Churches, caravans and being apart

It is not untypical of either Lewis or social media that the weekend just past fairly bubbled with two controversies: the persistent influx of visitors to the islands, and the failure of some churches to heed government guidance on social distancing. These, of course, are not two issues, but one. The reason for both is simply that we have been spoilt, we have been used to everything turning out okay without much inconvenience to ourselves.

We humans, on some deep level, believe ourselves to be invincible. Bad things happen to others, not us.

A generation untouched by war or privation of any kind, we have grown hard-hearted. Oh, yes, we speak of social justice and helping the poor; we appease our own consciences with donations and sponsorships – but it is, too often, a cold charity. All this time we have been thinking our duty dispensed with a standing order here, and a retiring collection there.

Witness, though, how we conducted ourselves in the early days of impending crisis. A mad dash for food and soap, for toilet paper and anti-bacterial spray. Ransacking shops and leaving little for those who live from week to week. Retail assistants have been verbally abused, and even threatened; the elderly and poor abandoned to fend for themselves.

Whither now the social media virtue signallers or the ‘be kind’ brigade?

This disease is a great leveller. We are all at risk, and any one of us might die. Shame on us all, therefore, that the response has been so selfish. Not by everyone, of course, but by many. It is hardly surprising. Be in no doubt: here, we are reaping the foolishness we have sown. Like no previous generation, ours is drunk on the rights of the individual. When life was bumping along as normal, this meant that the poor and the elderly were trampled over, but no one noticed.

Now, the selfishness affects us all, and we are concerned. But we cannot figure out what to do.

Just as well there is an answer. There is even an example we can look to.

King Nebuchadnezzar famously hit a bit of a problem. He was, like ourselves, persuaded of his own sovereignty. Other people – his subjects – were equally sold on it. But then his sense of power kept smacking up against the true omnipotence of the God of Israel.

So do we. Only the most determined atheist can deny that God is speaking to us in a clear voice. Are we going to heed it?

Nebuchadnezzar was like us before Corona Virus hit. He walked on his palace ramparts and congratulated himself as the author of his own greatness and wealth. No sooner were the sinful words uttered than God spoke to him. The King would descend into mental illness and lose the kingdom for a period of seven years, at the end of which he would acknowledge God’s sovereignty.

We were walking in arrogance and pride until now. The world seemed inebriated with its own stolen power. Our first parents ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil – and since that day we have persistently chosen evil. All that he gave us, including our very own selves, we have warped and sullied with sin.

Where, even, to begin? Rampant consumerism, yet homelessness. The power to end life when it becomes inconvenient. God removed from public life, from education, and even from some of our churches. Unbridled reinterpretation of his ordinances. Truth made a lie, and lies accepted – enforced, indeed – as truth.

And, yes, a faithless, cold church. We have been too comfortable for too long, islands of complacency set amidst a sea of sin. We don’t love one another as we ought, and therefore, have nothing to offer the poor, lost world by way of a compass.

We have this providence now that surely will turn us back to the Lord. He has scattered his church, but then, his people were always thus. Occupying the same building is not what makes us a church, and perhaps he has removed that comfort blanket so that we will truly seek out what binds us – fellowship in him, strengthened by worship in spirit and in truth.

If he has to break us somewhat, it is only to build up his own church again. And that light, set upon a hill, should be a lamp to the feet of those who have wandered far from him, to bring them home.

Then, all this generation might say with Nebuchadnezzar that the Almighty is God indeed, ‘and none can stay his hand or say to him, “what have you done”?’

What he has done – is doing – ought to call us all to prayer. There is still time. 

Politics, prayer and my inner Pharisee

Last Saturday, I had coffee  with an incredible young Christian who, less than a week later, would find herself presenting the Scottish budget to Parliament at very short notice. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman and all that.

We talked about the challenge of being female and Christian in any kind of public role. I think it’s safe to say that she has demonstrated that these need not be obstacles to acquitting yourself well. While the jury (including the one in my own head) is still out on me, even in my much more local role, I struggle with the big questions, so any believing politician of national stature certainly has my sympathy and – much more usefully- my prayers.

