Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

This weekend is one that many have been looking forward to. It will be, for them, a time of joy, of colour, and of togetherness. They will come out of their homes, and they will gather together to celebrate that greatest and most unifying of all human experiences: love.

It is all about love, and about life. All they ask is the right to live abundantly, and to love wholeheartedly and unashamedly.

They were persecuted from the earliest times; forced to pursue their chosen lifestyle in secret. Many the world over have been disowned by their families, tortured and even killed. And yet, through it all, that great love persists and drives them on.

Love. A love so strong that though they are spat at, though they are ridiculed, ostracised and called for every name under the sun, they will come out and they will proclaim that love unashamedly before their detractors.

I hope to be among them. Last time, I didn’t make it, and I have regretted it ever since. It’s important, you see, to shout it out with . . . not pride, exactly, but with a complete absence of apology or shame.

It isn’t just one day either: it is a weekend of celebration. On Saturday, we will congregate to prepare our hearts and minds for the sacrament on Sunday. Because this is a small ‘in-house’ communion, the process of readying ourselves is shorter. There is a bit less outward preparation, but the same inward joy.

What joy, though, unbelievers ask, do you derive from being part of a death cult? You are gathering to commemorate the Lord’s death – where is there joy in that?

Well, no, indeed. If this were a mere memorial service for a loved one gone before, it would bring precious little comfort. But there is rather more to it than that. This is not the empty celebration of self; this is not a futile attempt to glorify human frailty and make it immortal. 

In the sacrament, we commemorate the Lord’s death – until he comes again. Think on that: we remember his death until such time as he returns for us. 

That, my friends, is love. He tasted death so that we would not have to. And now, in the Lord’s Supper, we taste life in remembering what he accomplished for our sakes. 

He vanquished death. In Jesus we see the death of death. Life in him is forever. There is nothing bigger or greater than that.

And so, when I walk along the street on Sunday morning, I am making a declaration of love. I carry the props that tell the world of this: the Bible, the Psalter, the monetary offering .

Yes, outward trappings, some will scoff; Pharisaic declarations of your own piety.

Not so.

They are all acknowledgement of his absolute sovereignty and sufficiency. And they are a message to the onlooking world, to tell of what we have in our God. We have a Bible full of his promises to us; a psalter by which we might praise his worthy name; the money to demonstrate that we continue his work until he returns. 

Oh, I missed one, didn’t I?

The communion token: a wee oblong of metal, inscribed with a Bible verse (usually ‘Do this in remembrance of me’). 

Surely, you say, the ultimate badge of exclusivity – the smug wee membership card that says ‘I’m perfect and you’re not’. Insufferable pride? 

No. This wee token tells more than you can imagine. 

It says: ‘you are not enough on your own’. Press it against your palm, and imprint its message upon your heart. You cannot live – you cannot even love – apart from God.

But, it does not leave you there.

It also says: ‘I have made a way. You don’t have to be on your own. Lean on Christ; give yourself up to him.’

Clasp that little piece of metal tightly, taking its meaning to yourself. When you hold it in your grasp, know that you have taken hold of love, and love holds you safe in its arms forever.

Walk unashamedly to join with those who have that truth in their hearts. And let us pray for anyone who has not yet found that love.

It is a love which has been mocked and derided, and crucified to death. Today, it is barely tolerated, and pushed aside to make way for impostor loves.

But it will return in the risen Christ, victorious over death, over lies and over darkness. 

So, this weekend, let us look upon the love of Christ, and the joy we find in him. Let us take to the streets, God’s promises in our hands and on our hearts. And let his pure love be the only one of which we speak.

Secure Tenure in a Better Country

There is a line in the Runrig song, ‘Flower of the West’, which says that ‘the breathing of the vanished lies in acres round my feet’. For me, that articulates something that I feel very much here in my own community – the almost palpable sense of history everywhere. I know people who claim no interest in the past, who dismiss it as irrelevant. We are here, now, they will say, what’s the point in looking back?

Well, the point in looking back is to see how we got here. I am firmly with William Faulkner on this, when he said, ‘The past is not dead. The past is not even past’. How could it ever be, in a place like this?

That’s why I think it is a tragedy that Gaels do not learn their own history. For many years, the only formal access to it was through the Higher Gàidhlig course where, if you studied the poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries, you would also be taught about the Jacobite cause, the clearances, the famine, emigration and the Land War. And that knowledge is so empowering. When you know about these things, you can see where your community, your family, and you as an individual fit into the bigger picture.

That is where I derive my identity from.  I am a Gaelic-speaking hybrid of Maclean and Macdonald. My father’s people were cleared from Mangersta and settled at Doune: that’s Doune Carloway of the Iron Age broch. And my mother’s folk were from Harris on her paternal side: na Fìdhlearan, hereditary foresters to the Campbells of Scalpay, in the deer forest of Amhuinnuidhe, before relocating to Ardhasaig, via Taransay.

