If You’re Happy & You Know It . . .

There was a time in this island when, if more than three cars were parked at your house simultaneously, reports of your demise would soon follow.

Get two Leodhasaich together, leave them for long enough, and they will eventually start talking about death. One Leodhasach by himself is probably contemplating his own mortality. And a big crowd of Leodhasaich? Well, that’s most likely a wake – why else would a lot of maudlin Teuchters gather in the one place? A couple of hundred years ago they might have been suspected of plotting to put a Stuart back on the throne, but all that kind of fight was knocked out of them along with the Catholicism. No, if Leodhasaich are gathering, it’s probably just to look on the black side as a group.

But why do Christians, and especially those bearing the Calvinist stamp, have such a reputation for misery? I was speaking to a gentleman recently who recalled seeing the order book of a well-known Stornoway draper from some years ago. It consisted of hundreds of pairs of ladies’ shoes, stockings, hats and coats – all black. No style was specified for any of these items. The only requirement was that they should be of the soberest hue so that church-going women could be decently clad on a Sunday.

And it got me thinking: what do we look like from the outside now? I mean, we Wee Free women no longer go out in Presbyterian uniform, so it is not so easy to spot us in a crowd. Yet, though we are dressed in the outward garb of the world, more than ever we are a peculiar people.

Theologically speaking, of course, it is right that Christians should be in the world, but not of it. We must, therefore, expect a certain amount of estrangement from others. But we also want to be faithful witnesses for Christ, and it’s incredibly hard to communicate with people if all they see are barriers between us.

So what form do these stumbling blocks take? What is it in the church that puts people off? And I’m not asking why the world appears to hate Christians – we know that it ever was and will be thus. No, I’m trying to piece together what it is in our conduct that hands the world another excuse to ridicule the cause of Christ.

Well, there’s the misery. Don’t get me wrong, I think we’ve moved on from the stereotypical Calvinist who was only ever happy when he was suffering. And we’re reticent Leodhasaich, so it might be too much to suggest that our hands should be in the air during worship, or that we should pepper our service with hallelujahs. There is nothing – in my opinion – wrong with the form, or substance of our worship.

It’s more, perhaps, our demeanour. If you are a Christian, you are freed from the burden of sin and the tyranny of death. Really, if that isn’t a reason for the deepest joy, what is?

We’re telling the world that we have been given the greatest gift and that if they follow Christ, they will know true peace and freedom as we do. And the world is responding, ‘Aye? Tell your faces’.

Then there’s the ‘s’ word: schism. We have had some silly spats over the years. There is no point in averting our eyes from it, or airbrushing it out of our story. I think it’s high time we explained ourselves to the onlookers, so that they can’t excuse themselves with it, saying, ‘why would we want any part of it – you’re no better than the rest of us’.

And that’s the truth. Christians are not better than anyone else, nor should we think of ourselves that way. The church is not, as a far wiser person than me put it, a museum of saints, but rather, a hospital for sinners. We are exactly like everybody else, but for one important detail: we know what our biggest problem is, and we’ve taken the cure. It doesn’t make us anywhere near perfect, but it should help us see when we go wrong, and wish to make amends.

Unjustifiable splits in the family of the church are the result of fallible human beings thinking that their point of view is sacred and unassailable. We are all guilty in this regard. There is no value and no dignity in apportioning blame. In reflecting on such incidents we need to pray for forgiveness, humility and hearts that would focus upon Christ.

At a time when the church seems encircled by enemies, Christians need to fix their eyes on the Lord. If we are reaching out to the unchurched, we do have to make sure that there is nothing off-putting in our conduct; we surely don’t want to be guilty of giving them any more excuses. It means doing what we are asked, but what I for one find so challenging – dying a little more to self each day.

We are His portion and His witnesses in and to the world – let’s try acting like it so the world realises what it’s been missing.

‘No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us’. 1 John 4:12

Broccoli and the Secular Delusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

Collars, Cappuccinos and Change for Change’s Sake

The light above the pulpit in Stornoway Free Church has hung there so long that it’s in danger of becoming fashionable again. I know that it’s been there a while because my granny (who died some time ago) disparaged the new fitting as resembling an old tin can. She, being from Carloway, was used to the finer things, you will understand. It is said that their tobar boasted a Dresden china cover. Nevertheless, the old tin hangs there still, shedding its light unchangingly. Where I sit, on the balcony, it is right in my field of vision, the same metal shade at which my granny used to frown.