The Bible is full of people in leadership roles who walked with God and still went wrong. So, if Solomon in all his wisdom could have his heart turned to idolatry, then I’m pretty sure that should serve as a warning to all Christians in public office today. How much easier, indeed, for the devil to get his way when believing leaders are in the minority, and apostasy is the norm. Anyone might succumb to following that particular crowd with the greatest of ease.

And how do you avoid the pitfalls of being a Christian in a democratically-elected position? Here in Lewis, organisations like the Comhairle and the Stornoway Trust customarily open their meetings with prayer. Whenever this comes up in conversation with other believers, they react positively. For the Christian, there is a view that anything of the slightest importance should be put in God’s hands, where all things rightfully belong. Beginning the business of local government in this way, therefore, reassures them that leadership is as it should be, deferring to the Lord.

So, local Christians breathe a little more easily.

Except, I’m a local Christian and it doesn’t do a whole lot to reassure me. Not even considering my own position as an elected member of one such group.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I am not opposed to prayer in the Trust or anywhere else. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I DO worry that those of us who are Christians in elected office, and those of us who are voting Christians, tend to content ourselves with very little. ‘Prayer’ can end up being as formulaic as any other standing item on the agenda.

And the prayerfulness often ends with ‘amen’. I speak from personal experience here. There have been many occasions where I have gone seamlessly from bowing my head in contemplation, to venting my spleen in exasperation. My thoughts, my utterances, my conduct, my motivation often fall short of what they should be.

But never mind: at least we’ve said the words. Who’s to notice when they get stuck on the ceiling and rise no further?

I am not criticising the people who pray; not at all. What I’m saying is that we cannot content ourselves with opening petitions, if our subsequent conduct doesn’t testify to our faith. We cannot keep on expecting God to bless our endeavours if we aren’t really giving them into his keeping at all.

Recently, I was party to a conversation about a public servant whose conduct had been dubious to say the least. ‘But he’s a Christian’, someone protested. Their subtext was not that we should, therefore, expect better of him, but that he was actually beyond reproach.

There is a real danger here, that Christians will fall into a trap of thinking their faith guarantees all their actions to be righteous. We are at risk of the arrogance displayed – albeit to fictional extremes- in James Hogg’s ‘justified sinner’. If I call myself a Christian, if I pray in public and speak out for Sabbath observance, well, I’m doing my bit for the cause.

And that’s my challenge. I worry about becoming a Pharisee if I haven’t already. Many people voted for me in the Trust election, I am quite sure, purely because they knew where I stood on ‘The Sunday Issue’.

Here’s the thing, though: I want to keep the Lord’s Day myself because I love him. I want other people to want to keep it for the same reason. Is it the role of Christian trustees, councillors, MSPs or MPs to impose such things on an unbelieving people? Or is it our responsibility to earnestly pray for guidance ourselves, to show forth the love of Christ in everything that we do, and give it all to God?

We often hear complaints that there are too few Christians in public life. That may well be true, but God has placed some there. Instead of worrying about packing the debating chambers with more believers, let’s pray for those who are already in place, that they would learn to act in his wisdom and in his guiding. And God, I am sure, will give the increase.

Religion, politics & doing your bit

If you don’t want to fall out with people in the pub or on the internet, you should steer clear of religion and politics. So, that’s cleared up why I’m so unpopular, then. According to one of my Stornoway Trust colleagues, I actually enjoy getting in the middle of arguments. Although I can see why some people might think that, it isn’t strictly true. Like most non-sociopaths, I certainly do not relish confrontation, but neither am I content to let lies spread unchecked, if they relate to a cause of any importance.

These days, as far as I am concerned, there is only one cause that fits into the aforementioned category, and that is the cause of Christ.

This does not mean, however, that I’m going to restrict myself to reading, speaking and thinking only of theological and spiritual matters. My understanding of what is required of me as a Christian is a little broader than that. In fact – and yes, I know I’ve said it before – I think that believing people have a duty to bring their faith into the orbit of their fellow human beings, whether that is at work, in the community, in public life, or on the internet. Indeed, we cannot leave it behind anyway, even if we wanted to.