Today, I work in the very college from which I graduated in 1997. Our pretty campus is situated in the grounds of Lews Castle, built by Sir James Matheson in 1851 and gifted by Lord Leverhulme to the people in 1923, when the Stornoway Trust Estate was created – the first community-owned estate in Scotland.

I sit on the board that manages the Lancashire soap magnate’s legacy. Despite all the talk, the iconoclasm, and the liberal sprinkling of meaningless words like ‘progressive’ throughout public rhetoric, I see at least part of my role there as being to maintain the dignity of such an historic organisation. Stornoway Trust has always had a sense of its own historicity, and that’s why I feel an affinity with it: knowing your roots will always strengthen your sense of identity.

Of course, there are other aspects of my identity too. On a Sunday, I worship at the Free Church on Kenneth Street  – itself a relic of that great chapter in our history, when ministers and congregations walked out of the Church of Scotland to form a denomination free from the power of patronage, and outside interference.

Its establishment precipitated other radical acts. Described as ‘the crofting community at prayer’, it is believed that the community cohesion and leadership provided by the early Free Church, contributed to the events that followed, culminating in the Napier Commission and the Crofting Act of 1886, which finally granted security of tenure. Beyond that there were – here in Lewis – the raids which saw crofters clashing with landlord and government in their thirst for land on which to subsist.

I grew up in the relatively new village of Newmarket, where there is a mixture of crofts and of allotments, rented from the Trust. Our home was built on one of the latter, but my father still ran the croft at Doune, shearing and dipping sheep within the tobhta of his old home.

Land, you see, runs through it all. The soil under our feet, and the landscape before our eyes, seem to form the boundaries of our being. We ache for places we have left, and love those in which we make our homes. It is a universal experience, but always rooted in a familiar landscape – one whose form and history is meaningful to us.

And yet, however strong my sense of self is, however anchored here in Lewis, and however much the past whispers to me as I move through the landscape of my life . . . this is not really home. Yet, this is not the contradiction that you might think, because – like many other refugees – I have a dual history and a dual identity.

As much as the Fìdhlearan of Ardhasaig are my people, I would claim kinship also with the Israelites. Their yearning for the land of promise speaks to me in my own geographical and historical context. Because I know who I am as an islander, I can recognise in myself that desire for true belonging.

The most famous articulation of this, unsurprisingly, comes from Paul in 2 Corinthians 5: 8, when he says that he would prefer to depart this world to be with Christ. In a letter he left for us, his family, before his death, my father expressed his love for us all in just those terms. Though he said that another lifetime with us would be wonderful, he was prepared to go and be with his Saviour, which – he wrote – was far better.

Is that not an extraordinary witness? When we are blessed to have family and friends for whom we care deeply; when we are intimately tied in to the landscape and history of a particular place; when our identity here on earth is made of something older and finer than ourselves . . . what a testimony, then, to be able to say that there is something more awaiting us beyond those limits.

I believe that the privilege of heritage and history is there to teach us about this greater gift. God placed each of us within a particular lineage, a particular culture, so that we might identify with that international movement of refugees towards our ultimate home.

Knowing who my people are, and where I came from does not tie me faster to this world, as you might expect; it heightens my expectation of what God has prepared in eternity that is richer even, than the security I enjoy now. There, the father who once walked with me over the acres at Doune, was happy to go; there the husband who loved the vista of Traigh Mhòr was happy to go.

One day, I too will finish my journey, and find true security of tenure.

 

 

 

 

 

The Crook for all Lots

‘You’ll have been picked up by the CCTV’, the elder informed me solemnly on Sunday. I had tiptoed past his gate early on Saturday morning, glad rags from the previous night’s carousing in my hand, and thought that I might just get away with it. The confusion of waking up in a strange bedroom in Stornoway had probably been at fault; after all, experience should have taught me by now that wayward women cannot fly under the surveillance system of the Free Church: EL-DAR.  There are Wee Free drones everywhere, and they can’t all be watching clothes lines.

I had gone out at the respectable hour of 6.30pm on Friday evening, to enjoy a meal and some speeches in a local hotel, to mark the occasion of the Estate Factor’s 25th year in post. We were doing so a year after the actual event because . . . well, they had been waiting for a blone to be elected in order to remember stuff like anniversaries, and organise parties . . .

A good time was had by all. Appropriate gifts were presented, including an inscribed shepherd’s crook, upon which the gentleman of the hour proceeded to lean in a rather too-settled manner as he articulated his thanks. I imagine there will be many future occasions when he leans similarly upon the stick, and regales his audience with wisdom from his considerable store.

Aside from providing the owner with a prop upon which to lean, however, the shepherd’s crook has a much wider variety of functions.

In fact, for those tasked with the management of sheep, there may be a requirement to travel over rough ground, and it is an aid to them on the journey. Anyone who has ever walked the moor will know the value of any prop which will help you stay upright, and out of the bogs.

Of course, your crook may well come in handy as a weapon too. Your flock can easily fall prey to predators – especially the lambs – and it makes sense for the protector of the flock to have a stick that he can wield in their defence.