I like that. Oh, not the light fitting – retro urban chic has never really been my kind of thing. No, but I like the sense of continuity with the past. Somewhere along the way, though, ‘traditional’ has become an insulting term, even within the church. This is now, and we have to assert our modernity and break with the things of yesteryear. Just because.

Well, my name is Catriona Murray, and I’m a traditionalist. It’s been eight minutes since my last Stroudwater . . . I like pews, pulpits, handshakes, clerical collars, unaccompanied psalm singing, and the sustentation fund. I like these things because I’m used to them, and for a host of other reasons besides.

Don’t get me wrong, if modernity took over and ripped out all the pews, to replace them with bleacher seats, I’d continue coming to church. If the pulpit gives way to a perspex lectern with integrated cappuccino machine, I would still listen to the sermon. Even if the minister opted for full Highland regalia, topped off with the headgear of a Bamangwato tribesman, I might remark on it to my neighbour, but I’m fairly sure his preaching would be unaffected, so I’d stay for that too.

Tradition does not rule me and I am not wedded to it, though I confess to a fondness for it. Besides, the justification I hear from modernisers is always a little inadequate. We need to be more accessible, more approachable, more flexible, more adaptable. Why? So that people will come. This isn’t Field of Dreams, so building it isn’t enough, apparently. Folk won’t come to church just to sit on hard pews, to listen to a man in a collar who stands in a tall wooden box.

Indeed, they will not. But is that why any of us ever went to church, and will it suddenly be different if we give way to gimmickry? We can dress the elders as Morris men and put disco lights in the vestibule for all the difference it will make.

People outside are not actually repelled by the sight of a minister’s collar, or the wooden pews – they are repelled by the gospel.

So, if the priority is boosting attendance at services, let’s by all means have men in surf shorts greeting people at the church door. Frothy coffees can be handed out as they arrive and the pulpit be replaced with a revolving stage. Each minister could, like a boxer entering the ring, have his own theme tune; each already has his own signature ‘move’, a la Mo Farah or Usain Bolt, anyway. Instead of the Mo-bot, or the lightning bolt, we could have the . . . but no, I mustn’t say.

Boosting attendance is not, however, the priority. It’s all wrong to think of the church of Christ – whatever denomination – as a business which needs marketing. Musical pews and scruffy preachers will not bring people in because old, varnished pews and ministers in clerical garb are not, in fact, what keep people out. The message does; and we definitely cannot change the message.

So, what next? Do we just sit where we are and wait for people to come to us, then? Obviously not. We carry on. The preaching, the worship, the outreach, the witness all must go on. Prayer – both corporate and private – must go on.  The great challenge in this, like in every other area of life, is to carry on doing what is asked of us, while trusting that the Spirit will accomplish the rest.

Putting all our efforts into pulling out pews and restyling the minister, therefore, would be an awful lot like fiddling while Rome burns (with apologies to any fellow Wee Frees still offended by the mention of fiddles and/or Rome). After all, we can’t really believe that this is something we could, or should, manage for ourselves.

Of course we mustn’t put up unnecessary barriers, but I think that these kinds of obstacles are more likely to exist in our hearts and in our attitude to others than in any superficial traits we may have as an institution. If you are greeted with a smile and a warm handshake at the church door on Sunday morning, does it matter if the person greeting you is a man in a suit? When you are welcomed, does it signify that it is into a 19th century building with old-fashioned seating arrangements? And, when your heart is moved by the message of salvation in Christ, does it matter what clothes the messenger is wearing? Or are we focusing on these things because WE can change them ourselves?

The light that is shed by Biblical teaching and by the faithful, steadfast witness of God’s people, does not waver. If we wait on it and follow it closely, I firmly believe that it too will come back into style. If we truly commit ourselves into the hands of our Lord, trusting not in what we do, but in what the Holy Spirit is doing, then we must let it be. While the world sees prayer and waiting on the Spirit as doing nothing, the church of Christ surely knows that it is everything.

Silence does not equal inertia in the work of the Spirit; in fact, it often means that He is drawing breath, just about to speak.

 

 

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.