At this precise moment in time, I don’t think we can ignore politics either, however much we might wish to. I know that Christians are having a particular difficulty in deciding how to cast their votes, because the reality is that none of the mainstream parties are saying what we would like to hear. If you consider the issues that matter more to believers than to the general public, there is no party out of the big four with policies a believing person can approve. I hear most about the party of which I am a member – the SNP – and their tendency towards support for unbiblical policy.

That is true. But it is also true for the other main parties as well. Neither Labour, the Conservatives nor the Lib-Dems could satisfy scripture in terms of their view on abortion, same-sex marriage, gender reassignment, or LGBT education in schools either.

So, what do we do? Tear up our polling cards and sit at home on December 12th? Or flounce off in high dudgeon and create our own party? That would certainly be in keeping with the Presbyterian way over the last two centuries. We have turned ‘schism’ into a verb, after all.

I have made no secret of the fact that I have wrestled with this issue myself. As a lifelong nationalist and member of the SNP, I have been disheartened by the direction of travel my party has taken of late. Nonetheless, I still believe in self-determination for Scotland and that – regardless of what some of my more overbearing brethren tell me – is not a point of view inconsistent with my adherence to the faith.

The reason, therefore, that I have remained a member of the SNP is that I am still a nationalist. I choose to vote positively, for what I do approve, rather than negatively, against what I do not. Withholding my vote from the SNP because of their stance on abortion, for example, would be somewhat hypocritical if I then put my ‘x’ next to any of the other big hitters – because their record is no better.

More importantly, I do not believe that we can legislate for morality. Nor, really, as Christians, should we want to. Our nation (however you choose to interpret the word) already suffers from the delusion that if people are ‘basically decent, law-abiding citizens’ then they have no need of Christ or his church. What do we achieve by imposing outward morality, then, on a country in state of spiritual decay? I don’t want Scotland to be a whited sepulchre; I want it to obey God’s law because it knows and loves the author.

Early on in the pre-election speculation, I am aware that a wee rumour circulated about me standing on a ‘Christian’ ticket. Despite atheist propaganda to the contrary, I didn’t even stand on such a platform for my election to the Stornoway Trust. I happen to think that it is not a ticket upon which a politician at any level should stand. Be a Christian, and let that speak for itself; let it inform your decisions and guide your behaviour, but never expect that anyone will cast their ballot your way simply because you follow Christ.

Far better for Christians to be part of the electable mainstream parties, and to be a force for change within, than impotent protestor without. It is not an easy matter, to be the lone voice for Christ in any situation – and that is why I fundamentally believe that Christians everywhere have to be tuned into the possibility that God may be asking them to serve him in a different way. We are not all bound to be ministers, or elders; they also serve who only stand for council . . . or parliament, or the grazing committee, or the community trust. Imagine these organisations transformed by the presence of genuinely God-fearing people, elected because they are able and conscientious, and for their personal integrity.

Now, stop imagining it. This is one of these situations, I’m afraid, where you have to quit looking around, quit expecting ‘someone to do something’.

Have you ever thought that someone might be you?

 

Comforting His People

, All summer, the blacker of my two cats – let’s call her ‘Mo’, for that is her name – has been largely absent from the house, except for the occasional visit to fill up on Whiskas and slap the dog. If I petted her, or even addressed a casual remark in her general direction, I was invariably met with a hard stare, or a high-pitched mew of disdain.

The moment, however, the weather turned a little colder, a little wetter and a lot windier, Mo became my best friend again. She can now mostly be found curled up in my wardrobe (don’t ask), or stretched on the radiator in the front hall. Cuddles are welcomed, and she even seeks out my company from time to time. However objectionable my personality and conversation, Mo clearly realises when she’s onto a good thing – I am a warm and cuddly guarantee of food and shelter. In short, I am her source of comfort.

