The Reliable Robin

‘See that cute wee bird’, one of the gentlemen of the Trust said, gesturing in my direction. I preened a little, sitting straighter in the chair. ‘It’s the most vicious, territorial, aggressive thing you’ll ever come across’. A bit harsh, I thought, considering I’m always on my best behaviour at meetings. When I objected to the accusation, though, he claimed to be talking about the robin redbreast pattern on my dress.

It seems (according to the bloke in question who evidently relished labouring his deliberately ambiguous point) that the very attractive little birds for whom we all feel such affection are feathery sociopaths, possessive and territorial in the extreme. At this time of year, their image is everywhere: on mugs, Christmas cards, cushions . . . and even clothing. Hanging on a hook in my porch is a little wooden heart, which bears the legend, ‘robins appear when lost loved ones are near’. This is part of the comforting folklore that lets people believe that stray feathers, friendly robins and even butterflies are a message to them from someone who has died.

Our association between the robin and Christmas may simply be because he is a colourful fellow who appears to good effect against a wintry landscape. However, I prefer to believe that it’s because of the folklore which connects the little bird to Christ.

In one story, Mary has kindled a fire in the stable in Bethlehem, to keep the baby warm. She is distracted by a visitor, and does not notice that she has placed the manger too close to the blaze. A little brown bird comes and fluffs out his wings, shielding the baby’s face from the heat of the flames, scorching his own breast in the process.

In light of this fable, then, the robin is a very apt symbol of Christmas. More importantly, though, he is a good metaphor for Christ’s own love – the love that goes out to others and sets self at naught. The bird who shielded the baby suffered for it, but what a worthy recipient for his act of selflessness! Which Christian would not want to have done as much?

It’s difficult to make the time to reflect upon Christ at this time of year. We have so thoroughly removed him from the festival that bears his name, and filled that void with things that have nothing to do with him – eating and drinking, partying and spending – and that are transient pleasures at best. But then, just as the robin is a suitable metaphor for Christ, the modern ‘celebration’ of Christmas is a vivid reflection of what a life lived purely for oneself looks like.

I am particularly blessed to belong in a congregation that marks the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday in December – the one usually recognised in other traditions as Advent Sunday. There is always something in the communion that I can take away and meditate upon, and that has helped me to think more about the sort of Saviour upon whom I depend. Lately, I have not been able to forget the minister’s words regarding Christ’s thanksgiving on the night he was betrayed; even in that proximity to death, he was looking upwards, his eye upon pleasing the Father.

Since communion Sunday, I have been thinking about what followed on from that prayer. Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, alone and fully aware of what lay ahead. Our humanity gives in to fear because we allow it. Jesus subdued his by being obedient and keeping his eye on God. Indeed, we witness him throwing himself completely  upon God’s mercy, and subjecting himself to God’s will in the fervent prayer that he utters.

In his place, not only would I have begged the cup to pass from me, but I would have dashed it away myself.

And there’s the difference between the likes of me, and the unparalleled Christ. He suffered to the limit of that tension every Christian knows in some respect: to want to obey God, but to be terrified of what obedience to him may mean for us personally. The inconvenient truth is that he is likely to send us places we don’t wish to go, or to suffer partings for which we are unprepared. Almost every time I have sought his will in making a decision, it has cost me something to obey. On the other hand, however, it has earned me much greater peace than doing exactly what I want ever could.

Jesus knew that being obedient would result in his death – and he also knew that it was necessary that he drink the bitter cup to the very last drop: not, crucially, to save himself, but to save us. In reflecting on this, it’s hard not to feel how far short I fall of the ultimate pattern of obedience, and of making my will subject to that of God.

In another tale, the robin was said to have landed on the head of our crucified Saviour, and plucked out of his brow a thorn from the crown that had been placed there in cruel mockery of his kingship. The little bird’s breast was stained red by the blood of the last, perfect sacrifice.

I am like that particular robin. All I had to do was alight upon Jesus and be sprinkled with his blood. The amount he has asked me to suffer, in proportion to his own agonies, is less than that one thorn – and even when I am injured, it is his blood the enemy draws, not mine.

What better time than Christmas to fix our hearts upon these truths? And how apt to remember, every time we see the robin, how Christ went against his human will so that we could accept his gift of life.


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 Minister and the Otherworld

‘Our minister’s away with the fairies’, might very well have been the intimation from the Rev Robert Kirk’s pulpit following his disappearance in 1692. You see, his congregation did not believe that he had died, but rather, that he had been kidnapped off to fairyland. His interest in the creatures of the Otherworld had finally – they thought – been his undoing.