 

Keep the Faith for Sunday Best (Part 1)

This is a two-part guest post by my blogging (tor)mentor, Andy Murray, author of Ragged Theology. Part two of this excellent piece to follow tomorrow.

Philanthropy is not a casual product; it is not a mere outcome of a zeitgeist, or fashion of the age; its roots are deep in the soil of Christianity; it cannot pick up a living either from Paganism, or Agnosticism, or Secularism, or any other system cut off from the influence of the love of Christ.

This is one of the first paragraphs in William Garden Blaikie’s Leaders in Modern Philanthropy published in 1884.  What follows is a barnstorming tour of all the great Christian philanthropists over many centuries from John Howard, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, Andrew Reed, Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie, David Livingstone, William Burns, John Patterson, Agnes Salt and many others.  The claim that some make that Dr Thomas Guthrie was some kind of lone voice in 19th century Scotland is simply not supported by facts.  Guthrie built on the work of Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen and John Pounds in England.  His work was taken up by many particularly Lord Shaftesbury in England.  He was part of a wider movement that rediscovered evangelical theology and roused a sleeping church to the Biblical mandate of fighting for justice and showing mercy to the marginalised.  Their work sprang from their theology.

Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

Despite the UK’s departure from its Christian heritage, much of our society remains rooted in the Bible.  The idea that we are all equal in the sight of the law, the idea of education for all, the concept of compassion for the poor, are all inextricably linked to a Biblical view of humanity.  If you don’t think this is important look closely at other societies and see the radical difference.  The foundational Christian belief that man is made in the image of God has radical implications for the way we treat our fellow man, particularly those who need special protection and care.  Christianity teaches that everyone has dignity and worth.  It also teaches that anyone can be redeemed from their fallen/sinful state.  Man’s fundamental problem is not poverty, housing or power; it is sin (Matthew 15 v 15-20).  The addict, the wife beater, the thief can all be redeemed and transformed by the grace of God.  Christianity is about grace, hope and most of all love.  It is religion of redemption and second chances.

But much more than personal transformation, Christianity places on the believer ‘a strong dynamic impulse to diffuse the love which had fallen so warmly on themselves’ (Blaikie).  Our Saviour, ‘the friend of publicans and sinners, is our ultimate example.  Jesus taught repeatedly about the need to love the poor in parables such as that of the Good Samaritan.  His teaching in Matthew 25 on the sheep and the goats couldn’t be clearer.  He defined true greatness thus: ‘the servant of all being the greatest of all.’  Remember that Jesus was speaking at a time when the order of the Roman empire masked a barbarous culture. Gladiatorial sports slaughtered tens of thousands for nothing but the amusement of the baying mob.  Slavery was commonplace and women were often used as sexual playthings.  Yes, there were occasional spurts of compassion when an amphitheatre collapsed, but there was no systematic relief of the poor.  It was a hierarchical society where groups and classes were systematically oppressed and kept down.  A bit like modern Britain.

It was as the New Testament church grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire that Christianity’s counter-cultural message of love for the poor began to change societies.  As Blaikie says: ‘In the course of time, barbarous sports disappeared; slavery was abolished or greatly modified; laws that bore hard on the weaker sex were amended; the care of the poor became one of the great lessons of the Church.’  This is not to say that the church did not frequently go wrong.  Often the methods of showing love became exaggerated and distorted.  The alms-giving in the mediaeval church became more about the abuse of power than equipping the poor to become self-reliant.   The Reformation was a great return to Biblical Christianity, and while it was a time of great conflict it also saw a return to Biblical philanthropy and care for the poor.  It encouraged education and saw the start of schools, colleges and universities.  The Bible was not only given to the common man but he was also taught how to read it.  This why William Tyndale became a hunted terrorist.  His English New Testament was a threat because it smashed the power of a corrupt church.

So far so good.  Even the most cynical atheist would surely acknowledge that Christian philanthropy has done great good.  But let’s be honest, there have been many inspiring philanthropists who haven’t had an ounce of love for God.  It is wonderful to read of philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie building libraries, donating ornate organs and building palaces of peace.  My family home in Sutherland has many monuments to the generosity of Carnegie.  We celebrate every effort that is made to relieve the poor and change society for the better whether in Christ’s name or not.  Nobody can deny that many charities have sprung up with little or no Christian inspiration.  History, however, shows us that all too often the greatest social reformers have been compelled by a zeal for God that leads to an enduring love for his neighbour.  They inspire followers who, if not always sharing in their theology, agree with their goals and are willing to follow their example.  Often secular philanthropists (such as Carnegie) are blessed with great fortunes and influence, but it takes an exceptional love to persevere in championing the poor without wealth or power.  It is one thing for an inspiring political leader to rise up, but unless it is underpinned with the theology of Christian compassion, how long will it last?