For human beings, there are two levels of comfort. There is the ordinary, everyday kind – or, at least, it’s seen as such by we privileged westerners – which consists of all the things we take for granted: warm, clean clothing, a secure home, income, a steady food supply, good health and good healthcare, relative peace and safety.

I don’t know why, particularly, but this morning I was moved to thank God in prayer for the howling wind and driving rain sounds to which I awoke, to which I often awake. They remind me of my blessedness in living where I do, in a place I love, and in a home which is a stronghold against the elements.

The other level of comfort, though, is a deeper one – it caters to our emotional and spiritual needs. Like Mo, our craving for it can be particularly acute during the onset of a soul-shaking storm.

We heard in church recently how the idea of comfort in the Bible carries with it the sense of getting alongside the person who needs it. It is not unusual, when we anticipate going to the home of a bereaved family, to worry that we will not know what to say, as though the perfect choice of words from us could make any difference at all. The words don’t matter; the being there does. And, comfort comes from knowing that there is solidarity in grief, which is surely the most universal of all human experiences.

This week, two families I have come to know and love in the Lord have parted with loved ones. In their different ways, these deaths have touched the church and wider community in Scotland. It isn’t simply that Anna and Murdo Alex were so young, though that cannot fail to give the hardest of hearts a thought of eternity. I think it is the strength of their faith that compels everyone standing near to confront the fact that this comfort which we get from God, it’s real. There is no quick-fix, this’ll make you feel better for now-ness about it – this is the solid, all-encompassing, unchanging, faithfulness of God writ large across the lives, and deaths, of those who love him and, more crucially, whom he loves.

He has created his church as a body, to experience his providence – easy or challenging – collectively. I tend to think that’s what Ecclesiastes is getting at when it says, ‘in the day of prosperity, rejoice, but in the day of adversity, consider’. We learn something in our own providences, yes, but it is something we were made to share with the rest of God’s people too. I feel able to speak to people who have lost loved ones, from a place of greater understanding because it has been part of my own experience too.

The thing is, though, I hope that what I’m sharing is not so much my experience of death as my receipt of God’s comfort. For me, the miraculous thing is not that I got through the worst thing that has ever happened in my life, but that I was comforted by the presence of my Saviour, and by my knowledge of his sufficiency in that and all things.

That received sense of peace would be meaningless were it not for the complete trustworthiness of the source. A made-up God that I was choosing to believe in would be a thin comfort blanket indeed against the chills of grief. Yet, poor unbelievers persist in the delusion that Christians ‘choose’ to accept the existence of God as a crutch to get them through.

God exists; that is not up for debate. It is not the mere existence of God which keeps his people in their darkest hours, however – it is his provision, through Christ, of a love that will not let them go. Our relationship with him is often at its most beautiful when we need him most. Hardship and trials in this world, even those less painful than bereavement, drive us into his arms.

It does not remove, or even lessen our difficulties in this world, but it does help put them in their proper perspective. We are the body of his church, and what hurts one, should pain all. Equally, the comfort which we individually receive at his hand is for sharing, that we might bear one another’s burdens.

“ ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’, says your God” – not empty words, not a ‘there, there’ pat on the hand, but a prelude to his own coming among us in the person of his Son.

That’s comfort of the most complete, all-encompassing kind. And there is no comfort apart from him. I know, because it is mine, and it is enough.It will  always be enough.

 

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

In ‘Bambi’, Thumper’s mother advises him, ‘if you can’t say nothing nice, then don’t say nothing at all’. It was very much in this spirit that I refrained from blogging over the last few weeks. Every time I tried to put finger to keyboard, a host of ideas would march in hobnailed boots through my mind, and I found that I didn’t want to share them with you.

There is, right at this present moment, enough ugliness in the world. I am tired of the brutal language from parliament; I am weighed down by the solemn-faced teenager from Scandinavia who speaks to us of apocalypse; and I am tired in my heart at the many ways in which I encounter discouragement and opposition. It is so very easy to feel that you are making no difference to the world at all, except by contributing to global warming and voting for the wrong people to govern us.