And, the curved end of the staff is perfect for hooking a sheep around the neck in order to catch or move it to where you wish it to go.

While any and all of these functions might well be exercised by our Factor – either in his private capacity as a crofter, or his professional role as Estate manager – I am going to resist the temptation to speculate here on how he might use the crook to steer wayward Trustees. Far be it from me, either, to suggest how he might deploy his new weapon against . . . but let’s just leave that there.

A couple of weeks ago, the Factor put me right on an important point of theology. (I should point out that, though his duties are surprisingly wide-ranging, this is not normally considered one of them). He reminded me that sin could be committed in the thought, just as much as in the word or deed and, thereby, threw a carefully-constructed view on a given matter into total confusion. I have still not resolved that particular inner conflict.

But then, the Truth does not exist in order to make us comfortable with sin.

Theology, in fact, might well be seen as performing the same role in our lives as that shepherd’s crook, if it is deployed dextrously and for the purpose for which it was intended. And, make no mistake, by ‘theology’ here, I do not mean man-made rules, or academic theory: I mean the Scripture proofed truths which meaningfully direct our lives towards God.

When I have found myself in the terrain that, sometime or another, meets all Christians, I have been – on occasion – slow to reach for the supporting staff of theology. At this point, I am tempted to lean on another one altogether: that of my own wisdom. Let me tell you, though, nothing is guaranteed to sink you in the mire quicker than your own faulty reasoning. That is why Proverbs 3: 5-6 says,  ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths’.

At those times when I have failed to do this (and they are many), the next thing that happens is I leave myself vulnerable to the enemy. When I miss the means of grace, when I let my prayer life weaken, when I fail to open the Word as often as I ought . . . of course the enemy senses that I am distant from the rest of the flock. He moves in slowly, preparing to pick me off. But God has given his people the crook to use as a weapon also; Scripture has so many reminders that there is nothing the enemy can do against the power of Christ. For me, the battles with Satan have been won many times through the strengthening of Psalm 27, and its triumphant reminder:

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

But, sometimes I find that the Shepherd still has to hook me around the neck, and pull me to himself. Wherever I am, however, no matter how far, his reach extends there, and he will draw me gently and lovingly back. It may be that he achieves this through the preaching of his Word; but more often, it is actually through the love that he communicates via his own people who are, of course, my people.

Like the shepherd’s crook we presented last weekend, then, God’s Truth is lovely, but its real beauty lies in its purpose: to support, to protect, and to draw us to Himself. If we make use of it, then it will uphold us in any situation.

 

 

 

Turning Over the Tables

I was told on Sunday – by a member of my own church – that ‘Christians shouldn’t strike – not for more money anyway. And certainly not on your salary’. Leaving aside the etiquette of commenting on anyone else’s financial situation at all, let alone in front of others, I found this remark pretty dispiriting. It belongs, I feel, in that all too prevalent school of thought which exists both in and outside the church, and which says that Christians should just be nice, bland, inoffensive people who turn the other cheek and take whatever blows the world feels like doling out.

That philosophy, which adheres to ‘it’s nice to be nice’, is what is going to march us blindfold off a cliff if we don’t wake up to the danger.

When Christ turned over the tables of the money lenders, and ejected them from the temple, he wasn’t concerning himself with being nice. In fact, whenever I hear the phrase, ‘righteous indignation’, it is this scenario that plays in my imagination. I would think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back; he had watched them sin against his Father in so many ways, but this defilement of the temple must have been just too much to take.

We all have our limits. For the past few weeks, I have been involved in a whole variety of situations and conversations which cause me to fear for this generation in which we live. I have been speaking to politicians about the role of Christians in public life, and I have been thinking about the way that we ‘do church’ in Lewis. There is a disconnection between us and the harsh reality of a world that embraces as progressive just about everything that opposes God’s will for us as a people.

Christians should be the most political people of all. We should be joining political parties, lobbying, writing letters, attending meetings, starting petitions, and, yes, joining trade unions. As a member of EIS FELA, what sort of Christian would I be if I told my colleagues that I could not strike for more pay because it breached my principles? What sort of Christian would let them lose several days pay in order to obtain justice for themselves – and me? If, as believing people, we place ourselves apart from society, from our communities and our colleagues, we are most assuredly not following the example that Jesus, friend of sinners, set for us.

This is radicalism. It means going back to the roots, and the Free Church was certainly born out of a concern for moral and social justice. Why? Because it was born out of a passion to see the headship of Christ recognised, and the centrality of the Bible restored to public worship. But that doesn’t just mean having a nice, tall pulpit with a big book open from which the minister preaches every Sunday – although that is certainly an important element – it means carrying that book and its message around in our hearts every day of the week.

I was lectured yesterday, too, about the privilege of Christians, and that we should not abuse it by preaching intolerance against people whose lifestyles we question. The point that everyone seems to be missing when they say such things is this: I would not preach disapproval at those of the LGBT+ persuasion because, although I know their lifestyle is at odds with God’s teaching, so has my own been: many times. Their sin might be different to mine, but it is no worse.