 

Did We Lose Our Sins in Translation?

Working in a Gaelic environment, I frequently hear obscure words being used. At least once a year, for example, a student will attempt to revive ‘fa-dheòidh’. I quite like it, but it creates much the same linguistic effect as if I were to pepper this blog with ‘forsooth’.

Recently, the minister, in throwing me a clan-based insult (yes, it still goes on, even all these years after Culloden), introduced me to the word, ‘eanraich’, which is apparently some kind of soup. It was – presumably – in regular use at one time along with ‘fa-dheòidh’ and other linguistic curiosities. When the social and cultural context for vocabulary goes, however, the words themselves swiftly disappear too. People no longer use horses for agricultural work, and so all the Gaelic terminology for a horse’s tack is redundant; likewise crofting, fishing and many other traditional practices besides.

Although you rarely hear it included in that category, churchgoing falls into the realm of traditional Gaelic culture. It had – and has – practices of its own, influences of its own and certainly vocabulary of its own. I know many Gaelic speakers who say that they can’t ‘follow’ a sermon in their own tongue because ‘the language is too obscure’. There certainly IS an ecclesiastical Gaelic, which employs words not in everyday use: ìobairt, ceusadh, aiseirigh, peacadh. I must confess a certain weakness, as it were, for ‘teachdan-geàrr’ And that is a play on words for my bilingual readers which would lose much in translation.

‘Sin’ loses quite a lot in translation too. The word, ‘peacadh’ in Gaelic is used virtually exclusively for the theological concept recognised by every dutiful Wee Free as ‘a want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God’. In English, however, ‘sin’ came to be used in two ways – in ecclesiastical circles of course; but also in a superficial manner. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear non-Christians say, ‘it’s a sin to throw all that food away’, or ‘it’s a sin that Mrs MacLeod’s daughter doesn’t visit her’. The things being described as ‘sin’ frequently are, but the people who label them as . such don’t really mean it in the catechism, ‘want of conformity unto the law of God’ sense. They might just as soon have said, ‘it’s a pity’, or ‘it’s a disgrace’.

Recently, sin has been in the news. Oh, it’s there all the time, of course, but like its master, usually goes under a variety of pseudonyms. On this occasion, however, someone asked a politician whether he thought that homosexuality is a sin. When the journalist sensed prevarication, the politician was harangued and badgered. This happened repeatedly. If you are unfamiliar with the ways of the British media, let me tell you that politicians are not usually asked about sin – it is not one of the top ten issues in any election campaign.

So, Christians should be delighted that, at last, sin has made its way onto the political agenda, right? Wrong. It hasn’t. Tim Farron was only asked about sin because he’s a Christian, in the same way that a multi-millionaire might be asked about tax loopholes. The mainstream media sees Christianity as a weakness, something to humiliate believers with. After all, Farron was not asked about sin as such – he was asked whether he thought that something was one.

Christians are not actually required to have an opinion on sin, other than that held by a famously fiery preacher in the USA in the early 20th century. Calvin Coolidge, the notoriously monosyllabic president had been to hear the man preach. Attempting to draw Coolidge out, a friend asked what the subject of the sermon had been. ‘Sin’, replied Coolidge. Exasperated and wishing for more detail, the friend asked, ‘and what did he say about sin?’ To which Coolidge responded, ‘he said he was against it’.

Sin isn’t a matter of opinion. God has decreed what is an affront to Him, and Christians try to conform in obedience. If you want to know whether something is a sin, should your first port of call really be a sinner, albeit one saved by grace? Why ask fallible Farron, when the word of God is readily available to answer all such questions unambiguously?

Our tolerant, liberal, progressive society does not want the truth about sin. It could not handle the truth about sin. If the doubters opened their Bibles to Romans 3, they would read that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. Set within the wider scriptural context, this tells them everything they need to know about what sin is and, more importantly, what sin does.