What was his interest? Well, strange as it sounds now, fairy belief was so prevalent at the time that Kirk felt it necessary to write a treatise on their nature. Two common ideas – that they were the spirits of infants who had died without baptism, or that they were fallen angels – could not be countenanced by him, or by the church. Instead, he sought to displace these heretical theories by investigating for himself and laying out his findings in a book, ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies’.

His conclusion was that they were ‘of a middle nature, twixt man and the angels’. It’s an unusual statement for more than one reason. Firstly, well, a minister who believed in fairies. . . If that was nowadays, the very least he could expect would be some odd looks at Session meetings. Secondly, anyone with the most rudimentary grasp of scripture will know that God made man a little lower than the angels, so Kirk was essentially placing fairies above mankind. Above us, yet not perfect like the angels. The fairies required appeasement, and careful handling. Without warning, they might mete out punishment, or simply take from mankind what they coveted.

The writer, Ronald Black, described the function performed by fairyland for our ancestors as similar to modern soap opera. It was a medium for exploring and working out social dilemmas and concerns. To put it another way, it was humankind trying to sort itself out in a way that excluded God. Poor Kirk was somehow trying to accommodate fairy belief into his theology, but it was always going to end badly.

If we humans are proof of anything, we are proof of our own lostness. No matter how bad we make things for ourselves, we still think it’s somehow up to us to fix it, and that we’re capable of fixing it. And, in the absence of God, we have constructed our own doctrine. Just be nice, do no wilful harm, be kind to the poor. Tolerate everything as long as it hurts no one. It will all be fine in the end.

Not like that, it won’t.

Kirk was making the kind of mistake you would hope no modern minister would make. Sometimes, what secular culture thinks is fine, is really not. There are times when what the world wants has to be opposed by Christ’s church. You can’t always accommodate it and you shouldn’t always try. It falls to His followers to hold up a hand and gently say, ‘no further’. And it’s a challenge. No one wants to be called a killjoy, or a bigot, but then, they called our Saviour worse.

I see our local Christian Party candidate being soundly mocked and derided by the usual social media suspects. He has had the temerity to subscribe to Biblical teaching and not conform to the right-on views of the secular lobby. As far as I can make out, his approach is informed by God; their view is shaped by no authority superior to their own. By that logic, if they say his beliefs, or my beliefs are stupid/bigoted/immature, well, then they are. They probably think I’ve been told by my church to vote for him as well. (Obviously I haven’t – the elders don’t know that women have the vote now, and I’m not going to be the one to break it to them.)

Christians have to live in this world for a time, but they should never belong to it. Kirk’s mistake was to think he could walk too closely with worldly ignorance and still be safe. There were two things which might have released him from the enchantment which held him: iron and salt.

We must pray for a good measure of both in our walk through this world.

Glamorous witches and grammar lessons

Words are very powerful – written, or spoken, they have the capacity to build up, or to tear down; to encourage, or to dissuade. I have often spoken unwisely, wished my last sentence unsaid, or regretted the line I failed to add at the end of a note, or email, or the word of encouragement I could have dropped into a waiting ear. So many people have been kind to me, have reassured me, have taken an interest in whatever nonsense I had to say. . . but did I do the same for them? Too often, I know I fall short, despite being full of love and admiration for so many of my fellow humans: even some of those I know personally.

We are reticent people here in Lewis. Not long ago, I complimented an elder on his precenting that evening in church. He actually reeled backwards, as though I’d physically struck him. Perhaps, on reflection, that says more about my habitually sarcastic tone than it does about his ability to graciously accept praise. Nonetheless, it taught me a valuable lesson. It is wise to reflect on how infrequently I offer the kind observations that are in my mind, and how readily I manage to unleash the other variety.

Compliments were, historically, frowned upon in these parts, though. Remarks such as, ‘your cruach looks beautiful in the moonlight’ were viewed less as a prelude to romance, and more as a prelude to some serious peat thieving. To point out the beauty of a person’s cow would, today, merely be regarded as a bit weird. People would assume that you didn’t get out much, and that small-talk wasn’t really your forte. In your great-granny’s day, however, it would be seen as a possible precursor to witchcraft of the sort that left your cow producing skimmed milk. Fine, you might think, have a skinny latte and get on with it. Not your great-granny, though: she would have recourse to her own, or someone else’s eolas.

Eolas was what you might call a spell, or a charm. It usually combined ritual with verses of some sort, which were to be uttered in order to relieve the ill-effects of the evil eye. Witches were known to keep such valuable words in a book known as a ‘grimoire’, which comes from the same root as ‘grammar’.

Yet, despite these dark associations, the two most abiding grammar lessons I ever received were when I was sitting in church.