Besides, as I have said before, I see no merit in talking to sinners about sin. They are like the dead people in ‘Sixth Sense’ – they don’t know they’re sinners. I can hardly stand over them and tell them that they’re sinners, because I’m one as well. It takes Christ to show them what they are lacking. Only in the light of his truth will they see what is awry, and what must be put right. All I can do is point to him, and try in my own imperfect way to witness to his perfection.

You can’t witness from a church pew, however. Take it from me, there’s a big clue in the fact that our most vocal unbelievers approve of us being Christians in private. Worshipping in church or at home, you’re bothering no one.

What the world wants is to push Christians back to the margins. While we were sleeping, they turned mainstream, Bible-based morality into bigotry. We live in a country that so misunderstands the tenets of the faith upon which it is founded that it has recreated them as hate speech.

I could sit with fellow church members and debate the finer points of trade unionism, or purity of worship, or the myriad other things we do that equate to fiddling while Rome burns. But I happen to think that we have bigger problems than that. In fact, I think that, instead of firing shots across one another’s bows, we ought to be a little more willing to go out into the real fray.

There is a reason why the Bible uses so much military metaphor. We are a people, a unit; not a rag-tag band of mavericks. The voice of one crying in the wilderness was all very well for John the Baptist – but this current desert requires teamwork. Pulling each other up, circling one another’s efforts with prayer, and presenting a united front: that’s where our energy needs to go now.

From there, we have to spread out and ensure Christ’s influence is every place we are able to go. And, because he goes before us, there are no limits except in our own small minds.

 

 

Tolerance Goes Over the Rainbow Bridge

‘That modern deamhais has killed the art of conversation’, one of my gentleman friends at the Trust remarked last week. ‘That’s a bit rude’, I thought, ‘does he not know I can hear every word he’s saying?’

Turns out he wasn’t talking about me, but the actual electric shears used on sheep these days. Not as easy to talk over as the old metallic clippers, with their distinctive sound. The new ones are probably more efficient, but they lack the evocative charm of their manual predecessors.

We are less free to speak in other ways as well, it would seem. This very week, in a shameful display of bullying, the local chapter of Pride attempted to no-platform a politician for his religious beliefs.

Yes, those same champions of ‘love and tolerance’ who demanded the right to march in Stornoway last summer, tried to shut down several public meetings. The reason? They didn’t agree with the views of the speaker. And what are those abhorrent views? Who does this man’s thinking align with – Hitler? Stalin? Genghis Khan?

God. He’s a Christian. Therefore, to try denying him a voice because you disagree with his views is no more and no less than to indulge in religious hatred. That is what it is. Dress it up any way you like, Hebridean Pride should hang its head in shame for displaying the very thing it claims to despise: bigotry. 

It’s part of a wider trend in our society, though, to silence what offends you. Silence it by belittling, silence it by demonising, silence it through mockery: but at all costs, do not permit its voice to be heard. 

We have seen attempts to take the Bible out of school, to stop the utterance of public prayers in classrooms and assemblies. And there has been heavy criticism of church representation on education committees. Christianity, we are repeatedly told, is a private indulgence, and must be kept out of education, out of politics, out of the public sphere altogether.

Christians have consistently argued back that it shouldn’t be banished from politics or education, that the influence of the Bible is necessary and positive. 

But, more than that, I would argue that Christianity CANNOT be kept out of those places. It is an impossibility to filter out Christian influence from public life unless you are prepared to actually debar believers themselves from those spheres also.

If you are a follower of Christ, then, where you go, he goes also. A Christian cannot temporarily suspend his beliefs in order to vote, or teach a class. I love the Lord all the time, and his influence shapes how and what I think. So, if I am asked to vote on euthanasia, on abortion, on Sunday working, on stem-cell research, I will take my direction from him. And if I am asked to teach a child that he can choose his own gender, or that two men can marry, or that this complex world just happened out of nothing . . . well, I can’t do it.

So, that takes us to a place surely no right-thinking, tolerant, loving human being can condone: Christians must not be teachers, or politicians, or policy-makers. That, though, is what we are being told, in essence.

Not long after I joined the Stornoway Trust, some people tried to make a case against us regarding our abuse of ‘religious privilege’. They took the OSCR guidelines on acting in your own interest and made a crude attempt at reinterpreting those. The charities regulator is very clearly talking about people who abuse their position for personal financial gain; not religious gain, whatever that may be.

What they were suggesting was impossible – that we should separate our Christian principles from our actions. So, where does that leave us?

Are we saying that people like me cannot be councillors, or primary school teachers, or MPs because we subscribe to the Bible? I cannot influence policy, or young minds because I hold to the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, that there are only two genders, that no one has the right to kill another person at any stage of life? Because I will not join the populist throng that says ‘anything goes’, I am to be silenced?

If that is, in fact, what we are saying, we have taken a very dark turn. While our society talks about love, it practices hatred. Where tolerance is writ large on rainbow coloured banners, persecution is just around the corner.

