations are an opportunity to know blessing.

I have profited from his teaching. It goes without saying that I have benefitted in more ways than I can count from his love and mercy. From the very beginning of this journey, though, God has laid it on my heart to share my providence with you. He did that, and then he made it possible.

Most miraculous of all, he took what might have destroyed me and blessed it to the extent that I can say that the Lord gives more than he takes away. Last Sunday, our minister used the sermon time to remind us of the glory and holiness of this God. And, right at the end, that devastatingly beautiful flourish of truth: ‘Remember, though, he is also your Father’.

Glorious, holy, perfect – of course; but tender and loving to the last. Not ‘also in our hard providences’ but especially. If you don’t believe it, I will take you to see a man who told me all things I ever did, and loved me just the same.

The Compassion of the Christ

Today was a communion like no other. The old traditions had all been peeled away, and only the essentials remained: the bread, the wine, the table, and a gathering of God’s believing people.

It was enough.

And the words that called to mind the loneliness of Christ’s suffering could not have been more apt for such a time as this. Many of us have gone through a protracted period of aloneness over the last two years. Families and friends have been separated, people have met death without loved ones to hold their hands. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have been bereaved during the pandemic, especially in communities which normally show their support by drawing alongside those who mourn. Who could forget those images of our newly-widowed monarch, sitting quite alone in St George’s Chapel? In that moment, she symbolised the loneliness of many across the nation.

Yet, she cannot feel your grief or mine, anymore than we can experience hers. For that, there is none but Christ.

Not only is he acquainted with grief, he has borne the unimaginable loneliness of being cut off from God. He chose to take that into his own experience in order that he might obliterate it from ours. Listening to the minister today, speaking of the peculiar loneliness of the Saviour on the cross, I was reminded of Derick Thomson’s poem, in which he speaks of peeling back the Lewis sky to behold:

‘the Creator sitting in full view of His people
eating potatoes and herring,
with no man to whom He can say grace’.

No man to whom he can say grace. No man to have compassion upon him in his pain. No man he can send.

Even in my more cynical or despairing moments, when I think there is no one to whom I can turn for advice, no one I can trust . . . there is. In these two years, during which I have been much alone, I have not been lonely. There are friends, there is family – but better than any of those, there is Christ. His advice never fails, his presence never departs; he has plumbed the depths of his own loneliness and so he is the soul of compassion in ours.

We are a society in sad need of compassion. I see a strange set of parallel phenomena creeping in. The more we say, ‘be kind’, the less able we seem to be able to apply that – as Christ does – to everyone. There is a drive to stand with victims of all kinds, which is as it should be. More understanding and not less can only be a positive development. But, are we unable, or simply unwilling, to offer a second chance to people who have gone wrong? Our world sends some into the wilderness forever, guilty of unforgivable falls from grace in our eyes.

That’s not how Christ deals with anyone. It’s not how he dealt with me; it’s not the example he set his followers.

He hung on a cross and endured the ultimate loneliness, to an extent we cannot begin to understand, in order to save us. To take that legacy of love to ourselves, we have to imitate him – he has always known the very worst and darkest details of our hearts, yet never abandoned us. Accepting his gift means sharing it abroad.

Sharing it abroad, means peeling back to the essentials as symbolised in those elements today. The death of Christ accomplished our salvation, but not so that we would keep it to ourselves.

And I bought a field

‘Faith is not a leap in the dark’, the minister told us on Sunday and, if we were not buttoned-up Calvinists, that whole congregation would have been on its feet, yelling ‘amen’, ‘hallelujah’, and punching the air. The tiny dancer in my heart was certainly giving it yee-hah, as it does every time my soul recognises fellow feeling and fellow experience among the brethren. Our man at the lectern was voicing, surely, what we would all wish the unbelievers to understand. This is not some fairy story, a pleasant fiction to comfort the bereaved, or to anchor those cast adrift from all reason.

And do you know why? Because people suffering that depth of anguish cannot be placated with soft words and pretty lies. It takes a life-changing God to be sufficient in a life-changing situation. Whether it’s illness, or grief, the breakdown of a relationship, or the loss of a job – whatever it is, only a fool would suggest that a fable might meet our needs. I know that some of my atheist friends thought that’s what had happened to me; that I had reached out for my nursery God when I found myself in the valley of the shadow of death.

Aside from the inherent blasphemy, it was an insult to my grief to suggest it is so small a thing that I could tell myself a story to make it all better. That is what you get with the myriad creeds and cults that try to fill the spiritual void in the heart of every human being, but that is not what you get with Christ. And I don’t write these things because I want you to see that I’m right, that I’m not some kind of gullible dupe. In fact, I write about it because I really, earnestly wish that you would want it too.

The particular act of faith under discussion on Sunday was that of Jeremiah who, despite the unpromising circumstances, did as he was bidden by the Lord, and bought a field. Those acres were his testament of trust in God, that the exile would end and that better days were indeed coming.

I have also bought a field. The living God has contended with me all my life, and never washed his hands of me , despite the myriad reasons I give him every day. He would not let me perish, determined though I was to have my own way. And so, when grief came into my experience, he was not arbitrarily hurting me. Of course I don’t understand why the plan had to unfold like that – but I do know that it was necessary, and done to perfection. Faith has taught me that acceptance of this is easier when we trust in God’s purpose; and it is impossible not to trust in his purpose once we know himself.

Going forward in faith is not groping blindly, it is being led by someone in whom you can have complete confidence. Indeed, someone who wants better for you than you ever sought on your own behalf.

The time of pandemic has been a test of many things, but for God’s people, I think it has spoken necessary truths. I hear often that it has fostered a spirit of backsliding in some, which is desperately sad. For me, I feel it has renewed my faith. Throughout lockdown I spent many hours alone. During that first glorious spring and summer, I walked every day, witnessing the Creator’s work, and hearing his voice in everything that surrounded me. On Sundays, through the miracle of technology – which we have by his grace – it was possible for those who are united in the Spirit to share worship. Even more astounding, he added to our number as those who could not join previously began to listen, hungry for the word of God.

These are days in which I do not despise the small things: the tang of the sea, the lilting cry of a distant curlew, the quiet morning time of prayer, and the evening peace for writing in my journal. God is here with me – he fills my mind, because I have sufficient stillness to be able to think of him, to talk to him throughout the day. And I have faith, here in this field of mine, that the renewal I am experiencing is not mine alone. It witnesses to the fact that God is active in the lives of those who belong to him, and that those who are his but do not yet realise aren’t being forgotten.

In the perfection of his own will, and in his own time, he is bringing them in, He is persuading them to purchase their fields.

Life does not look as it did in 2019, and I think it never will again. That doesn’t matter, however. If we are founding our lives on the rock that is Christ, and if the Spirit unites us in worship and a desire to witness for the Kingdom, who are we to question the means by which this is achieved? My life and my home were changed beyond all recognition in God’s providence. But he has turned this humble, grief-blighted building into a place where I can experience the fulness of his love as long as I trust in him, and accept his will for me.

I am only one Christian, but I am a microcosm of the church. In all of this, we are not taking a leap in the dark; we are purchasing fields in the sure and certain knowledge that one day, our exile will end.
But it will be accomplished his way, and in his time.

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.