It’s at moments like these, more than at any other that we have to rest on the promises which are ours in Christ. This really is no continuing city; the road we are on, as Christians, will carry us far beyond all of the strife and fear that sin has created, into the haven of eternity in his presence.

Meantime, however, is it possible for us to retain our grip on that peace whilst avoiding the accusation that we are too heavenly minded to be any earthly use?

Yes, I think it is.

For me, a particular verse from scripture has become very important in all of this. Naomi, speaking to Ruth, advises, ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out’.

Even reading it floods me with a sense of the difference between God’s purpose and our understanding of it. We know that he has his own timing, his own plan, and yet we continue to behave as though these are our hands upon the steering wheel, and our foot on the accelerator.

I have taken that verse to heart because it has a very practical application. Recently, I received news that was simultaneously concerning and disappointing. My initial reaction was negative, and then I remembered Naomi’s wisdom. We are so quick to assume that something is ended because it feels that way for us.

Do we not believe that the Lord blessed Job even more in the second half of his life than in the beginning?

If we do, then we have to live believing it. By that, I don’t just mean that we have to live while believing it; I mean we have to live out our belief in how we think, in what we do, and how we are with other people.

I thought, the day I married my husband, that this was God’s intention for me. And, indeed, so it was – it was his intention that we should have eleven years and eight months of marriage. The last few months were not filled with the same kind of happiness we had known, of course, because they were marred by pain and sadness. That, however, was not some aberration from God’s plan. We – Donnie and I – had not foreseen, nor desired such a thing, but it was in our providence. We take the good things from God’s hands unquestioningly, never doubting our deserving of them; why, then, would we question the same hand when it deals with us in ways we would not choose?

So, let’s take that individual lesson, which so many of us have learned at some point in our journey, and apply it to the world around us.

It would be easy to be overwhelmed by grief at the state of God’s cause in our midst. I have grown up in a country which increasingly ignores his imperative, and countenances the murder of the unborn child, the warping of the biological code, the reinterpretation of marriage. In a well-intentioned move not to demonise people for their differences, we have deified those very differences. The apparent conclusion of all this is that we will continue to be wise in our own sight, and shut God out of his own creation forever, just as he cast our first parents from Eden.

Mankind seems bent upon avenging Adam through warfare with God. Parents wilfully prevent their children from being exposed to the truth, in open defiance of the contract that says they should raise their families in fear and admonition of the Lord. They admit no such contract; they admit no God but their own reason.

Yet, I am not overwhelmed by grief. Instead, I consider Naomi’s words again: ‘Wait, my daughter . . .’

God is not finished. Into such a maelstrom of sin and rebellion, he has come many times, and bent the people to his will. What cause have we to believe that this is any different?

The Bible assures us that he does not leave himself without witnesses. While this is true, we may feel at time that our numbers are too few to fight so many foes on so many different fronts. This has certainly been my own feeling during the darker nights of discouragement in my soul.

Then, though, I remember that the fight is not ours, but his. Just as in our own personal circumstances, we trust that God is working everything for good according to his purpose, we have to see all of creation in that same light. Global warming, prorogued parliaments, abortion, war . . . everything is accounted for in his plan.  He will make good his promises to us, and we have to keep faith with him.

That doesn’t mean wringing our hands or turning our faces to the wall. The world, however broken, still has a chance. While we wait to see what wonders God will do, we must be about his business more urgently, because it isn’t over until he calls time.

The Way To Go Home

He didn’t look like a threat of any kind, this visiting minister. Taller than what we’re used to, certainly, but of otherwise benign aspect, I unwittingly settled into my pew and surveyed that Sunday morning’s ‘Bulletin’ – and there it was: undeniable proof that we were actually dealing with a dangerous radical. Psalm 118, right enough, but the Sing Psalms version, to be sung while the elements were laid for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Trying to quell my panic, I looked up at the pulpit, and saw our own minister leaning forward, whispering something to the visitor. Ah, I thought, he’ll be pointing out the mistake; he’ll sort this out. Imagine, then, my feeling of betrayal, of abandonment – which I’m quite sure the rest of the congregation shared – as we rose to sing the modern rendering after all.