Its names are legion: humanism, secularism, pride, tolerance, diversity . . . but its aim is clear, and it should concern every one of us who truly values freedom. Any ideology or philosophy that thrives on the silence of dissenting voices is a sinister one.

Jesus met his enemies gently, with questions that challenged their misplaced certainties. Could it be that this is what those who march for tolerance while silencing debate truly fear?

Downcast, but not Outcast

Usually I look at the mirror only out the corner of my eye. I figure that’s the kind of glance most others will give me throughout the course of the day and anything that doesn’t scream at me out of the reflection – giant spot, cow’s lick etc – is unlikely to be noticed by a passing stranger either.

Sometimes, though, I’m brought up short. Lately, the circles under my eyes are darkening, and bags are starting to form. Altogether, I look uncannily like my Carloway granny. This will mean nothing to most of you, but suffice it to say that my late husband, when he wished to pay me a compliment, would remark on how lucky I was to have taken after the other side of the family. Let me tell you, things are bad when you’re hankering after the days people thought you might be from Achmore.

Eye bags and blemishes notwithstanding, this is still not the most disturbing reflection I have encountered this week. I have to confess to something of a struggle; one of those challenges to my faith that cannot simply be brushed aside. It is something I have heard often from others, and always tried to talk them out of – but lately I find myself tested by the same question: what are we supposed to do when the church behaves worse than the world?

There is no sense in pretending that this is not sometimes so. The Bible provides us with plenty examples of it – righteous men, like Jacob, for example, using deceit to achieve their own ends.

So, if it’s there in God’s word that a cheat can still enter the kingdom, who are we to doubt it?

This week, I have been disappointed by the behaviour of some fellow Christians. It is not something that needs to be discussed here, but it has caused me much reflection. And, as always, God provides direction. I shared a favourite Bible verse on Facebook – Peter’s exhortation that we should always be ready to give a defence of the reason for the hope that is in us – and I expressed sadness that no one ever asks for a reason; they merely mock my faith.

Might that not, however, someone pointed out, be my own fault? I should clarify, he wasn’t being unkind, and he didn’t single me out – he actually said ‘the fault of believers’. However, I am singling myself out, because he was absolutely right. If I don’t show forth the hope that is in me, who is going to ask about it? The very same day, in the course of searching for something else, I discovered an old tweet in which I was described as representing Christians the same way that Richard Dawkins represented atheists.

Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place. Unbelievers have consistently described me as ‘bitter’ and ‘hate-filled’ – because that is how I come across to them. I have failed to go where they are, to get alongside them, and to represent Jesus as what He is to me, and what He could be to them. Hung up on protecting our Christian heritage, I have somehow managed not to show love, but judgement.

This was never my intention. It just shows you, though, there’s a wide gulf between the person we see in the mirror and the face we present to the world.

We have to be careful of that. I am not suggesting that we compromise on the message, but that we have to be careful of its presentation. Of course, I know that a certain amount of whatever we might say will always be met with derision, regardless. At the weekend, I inadvertently offended a whole lot of the Twitterati by sharing the petition to retain prayers in parliament. It was deemed arrogant, and I genuinely don’t think that it was anything I wrote which gave this impression – simply the fact that some are determined to despise public expressions of faith.

I am downcast, but I have been downcast before. Failure in the Christian life is actually an opportunity to relearn that we are not to do this on our own strength, or in our own wisdom. Ironically, that’s exactly why I think all public bodies should preface their daily business with prayer.

We have, as Christians, to be doubly careful because, as the quote goes, the world may not read the Bible, but it will certainly read us – our lives, our conduct, our motivation, the way that we treat others. Instead of me being disillusioned by what I perceive as unChristian behaviour in others, I need to work a lot harder on the page I am presenting to the world myself.

Am I displaying Christ, and the unparalleled hope, the joyous freedom I enjoy in Him? Yes, I write about it, and I talk about it too – but am I living it? Do those currently outside Him look at me, and at my life, and see nothing there to recommend this path? Am I actually hiding the marvellous light from them, instead of testifying to it in a life filled with joy?

I am reminded of an old lady who was asked if she ever doubted her salvation. She replied that she would often pray to God that if He had not already begun a good work in her, please would He start now. It’s never too late to begin.

God doesn’t speak in order to dishearten us, but so that we might rebuild the wall where it may have tumbled down. He has given me my answer – never mind the speck in their eyes, but worry about the beam in your own. All the while I’ve been getting bent out of shape over the behaviour of others, I have been drifting away from where I ought to be. That is not God’s plan, but the enemy’s.

Spiritual Journey to a Destination Unknown

In a couple of weeks, I plan to visit Ness, to speak to the ladies of the WFM there. Believe it or not, I rarely address any group without having put some thought into what I will be saying. I have a technique which works reasonably well for me in this respect and I started to put it into practice this week, while driving my car.

Actually, a lot of my spiritual journey centres on the car and it was only while sitting in it, thinking about Ness, that I realised just how long this has been true for me.