Just recently, a visiting preacher reawakened a precious memory for me. He read from 1 Corinthians 1:18 and I remembered the first time, nearly twenty years ago, that I heard a minister use the phrase ‘being saved’. I still recall that feeling, like a small spring bubbling up in my heart, joyous that salvation could be described as a process. Even now, I don’t fully understand why it made me so glad.

But it IS real cause for joy. Something that is called ‘the present progressive tense’, when applied to God’s work, has two great qualities: it is NOW and it is GROWING. ‘Being saved’ is better, even than simply ‘saved’, I think, because it reminds us of the Lord’s activity on our behalf, and in our lives all the time. Because He is present, we are progressing.

And the other grammar lesson? Some weeks – possibly months – ago now, our minister preached on Jesus’ command to us, if we do not yet know Him, simply to ‘come’. You can see in your mind’s eye, His hand stretched out towards you, imploring you not to delay. There are so many reasons not to put it off, but the main one relates to a straightforward question of grammar too; as the preacher reminded us: ‘the imperative has no future’. His command for us to come means, ‘come now’.

From the same source as  ‘grammar’, and ‘grimoire’, we also get ‘glamour’. Oh, not the kind we associate with supermodels and sirens of stage and screen. No, this was the indefinable magnetism witches used in order to draw you to themselves. It is the same glamour that the world uses to attract us, and ensnare us. Ultimately, we will discover that it’s empty, just a pale ghost of a thing, without form or substance. But, ultimately is too late.

Jesus wants us to come now, so that we may be among those who are being saved. He wants us to pick His grammar over the glamour of the world, and it is imperative that we listen – now.

The Seer and the Promise of Rain

There was a time when every village in the Highlands and Islands would have had a taibhsear, a person gifted with the ability to see into the otherworld of ghosts and death. These people operated at a different level to the seer, whose concerns were less domestic and frequently strayed into national issues. No, the taibhsear was mainly plagued by visions of phantom funerals, of shrouds on his neighbours, and of the visitation of death to the locality.

In discussing these aspects of our heritage with students, I am frequently asked why the gift of second sight seems to be in retreat. Of course, I am not qualified to give a definitive answer to that – no one is – but I do have my own thoughts on it.

Firstly, why do we use the word, ‘community’ so frequently nowadays? It derives from the Latin, communitas and was originally a noun of quality, meant to name, not a physical place, but a feeling of fellowship, of unity, of oneness. In Lewis, my parents’ generation and all of those preceding would never have dreamt of using the word: in Gaelic, they talked about ‘baile’ and in English, ‘village’. The rest was implied. ‘Anns a’ bhaile againne’, meaning, ‘in our village’, was a frequently used phrase which took as read all of those attributes with which we now associate the word, ‘community’. People lived in close proximity to one another, shared a similar worldview and an almost identical experience of life.

Also, if you go back far enough, they feared the same things. The threat of illness, and of death hovered near them and manifested itself in belief relating to the fairies, to the evil eye and to witches. Many of life’s events can seem random and unexpected. If, however, you can anticipate them to some degree, you may regain a little power. To a certain extent, you can even take the sting from death if you see it coming.

And secondly, isn’t it possible that such closeness bred something else – an instinct, an intuition for your neighbours, as much as for your own family? Look at Derick Thomson’s description of a Lewis sky:

Probably there’s no other sky in the world
That makes it so easy for people
To look in on eternity

Did they get some deep sense of their own smallness against the vastness of Creation? Perhaps it caused them to cling more closely to one another in ways that we simply cannot understand. We have lost something more than just the gift of second sight along this way; we have lost the care for one another that used to operate at such a natural level. And, dare I say, we have lost our own innate sense of eternity?

This is how it is possible for division to emerge in our midst where none previously existed. It is sadly inevitable that atheists and Christians will not be able to agree on certain matters. This rift cannot be healed by arguing round in ever more ill-tempered circles.

It can, however, be healed by prayer and by the constancy of God’s people. In the past, many of those who were reputedly gifted with the second sight were ministers and ‘Men’. No less a person than Dr John Kennedy of Dingwall thought of second sight as hierophany – the Lord manifesting Himself to those lacking regular access to the Word. His own father was thought to be thus gifted and foresaw, amongst other things, the Disruption of 1843, though he did not live to see his prophecy fulfilled.

The Disruption, which formed the Free Church of Scotland, was much more than a mere political movement. It was preceded by a widespread spiritual revival in the Highlands and Islands. Otherwise, the people could not have taken such a radical, faith-fuelled step. And such revivals are always precipitated by prayer. Real, heart-felt, expecting prayer.