He had mentioned in his sermon about our tendency towards ‘Jesus plus’. We’ve all heard this before, this human propensity to complicate the saving truth of the Gospel, and to believe salvation requires some input from ourselves. Of course, it doesn’t; God saw what our efforts were worth back in the Garden of Eden. But this radical visitor elaborated on the theme. Adding to Jesus can take many forms, including – he said – our own preferences.

These words came back to me as I sang 118, not to the old, familiar Coleshill, but another tune entirely. Did it matter? Or was I just taken a little bit outside the comfort zone of tradition? I like what I’m used to, but it’s hardly the end of the world if something happens a little differently.

In my folklore classes, I try to teach students about the notion of motifs in traditional tales. There are many versions of, for example, ‘Cinderella’, from a lot of different cultures. Some aspects of it vary from place to place: the characters’ names, perhaps, or their occupations. These things don’t matter very much to the integrity of the story, however. What remains the same becomes a motif, an essential ingredient that cannot be removed without altering the whole message and nature of the narrative.

Well, so it is with celebrating the Lord’s Supper. If he is the host, and we are his people; if we are there to remember his death and be strengthened in faith by meditating upon who he is and what he has done, does it matter which version of a psalm we sing? He is the author and finisher of our faith, not us.

Why, then, would we think that Christ needs our help? This same Jesus who, our visitor pointed out, had been subject to all the traps of this world, yet evaded them in order to present Himself, blameless and clean to God as a sacrifice in our stead – what could we possibly add to Him? I know that I am still liable to be trapped by sin, and even to willingly permit myself to be when it comes to certain of my pet failings. Contrary to what the world thinks we believe of ourselves, Christians do not esteem themselves perfect; it’s just that we recognise sin but – sadly –still sometimes do it anyway.

I suppose that’s one of the main differences between Christians and the world. Having had that meaningful encounter with Jesus, the absolute of truth, you can see where your life is out of true. After all, a line will only be recognised as squint when it’s compared against one that is perfectly straight. If you have not met and been changed by Him, however, you have absolutely no chance of knowing just how far your life has departed from the right road.

So, when we are witnessing – actively or passively, through our conduct – the first, last and most important thing we can do is show people Christ. Otherwise, we risk repeating the mistakes made by the Kirk Session at Cramond who tried to impose godliness on the people of the parish. I’ve been reading Alison Hanham’s book, ‘Sinners of Cramond’, based on the minutes of the Kirk Session over two centuries, and it offers a black and white account of just how futile this is.

It is why, despite much criticism, I stand by what I have said previously about picketing Pride marches or other worldly gatherings. Unless we are telling people about Christ or – better still – bringing them to Him, we are simply exercising our own vanity. We are, whether we intend this or not, being perceived as saying, ‘I’m better than you; I would never live as you do’.

This is why we have ongoing debate about Sunday opening in Lewis. People like me have unwittingly given the impression that the day is the thing that matters; it isn’t. What matters is that people would know Christ for themselves. Then, neither golf nor swimming, nor coffee, nor films would seem all that important – because life would no longer be all about pleasing themselves.

But we have to get better at communicating that fact. I love Sundays in Lewis because they are, for me, an oasis in a frantic week in which I can spend proper time in prayer, in reading, in worship, and in rest. It isn’t my job – or my right – to prevent others spending their Sunday as they wish. It is, however, my privilege to do everything in my power to change their minds so that they will submit freely to the power of Christ.

Others did as much for me. I was not won over by the suggestion that it was sinful to stay away from church, but I was drawn in by the irresistible message of salvation. Christ is enough. And, after last weekend, I am more persuaded than ever that all He requires of us is to point to Him, to His beauty, and to His sufficiency. Show them the Way, and He will bring them home.

 

 

The Offensive Truth

It’s all getting a little bit boring. I mean, irony is all very well in its place, but I have had it with reading what the so-called ‘progressives’ in our society have to say about the sincerely-held beliefs of Christians. They talk about tolerance, and they talk about everyone being free to do what they want, and believe what they want . . . but they just can’t shut up about it for one minute, can they? For people who don’t believe in God, they sure love talking about him. Any and every chance they get, those so-called unbelievers are tweaking the nose of the Almighty.