It is uncompromising. We can’t debate, barter, bargain or otherwise spin our way out of sin. Something which is sinful cannot be made acceptable in God’s sight just because the world has winked at it. Tolerance, liberalism, progress – these three recognise no sin except one: calling something ‘a sin’. Christians have to be ridiculed, derided, silenced – they are the enemies of a progressive society. Yes, that’s what we have: progress. Who needs the Bible with its backward notions of sin? Humanity knows best, humanity will rule by its own lights. What could possibly go wrong?

Remember, humanity progressed itself right out of Eden.

Free Church Android

I have a friend who does not come from a Free Church background. Actually, I have many such friends. In fact, a lot of the people I grew up with have little or no church experience and absolutely no truck with Christianity. Many of them fall into what I think of as the Iain Crichton Smith category – having a pretty tired and hackneyed view of Hebridean Calvinism which is largely based on stereotypes that are no longer true (if they ever were). These stereotypes wear black hats and sombre faces; they shake their heads at mirth and sigh in response to vain worldliness. And they live in the imagination of people who ought to know better.

However, this friend has no such prejudices. She wandered into my life in a haphazard, vaguely work-related way. We hit it off over coffee (me – after all, I’m a neurosis-ridden Wee Free) and herbal tea (her – a bit fancy like that, what with being ‘from away’). One Sunday, I took her to a Gaelic service in the Seminary in Stornoway, which is nothing to do with training priests, despite the name.

And then she came along to some English services too. I was impressed at her tenacity because, the previous summer, on a reconnaissance visit to Lewis, she had been to such a service. The children’s address, about the irrepressible manse dog, had appealed to her, but the content of the sermon had not. She was discomfited, I gather. Now I can’t remember if I explained to her that this would usually be viewed as a good sign in the Free Church. Wallowing in comfort and self-satisfied complacency is not how a spiritually healthy clientele should be. The hard pews, the hard truth, the hard stare from the pulpit: they are all part of the strategy.

Some weeks ago, she and I met up with another friend of mine for dinner on a Wednesday evening. Yorkshire Lass asked Island Girl (yes, I’m aware that they sound like runners in the 3:15 at Aintree) whether she would be coming with us afterwards to the prayer meeting. Island Girl laughed in a mildly hysterical way, ‘On a Wednesday!? No way!’ And so I had to explain why Wednesday was a ‘thing’, whilst simultaneously reprimanding Island Girl for allowing her daft Leodhasach hang-ups to emerge in front of a visitor from the Real World.

Yorkshire Lass has experienced much of what Free Church life has to offer. She has heard fine preaching, beautiful psalm singing, shared in prayer meetings and witnessed the Lord’s Supper being dispensed. This month, she was astounded by the groaning food table at our congregational fellowship. We have experienced the Harris conference together, and the WFM annual dinner. I know she has made lasting friendships besides my own.

Just before our recent ‘off-peak’ communion, she asked whether it would be ok if she attended the Saturday preparatory meeting. When I answered in the affirmative, she said, ‘what do people do who don’t have a you to ask these things?’, as if I’m some kind of Wee Free Siri. A faulty one, at any rate, but perhaps more reliable than Wikipedia.

The fact of the matter is that most people here in Lewis do have plenty people they can ask. They won’t, though, because they’ve already had their heads filled with daft rules. Wednesday night meetings are for communicants only, preparatory services are likewise for the converted . . . the list goes on. Worse, though, is the idea that you may not be welcome, or that people might judge you if you haven’t been to church for a while. They picture it being like the saloon bar in a John Wayne film where the stranger enters and many hostile eyes turn to stare. Wee Frees are gloom merchants and their churches oppressive places. Probably the minister will thump the pulpit, shout a lot about hell and maybe even castigate the newcomer for their sinful lifestyle and lax conduct.

Yorkshire Lass had no such preconceived notions. She came with an open mind and an open heart, but with no very positive formative experience of Christianity. Here in Lewis, she has met Christians whose faith is not about a series of formal steps, but is a living reality. They are far from perfect, but they are authentic. Christ is the centre of their lives. I see my brothers and sisters now through her eyes, as well as my own.