Life became frantically busy last year, and each day I spend at least 50 minutes just driving to and from work. On the mornings when I am pushed for time, I wait until I am underway before speaking to God as I drive. At first, I felt guilty about doing this, as though I was being disrespectful. But then it dawned on me that I had always spoken to Him on car journeys . . . just that I was now doing it out loud, and calling it ‘prayer’.

And, this year, I have taken things a step further. I am following a plan which allows me to listen to the Bible being read over the course of a year. As soon as I start the engine each morning, therefore, David Suchet’s calm voice reads to me a portion from the New Testament, followed by a reading from the Old.

When I worked in Ness, I drove back and forth across the moor every day. I was single and living with my parents, and enjoying life. There was nothing to trouble my mind. To while away the miles, I began to listen to recordings of sermons our own minister had preached. This being well before the digital revolution, I was limited to the cassettes that were available to me and so I listened to some of these sermons repeatedly, and two in particular.

One spoke of God as a refiner of silver, retrieving the object from the fire only when it was finished, and the Maker could see in it His own image. The other favourite was on Paul’s famous utterance about God’s strength being made perfect in weakness. I loved these – yet if anyone had asked me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell why.

But I know now. Reflecting on it as I prayed over what to say to the ladies of Ness, I realised that all those years ago, God was preparing me. I was not in the midst of troubled waters yet, but I stored up the precious truths in my heart against a time when I would be. This was not because of my far-sightedness, but because of His.

When the man I had not yet met was taken from me, I would fall back on these precious words and the reassurance that they convey: God is not punishing you; He is drawing you closer to Himself.

That our eternal God plays the long game should not surprise us, but it should certainly give us comfort. We often speak about the difficult providences which we encounter, and the fact that we often cannot comprehend their meaning. I think it’s important to remember something else, though: God equips us for the journey He has set before us; not the one we think lies ahead.

I didn’t know why I was listening to those sermons repeatedly back then, but God was working in me the faith that would hold me to Himself when that was all I had.

It was sitting in my office in Ness that I enrolled on the very first Free Church Saturday course in theology. This was an uncharacteristically bold move on my part, because I was terrified that I would be the only non-Christian (I was) and possibly the only non-elder (I wasn’t) in the class.

By the time the Ness chapter of my life had closed, I found myself no closer to being a Christian. Although I had found happiness with my husband, and a new job, everything else seemed to have been a waste of time. The theology books I had bought sat in the bookcase, mocking me – reminding me of that other sermon message which replayed in my memory: do not begin building the tower, unless you are sure you have the tools to finish the job.

But that was just spiritual myopia, and a failure of faith on my part. I didn’t start the job – God did, and when He begins a good work in us, He will see it through.

Perhaps you are reading this, feeling discouraged, thinking you are no nearer to Him than you were many years ago. It’s just possible you feel that way because you don’t see what He sees: this is a journey, and He knows what you will need along the way. God is making sure that you are trained and equipped as you need to be for all that providence has in store.

It was because of this period in my life that I knew there was Someone there to catch me when I fell. There is no wasted time with God: He knows the plans He has for us, and every breath we take builds towards the moment when He calls us by name.

 

 

Fairies in the Church Hall & Light after Dark

Last Sunday, I sat quietly as the minister wagged his finger and said severely, ‘you know fine that was bad and wrong’. Trying to remember if he’d maybe seen me parked on a double yellow line, or if he knew about how I mess with the audio controls in the Seminary, I finally had the courage to look at him. To my relief, I saw that he was addressing his little dog. Once again, I had got away with it.

But, if he hears about this Friday , and the subject matter of the talk I gave at the senior fellowship, it’ll be the Session for sure.

I can say with some confidence that I’m the first person to talk to them about ghosts and fairies. There were a couple of elders present, so I avoided the topic of witches, just in case.

It wasn’t, of course, a practical lesson in how to spot fairies (they only have one nostril), nor how to keep them at bay (iron, oatmeal). Nor was I suggesting that they were ever real. Instead, I was trying to show how mankind was once in thrall to fear and superstition, until the light shed by Christianity in general, and the Reformation in particular, finally drove out the darkness.

More particularly, I was trying to draw parallels between that, and what happens in the life of the individual Christian as well, when they eventually see the light.

It’s a mystery that every believer must surely ponder on – how was it that I saw Christ, had Him brought before me repeatedly . . . and yet, didn’t see Him at all? Last Sunday, before bullying his diminutive canine, the minister fenced the communion table with a reflection on Isaiah 53. There is in that chapter a contrast. First, we have the Christ that our unbelieving eyes beheld – nothing in Him to attract us, punished because He had displeased God. But then, there is the realisation that this bruised and battered Christ is that way because of us; because He has taken our sin on Himself and died for it so that we don’t have to.

Surely, a battered man was never more beautiful than this.

I have seen physical suffering close to. My husband’s last weeks were not always easy. But, there came an end to his pain, and he did not have to endure the agony of God’s wrath.

He did not, and we do not, because Christ took that on Himself in order to spare us.