Now, if they were here (and I suspect that some of them may be), they would tell you that they find Christian beliefs so laughable that they cannot permit our childish fantasies to inform or influence public life and policy. Or – and I actually saw this from someone on social media last week in response to local decision making in Lewis – they will say that they cannot permit Christians to bully the rest of society into following a lifestyle that society has rejected.

I have a few issues with this. First of all, there is the arrogance inherent in judging my beliefs when you do not share them. Every believer has had the patronising, ‘comfort blanket’ remarks lobbed at them. Indeed, if that were all my faith amounted to, it would be an inadequate covering in times of trouble, and atheists would be justified in mocking. But it is much more. Would that the ‘progressives’ would use their much vaunted reason to consider the possibility that Christians have experienced something that they have not. If I have come to a different conclusion about God, then perhaps it is because I have seen evidence that you have – thus far – not.

Secondly, and I apologise for repeating this yet again, my holding of a different worldview does not make me a demagogue. Last year, while pretending to be reasonable, the local branch of Secularists Anonymous repeatedly invited me for coffee via Facebook, so that they could ‘explain why secularism is no threat to your faith’. I didn’t accept their disingenuous offer because, amongst other things, I already knew that their secularism was no threat to anything I believe. My hope is pinned upon something immovable and unchanging. Only the most arrogant person could think a Christian would feel threatened by their puny doctrine.

By the same token, however, should unbelievers not realise that my having different views to them is no threat – particularly if they are right and I have the intellectual capability of a small child, believing in a non-existent God? Yet, here in Lewis and further afield too, Christians get accused of bullying for . . ? Well, for adhering to the principles of their faith.

We skirt around this sometimes because it’s difficult, and because I’m afraid there are some branches of Christianity which have allowed the world, and even its own followers to exist on a mistaken interpretation of the phrase, ‘God is love’.

Yes, he is: God IS love. That means that he is the very definition of it, the template for it, and the yardstick by which all other manifestations of love are measured. While he is love, God is also truth. God is the blueprint for all that is right. And he is the ultimate in grace, in holiness, in perfection.

That’s who I am – inadequately – trying to follow. If you haven’t seen him for who he is yet, you cannot know what I know, or see him as I do. He showed me who I was and where I was headed and you know, Christ did me the greatest favour of all by being the very opposite to what the world asks.

If he had been the kind of Saviour our society has tried to build for itself, he would have showed me myself, and he would have said, ‘that’s you, with all your flaws and the blackness of sin – but I accept you that way, because it’s part of your identity, and it’s fine’.  Christ would have told me that if I was happy in the way I was living my life (and I was), and as long as I didn’t purposely hurt others, he’d take me at face value.

That’s not what he does, though. He couldn’t. Society is a mirror that has taught us to say that we can be whatever we want as long as our intentions are good. But it has taken away the gauge by which we measure what ‘good’ means. No wonder we’re adrift, seeking answers in our own flawed wisdom.

Christ, on the other hand, shows us what we are in comparison to him, in light of what he is and what he has achieved for us. I have seen myself time and again, measured against his perfection and found badly wanting. Yet, I have also seen his free offer of the grace that will mould me in his image in the fullness, not of time, but of eternity.

This Christ doesn’t want me to be a bully. It was not how he persuaded people to follow him, and it is not how he would have his church behave. You cannot impose salvation or the freedom of identity in Jesus upon people who are wilfully blind. I cannot make those who have not seen themselves in his light understand that I am not brainwashed, nor enslaved – but committed to following him as faithfully as I can.

That means I will believe things that seem hurtful to them, because they don’t yet realise that, while a lie comes in many editions, the truth only ever had one. We can reinterpret the facts to suit our own narrative, we can deny them a voice, and pretend that they do not exist – but in the heart of every believer, the truth burns as an everlasting and immutable flame.