For me, meeting her has been a gift. She may do funny things with nettles, but she has given me the ability to see the Christian heritage of Lewis as something precious. We so often have to defend it against prejudice from within our own community. People get hung-up on the ouward badges and rituals of church life. In her, coming with the heart of a child, to ask questions in good faith, I see Him. I always believed that He had brought her to Lewis so that she might be among some of His believing people. In my blindness, I failed to realise just how much of a blessing her presence might be to us. To me, anyway, because in answering some of her questions, I am answering my own.

When you remove all the inside track stuff that needs explaining – who is allowed to go where, when do we stand and when do we sit – there is only one truth anyway. Christ reigns over all, and His people have been released from bondage.

There is also only one church after all: His, and it is most entirely free.

Safe Spaces and Dwelling Places

I went to a feminist event last night. It was that thing which we’ve heard there is so much need for in the Hebrides – a safe space for women to talk and exchange opinions. It was a real, face-to-face meeting of Hebridean ladies , sharing a meal and sharing conversation. Women of all ages came together from across the island, to talk, to listen, to laugh, to catch up with old friends and to meet new ones.

There was a guest speaker. She spoke movingly of her work with street children in Uganda. I don’t believe there was a heart in that room of almost 200 women unmoved by what she told us. Children, born to children, growing up without a home or a family. Without, in fact, a safe space.

These are children who don’t know what it is to have a parent’s unconditional love and protection. They are exposed to unthinkable danger every minute of every day. Many of them are on the streets, nonetheless, because that terror is marginally better than the one they faced at home. We all know how short a duration childhood is; in the blink of an eye, it’s past and, for these children, never really happens at all.

The speaker, Marsaili Campbell, is a paediatric nurse who has worked with these children for a long time through the Dwelling Places project. In addressing her audience, she excluded no one, and made no assumption that the room was filled with Christians.

I have already had fingers wagged at me by people who thought I was suggesting that charity is the exclusive preserve of Christianity. It isn’t. The gathering was Women for Mission, but the challenge is for all human beings. Could we not work together to make this world a little safer for everyone? Surely there are more important fights than the ones we are having with each other, and more important rights than that of swimming seven days a week, or keeping your child from hearing about Noah and the ark.

This meeting is an annual event organised by Women for Mission, a network of committees affiliated to the Free Church, and raising money to fund missionary work. It is the preserve of energetic, intelligent, motivated and compassionate women. If you are one of those, you could come to a WFM fundraiser, just to see what it’s about. You could support the work to help street children, to bring hope to the hopeless. These events, and the planning meetings which precede them, are safe spaces.

The women I met last night are authentic  feminists. True, they haven’t hung that label on themselves, but I think that’s because they are absolutely free, and don’t need to.

I was approached by a smiley, petite lady at the end of the evening, to tell me how much she was enjoying my column in the ‘Record’. That lady taught me – and countless others – to read and write during her 37 years in Laxdale School. Elsewhere in the room, I saw my former boss, a woman who stood up to men in suits in the 1970s to give Ness its Comunn Eachdraidh. That swiftly became a movement which has preserved and recorded our folk heritage up and down the islands and beyond.

The lady co-ordinating the evening is another example of feisty Free Church womanhood. I’ve come to dislike that word, ‘feisty’ because it’s so often applied to militant moaners. Not in this case. Think force of nature with a hundred watt smile. You do her bidding because she semi-charms and semi-terrifies you. And because everything that drives her is what drives each woman in that room: love for the Lord.

A room packed with women, all of one accord: it should terrify the men. Then again, there was one present – just one, mind you. He had a camera. Probably gathering evidence to take back to the Session. I’m fairly sure he caught the woman next to me laughing, so they’ll probably shut WFM down. Women laughing and planning things is surely the way sedition lies.

Actually, women, with their multi-faceted personalities, experience, and gifts, come together in groups like WFM. They work towards a common, humanitarian goal. In striving as one, they become one. There is real sisterhood because the bonds that exist between them are forged in the fire of love. It is that simple love which says that if a child is hungry, you should feed her, and if she hurts, you should comfort her.

That is what feminism looks like in the Free Church.  It is about looking outward and serving the Lord by serving the lowliest in our world.

At the end of the evening, the beauty of 200 women singing Psalm 40 in unison said something to me about real feminism. Each individual voice counts, yes, but how much more power is there when we come together as one?

 

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.