When you fully take that in, how then can his wounds and his bruises be other than lovely?

I’m realising that you can’t appreciate all of who and what He is right at the beginning of your Christian life. It is in the nature of enduring love to grow with knowledge; and there is no more enduring love than the one between our Saviour and His people.

It was not until I loved Him back that one phrase repeated throughout the Old Testament began to really terrify me. In Deuteronomy 32:20, ‘I will hide my face from them’; in Ezekiel 39, ‘I hid my face from them’; and the desperate pleas of psalms 55, 102, and 143: ‘do not hide Your face from me’.

Like a helpless child – which is what I am, spiritually speaking – I need to see Him, to reassure myself constantly that He is nearby. And it’s only when I accepted this dependence upon God that I began to fear that He might turn from me.

And I probably thought I was the only one until we were preparing for the communion last weekend, and the preacher said: ‘imagine the rest of your life if the Lord was silent’.

Imagine it? I prefer not to.

This doesn’t stem from any question over God’s faithfulness, but my own. When I first received assurance, but remained a secret disciple, I feared my own constancy. More than anything, I worried that this would be like all those times before – that the Word would become cold in my hands, and the prayers dry up. Every morning, I met God in prayer and reading; but I tormented myself with fear that, one day, I just wouldn’t go to the well. And that would be followed by another, and another, until these days of refreshing became a dim and distant memory.

I thought it was just me, until last weekend’s preparatory service, and the revelation that fear and faith often co-exist. Psalm 28 calls on ‘the Rock’, and pleads ‘be not deaf to me’, but the psalmist is not doubting God in the least.

When you have truly got to know God, you cannot doubt Him. But you can prize communion with Him so highly that you are terrified of being without it. Especially when you remember what you were before, and what you would be without Him.

When I gave my ill-advised talk about the Otherworld to the good folk of Stornoway Free Church, I was introduced as the author of ‘after darkness, light’. This blog, and my monthly column, of course, bear that title.

But, I am like the moon in that I would have remained in darkness, except that the true source of light shines upon me. What I am is not the author of light after darkness, but merely a reflection of the true Author’s work.

Drawing Out the Poison

I recently gave a talk on the power of words to heal and to harm. It was an exploration of the role played by incantation and charm in the field of folk medicine. This harks back to a time when our forefathers – and, more usually, our foremothers – used all their native wisdom in curing sickness with nothing to hand but nature’s own bounty.

They might chop up the root of lus nan laogh and boil it into a horrible brew which, despite its unbeguiling appearance, could soothe various stomach complaints. The leaves of this common bogbean might, on the other hand, be used to make a poultice for the drawing out of toxins.

I am no wise woman. Although I know a little about the use of plants and seaweeds to cure sickness, my understanding is purely cerebral. There is no instinct, no practical magic. It is possible for me to speak and write about such things because others before me have recorded their wisdom on how to use God’s providence in healing the sick.

God’s providence, as I have frequently observed here, is rarely for the individual alone. He neither gives nor takes spuriously, and we should not see His dealing in our lives as random. 

Right back at the beginning, when I started this blog, I wanted to share my experience of being a young widow in the Free Church in Lewis. Tired of hearing the worn-out, sellotaped together stereotypes of Wee Frees, I have tried to tell it like it is from the inside. I am not an official spokesperson (the men wouldn’t let me) and so I am free to say how things feel from where I stand.

I write for myself first. If I am struck by something, or chastened, or inspired, or filled with righteous indignation (everyone’s favourite), then I pick up a pen. Words are healing for me and it is my prayer every day that mine would never cause harm to others. Many who know me probably won’t believe it, but the last thing I would ever want to do is hurt anybody’s feelings. This is not because I am particularly good, but because I know for myself how the words even of  strangers can cut, and I have no desire to be the one inflicting that pain.

Sometimes, though, my writing seem to act more like a poultice, drawing poison to the surface and revealing just how toxic a situation is. When I have discussed social issues and attitudes which are contrary to Biblical teaching, I have brought the full venom of anti-Christianity down on my head. We live in a society, you see, which is pleased to call itself ‘tolerant’ but has way more rigidity and rules than a Wee Free could dream of in a hundred lifetimes.

I do not presume to pass judgement on lifestyles and experiences which are alien to me. Naturally, when I see something that is evidence of a life lived out of step with God, I am moved to pity. Not condescendingly or patronisingly, I hope, but as the person in the lifeboat spotting a man still drowning.

A lot has been said – much of it unjustly – about Christians and their ‘intolerance’ of anything at odds with how they perceive the world. I would like to see the balance redressed a little, and make a plea here for a bit more respect to be shown towards Christ, and the people who follow Him.

It would do my heart good to go a whole week without being exposed to the phrase ‘so-called Christians’. I received an email recently, peppered with those loathsome inverted commas and all that they imply. Then, there are those casual, yet incredibly arrogant value judgements from non-believers: ‘if you were any kind of Christian’. In the same week that I was threatened with being reported to the minister for being on the Stornoway Trust (he knows, he rigged the vote), I was told that no ‘good Christian’ would be involved in public life.