I’m sorrier than I can say if shortcomings in me, or the church to which I belong have caused people to believe that there is a softer version of Christianity that permits people to live just as they please, to exercise the power of life or death based on convenience, or to write large tranches of the Bible off as irrelevant.

There is no such Christianity. One Christ and one truth – these are all we have. Once we have them, though, we come to realise that they are all we need.

 

 

No sheilings in heaven

I recently took my dog – a gangly, daft collie named Mr Roy – for a walk out to the Pentland Wind Farm. He loves it for pretty much the same reason it appealed to the developer: Wind. Mr Roy loves to feel the breeze rumple his hair. Sniffing and lolloping about, he barely takes any heed of our surroundings, wherever we go.

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On the other hand, I find the place conducive to much thinking. Its solitude promotes meditation.

My mind went back to a conversation I had with my father many times, about his grandfather’s sheiling, out beyond Loch Lacsabhat Àrd. He talked about it often to me, saying that it had a special, peaceful atmosphere. It was evident that, for him, the site of that àirigh had an almost spiritual significance. It held, of course, the sweet fragrance of memory – of people he had loved, and a departed way of life.

I understand that better now. His own passing was the first breach in our small family circle. And I nurse special recollections of places that were dear to him, and where we were all happy together.

Place, and people, and love: they are impossible to separate from one another.

As I walked along the road with Mr Roy, I thought about that day, twenty-five years ago, when my father and I drove out to the Pentland Road – an impromptu spin on an evening in late summer.

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We used to spend quite a lot of time together. A walk here, a drive there, evenings on the croft at Doune. Our conversations were real – about the place, about our history . . . and always, in the end, about spiritual things. He lived his Saviour for long years before he professed faith as an old man. I see that now too. At the time, it was just part of who he was, and I was too blind to see why we both always longed to talk about God while out in His creation.

On this particular day, however, there was something different. Even as he parked the car, I could see that his thoughts were gathering in a particular direction. At long last, we were going in search of his grandfather’s sheiling.

It was no more than an hour’s walk into the moor. Being early August, it was warm, dry and full of midgies. They hastened our steps and made conversation difficult, but did nothing to dampen my anticipation.

Eventually we reached the place where the àirigh had once stood, marked by a few stones scattered across the green sward. We paused just long enough to take some photos and to get our breath back. As we both surveyed the scene, our eyes met, and I could read the question in his. I nodded. Yes, I could feel what he had described: peace and tranquillity of the best and simplest  kind.

All these years it had been a memory to my father, and an enticement to me. We had spoken of it so often that I felt I too had been there. He was obviously afraid that we might go there only to find an ordinary moorland glen, just like countless others.

It was far from it. These many years later, as I took an easier route through the moor, along a road built by progress, I recalled that other walk. With my father going before me, the way had been easy, and the destination absolutely sure.

Afterwards, we talked frequently about the evening we found the sheiling. Our conversation had changed because now I had seen for myself all he had sought to describe. It had been so beautiful in my imagination, but its loveliness was enhanced once we were able to share that memory.

I know that we talked about God a lot. My father clearly felt His presence in the places that he loved. Sometimes, even now, when I sit in church, I remember when we would go there together, and the talks we had afterwards. It’s only human, I suppose, to regret that I didn’t tell him then what the Lord was to me too. Of course, I didn’t really know myself that He was precious, or that I was His. But I know it now; I know that He walked with us out towards the old àirigh. He witnessed the conversations on which His own presence lingered and, as we stood in contemplation of the place, God held us in the hollow of His hand.

At my father’s funeral, a woman I didn’t know said to my mother, ‘he’s in the happy land’. Her words stirred something in me. I knew she was speaking of a place that my father had longed for; that he was standing there at that moment, looking around himself and swathed in peace.

I realise now that this was the beginning of another journey for me – towards assurance. It took almost four years, and another loss, before my eyes settled on that green sward of memory. Then I saw what had been true all along: God leading me on a walk, not to a transient summer dwelling, but homeward to my Father’s house, in which there are many rooms.

 

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.