Recently, in a study on the life of Elijah, our congregation heard of his earnest petitions to God for rain in the midst of drought, with his head bowed between his knees. Though he entreated desperately, he did so in faith. And when his servant reported the appearance in the sky of a tiny cloud, Elijah knew this was the emerging fulfilment of God’s promise.

We are – right now – in the midst of what can sometimes feels like spiritual drought. It would be easy to forget that God does not wish us to sit back in despair, but expects us to pray in earnest. Notice, Elijah was so serious about prayer that he employed someone else to check the sky while he got on with the real business in hand.

Our problem might be that we just keep on checking the sky, shaking our heads sadly before once again fixing our eyes on the parched ground. We need to pray, and we need to be ready to spot the little cloud when it appears – because if we pray in faith, it IS coming. First the cloud, then the deluge and then, up from the barren earth, fruit.

God isn’t silent – He’s simply waiting for our prayers. These have to include the wilfully blind in our midst – for who is to say that one of them is not that very cloud?

The Widow and the Devil

In folklore, the widow was often a witch. I’m unsure whether the assumption was that, without a husband’s restraining influence, a woman was bound to fall into bad ways, or whether there is just something unsettling about a woman who is isolated from the mainstream. Despite living in the reputed witchcraft capital of Lewis, and being a youngish widow, however, I have somehow managed to resist the lure of the darkness thus far.

Gaelic tradition records an unspeakable ritual for summoning the Devil, used by such wicked people – in the taghairm, an unspecified, though considerable, quantity of cats would be roasted alive over a fire. Eventually, their howls would cause the great cat himself to appear to the one foolish enough to have requested his presence in the first place.

And we’ve all seen the Hammer Horror films, dancing women, chalk circles, blood and candles. Awkward, in a good Calvinist community, I’d have thought, buying tapers in bulk. However, the truth is more mundane and, simultaneously, a lot more terrifying. You need not draw a circle, strike a match, nor yet kidnap next-door’s tom. It suits Satan’s ego and his guile for you to believe that bringing him out is such a complex affair. It’s not, though, because he’s already here.

He is interested in everyone and prowls about, seeking whom he may devour. When I, not quite a year into my widowhood, professed faith publicly, I was told, ‘it’s now he’ll really be interested in you’. And this was true, though I already had experience of his torments. The Devil hates Christ and he hates His followers, and tries his utmost to do the impossible – pluck them back out of their Saviour’s grasp. Stealing their peace is his aim. His methods are varied, and sometimes quite surprising in their ingenuity.

One of the ways in which I sought comfort for my loss was in reading CS Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed‘, adapted from the journal he had kept following the death of his own wife, Joy Gresham. It went well at first and Lewis’ description of grief as being ‘so much like fear’ spoke to me. The death of a spouse leaves you feeling exposed and vulnerable. Just the way the Devil likes it. And then, I read this:

‘How do I know that all her anguish is past? I never believed before – I thought it immensely improbable – that the faithfulest soul could leap straight into perfection and peace the moment death has rattled in the throat.It would be wishful thinking with a vengeance to take up that belief now. H. was a splendid thing . . . But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients, not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured.’

I was horrified. Donnie had gone through so much pain and suffering – was Lewis right to suggest that somehow there was more refining and scouring to be done after death? Instead of thinking that he was out of pain, at rest, his cancer finally gone, I was now imagining him still being tested and tried. It tormented me, this idea that he still had no peace. Somehow, all these months of needles and blood tests, of tubes and scans, of endless waiting in rooms packed with white-faced patients and their terrified families, of bleak diagnoses and grim-voiced doctors, had not ended.

Grief IS like fear, Lewis was right about that. The same horrible ideas now took me over once again, just as they had with his illness. What processes, what tests would he be subjected to? How would these ‘stains’ be scoured? Would he be treated gently? Would he be frightened? And would he come through it?

Fortunately, this anguish didn’t last, and all because of one simple, wonderful fact: Christ’s promise to the thief on the cross, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise‘. I remembered that God, who cannot behold sin, would admit no one who was unsanctified; and Christ would not make a promise that He did not keep.

When you lose someone close to you, people are wary about mentioning death. In church particularly, people were very solicitous if a sermon even touched on the subject. I love them for it, but I want them to know that it’s not necessary. CS Lewis’ idea about death made me sick with fear. Every human being who has loved another human being knows that emotion. What we hear about in church, though, that’s different: that’s the death of death; death defeated by a death – THE death. So defeated that after THE death came life again.

And that thing which CS Lewis could not believe: the leap straight into perfection and peace? Oh yes, that too. Only the Devil will tell you any different.