I wonder what the world thinks a ‘good Christian’ is? One who smiles all the time and helps old ladies cross the road? A bland, simpering person with no opinion on anything? It is my belief that those looking on from outside the resurrection expect their Christian neighbours to be perfect.

But in a world where there are no absolutes of good and bad . . . what does perfect look like? 

Well, I think I know. You are to agree nicely with everyone, even if their words are like shards of metal in your eyes. Never tell anyone they are wrong, or that their actions are an offence to God. In fact, the perfect Christian the world wants to see would never mention God at all. He spoils all the parties, all the marches, all the little lies we tell ourselves in order to make sin acceptable.

That’s why, whenever I write about our sin-sick society, there is a renewed outpouring of venom. It is the reason for the anonymous messages, and the belligerent emails. No one wants to hear that there is another, better way.

But it doesn’t matter. God’s truth has always acted like a poultice on us – as individuals, and as a society. We may rail against the remedy He offers, but when the greatest of all physicians chooses, He will cure all our maladies. 

The poison always has to be drawn up before healing can begin.

 

Carried Away by Passion

If you leave the windows on the west side of your house open, there is a risk that the sluagh – fairy host – will come and carry you off to their own country, a land of enchantment and confusion. It was a little like that for me on Friday evening when some folk from the west (well, Barvas) persuaded me to a place where nothing much was as I expected.

Even although it was our communion weekend in Stornoway, I had agreed to go with these enchantresses to view a production of Bach’s St John Passion at An Lanntair. We were intrigued by the idea that a venue which has cultivated such a reputation for hostility to the Christian faith should be hosting an evening of sacred music. Of course, I do not yet begin to hope that this is any kind of a softening of their position: evidently, many people consider this work by Bach to be great music and nothing more.

How very wrong they are.

It struck me quite powerfully, as I sat in church the following night, listening to the visiting minister preach about the two thieves on the cross. Both were in the presence of God, both heard and experienced the same thing; but one went, blaspheming, to a lost eternity, and the other to glory with his Saviour. And in every place where the gospel is preached, that is potentially true. Some will hear and believe; some will go on rejecting the salvation message.

I would imagine that there were some listening to, and perhaps also performing in, the St John Passion who would fall into the unbelieving category. They may have the highest appreciation for Bach’s undeniable talent as a composer, and they may very well think the libretto attractive, but that will be as far as it goes.

Except, of course, that is never as far as it goes. In fact, their decision to utter, or even just listen to the words of John’s gospel places them in a position of responsibility. Every time you have the truth placed before you, there are only two possible responses: acceptance or rejection. There is no third box marked ‘appreciation’.

This glorious – and beautifully performed – work is still, at heart, a proclamation of the gospel message. It carries the audience through the harrowing final hours of Christ’s life on earth. Each time I read that account, I feel a potent mixture of things: guilt, shame, empathy, gratitude. But, of course, when I read the Bible for myself, I do so in faith; and when I hear the gospel message preached, it is from men who have been called to proclaim it.

If you do not believe John’s account, then it cannot touch your conscience, nor move your heart. But neither does it leave you as you were before you heard it. Every instance of the good news being broadcast provokes a reaction.

Many years ago, I said to my parents, ‘I’m off to Martin’s Memorial to see the Messiah’. Ignoring my father’s wry rejoinder – ‘I doubt it’ – I set off in the company of some equally unbelieving friends to enjoy an evening of sublime music. Despite the fact that it draws significantly on Isaiah, some of the minor prophets, the Psalms and the Gospels, it didn’t bring me, there and then, to Christ.

I was, however, sufficiently impressed to buy a CD of ‘The Messiah’, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, which I listened to many, many times. Even when I wasn’t reading my Bible, I listened, and even when I didn’t see any beauty in the feet that brought good tidings, I thought this the most glorious noise I’d ever heard.

Music of this kind, though, is more than just sound: it’s ministry. Closing our eyes so that we can appreciate the beauty is fine; closing our ears so that we do not hear the still, small voice is not.

Although I was not converted the evening I first heard Handel’s beautiful composition, its message resonated with me throughout the years. Sometimes, in church, a verse would leap out at me and I would recognise it from his oratorio – crooked paths being made straight; comfort ye, my people; by his stripes we are healed.

The reason for that is to be found, not in me, not in the beautiful music, but in the book of Isaiah.

God’s word will not return to Him void, but will accomplish what He has sent it out to do. I need have no anxiety for those hearing the gospel message in whatever form it reveals itself to them, because He has a plan – for every note, every recitative, every rest in the great and glorious composition of which He is the author and conductor.

Whether An Lanntair knows it or not, last Friday, it was beaming out the word of God into its own auditorium. And from there, none of us knows where it might go. Pilate asked ‘what is truth?’ while standing before its living embodiment; but God opens eyes and hearts where He will.

Yes, even in an arts centre in Stornoway.