Erase your Ebenezer?

If you are ever tempted to believe that the Free Church in Lewis has become less hardline of late, consider this: one of our ministers waved a bayonet at the children during a recent Sunday morning service.

Context is everything, however. He was using an ancient (and very blunt, health and safety fans) family relic to illustrate a spiritual truth. This wasn’t learn your catechism with menaces. He wasn’t threatening, or intimidating – and he was safely on the far-end of a camera anyway.

But, if I merely told you that he had wielded a bayonet at the children of the congregation, and left it there, might you not get the wrong impression? We human beings are terrifically adept at picking the erroneous end of any given stick, anyway. Sometimes, of course, we do it wilfully. It suits us to think the worst of those we don’t like, or those of whom we are envious. In such situations, it is all too easy to cherry-pick our facts and dwell on those that paint the blackest picture of all.

When I stood for the Stornoway Trust, I was accused of being ‘ashamed of my Saviour’ because I had not mentioned in my election address that I was a Christian. Now, my reason for omitting this information was simple: while I don’t deny that many people voted for me because of my profession of faith, I would never ask for anyone’s vote on that basis. Being a Christian doesn’t automatically qualify you for (or disqualify you from) public service.

What my accuser failed to take into account was the fact that I patently was not hiding my allegiance; far from it. However, he looked narrowly at my conduct in this one area and judged me – harshly, I feel – based upon it. For him, because I had not explicitly declared myself a church member, I was ashamed and guilty of denying Christ.

We are, all of us, guilty of something. Not one living person can claim perfection in this world. I freely hold my hands up and admit that I do not always speak up for Christ when and as I should. Worse still, my conduct is often far from what it ought to be, so that I am not even a silent witness for him. People can rightly point to Catriona Murray and accuse her of saying and doing plenty that is at odds with her profession of faith. And how much more evidence they would have against me if they could read my black and venomous thoughts. Let me be frank: I am cynical, sardonic, frequently lax in my prayer life, slow to forgive, self-righteous and narrow-minded. If I witnessed in proportion to what I owe, I would be a paragon; but I am not. What I am is a sinner, saved by God’s grace, and a work in progress.

Mercifully, other people’s opinions of me are none of my business. I have no control over them or interest in them. People will try to remind you of what you are at your worst – how many converted Christians are still spoken of in terms of their youthful excesses. ‘There was a day and he was in the pub every weekend, not the church’, and that sort of thing. The world doesn’t permit us to be changing and improving. It freezes us at our very lowest point.

That is why memorialising the past has become such a vexed question. Do we retain the statue of a man who made his money on the back of slavery? Are we right to permit the Duke of Sutherland’s image – ‘erected by a grateful tenantry’ – to remain, looking down upon the broad lands decimated by his plans of improvement?  The boardroom of the Stornoway Trust, too, is dominated by a portrait of our benefactor, Lord Leverhulme, a man whose exploitation of forced labour in the Belgian Congo does not cover him with glory.

So, what do we say about such people? Can we use the rather odd defence someone made of Knox recently when they accused me of judging him by modern standards: he was of his time? Being ‘of your time’, though, is surely a euphemism for just following the herd, being of the world. Knox was not falling short of my standard by being a misogynist; he was falling short of Christ’s. If we let Knox off the hook so easily, then we must make a similar defence for the Duke of Sutherland and Lord Leverhulme.

And that just will not do. Otherwise, we have to look around us, at modern slavery, at child labour, at homelessness, at abortion, at eugenics, at sexual exploitation, at the wilful warping of the education system, at the censorship of free speech . . . and we must wink at it, saying, ‘ah, it’s just the modern way’.

That’s the world’s defence of sin.

I would not remove the memorials. Leave the mannie on top of Ben Bhraggie, and keep the portrait of Leverhulme above the boardroom table. Remember them, though, not as stainless paragons, but as people in whom there was the capacity for both darkness and light. Make sure generations to come see them as three-dimensional.

And, more importantly, let’s think about what this controversy teaches us regarding image. Not the stone, marble or canvas variety, but our own fractured selves – made in the likeness of God, and marred by sin. We too, even if we are being restored, bear the hallmarks of fallenness. Somewhere about our person is the Maker’s thumbprint; it is this, and this alone, which preserves us from destruction.

For, if we were dependent on one another’s mercy, or on our own perfection, who would raise a memorial to any of us?

The Wrong Coinneach; the Right Christ

Have you ever found yourself on a trip with the wrong Coinneach? It happened to me last Wednesday. I thought I was going to Harris with Coinneach Mòr, in a reliable, BBC car whose satnav would use RP English, probably even pronouncing our destination as Roe-dell. Instead, in a flagrant abuse of licence fee payers’ money, I was issued with Coinneach Beag, ‘driving’ an automatic Yaris, and taking his good time about it.

We were bound for St Clement’s church to do that which no Wee Free ever does in a place of worship: look at art. I fretted all the way there, and almost welcomed the frequent violent stalling as a distraction. When your head keeps coming into contact with the dashboard it’s hard to think about anything else – even heresy.

The exhibition was a visual exploration of the  poem cycle by Orcadian George Mackay Brown, entitled ‘Tryst on Egilsay’, describing the death of St Magnus. Yes, art AND saints all in one day. But an Orcadian saint, whose story the late poet regarded as one of the most precious in Orkney’s heritage.

It was so appropriate to have this in Harris for a number of reasons. For one, it is believed that the account of Magnus’s death was preserved for posterity by one Hebridean eyewitness – Holdbodi, of the farming class, and loyal ally of Magnus.

Magnus was meeting on Egilsay with his cousin, Hakon, to discuss which of them should rule Orkney. The former brought with him two boats and the corresponding number of men, as had been agreed. Much less honourable, the latter brought eight boats, packed with followers. When Magnus saw them approach, he knew what his fate would be.

It is almost unbearably moving to read the account, in Orkneyinga Saga, of Magnus’s steadfast faith in the face of such threat. Instead of fleeing, he went to church and prayed, forbidding his men to defend him.

And then, he bargained in a way that every Christian hopes they would too in the same situation. He didn’t beg to have his life spared. Instead, he asked Hakon to do anything – even putting out his eyes – short of murder. ‘God knows that I think more of your soul than my own life’, he told his cousin, and because this was true, he wanted to spare Hakon the guilt of his blood.

He was persuasive, and would have got his way, but for Hakon’s men. They said that they wanted a single ruler for Orkney and that, therefore, one of the two earls must die. Thus, Magnus’s fate was sealed, and he prayed forgiveness for the perpetrators before being put to death.

Hakon had opted for political power and the death of his soul; but Magnus chose the good portion.

It might seem strange in one way to be marking this Norse-Orcadian earl’s death in a mediaeval church in Harris. But not when you think about it. St Clement’s was probably built a couple of centuries after the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, yet it is part of God’s real estate. In that very church, I felt all manner of hope was represented.

Gaelic culture, so apparently subsumed by the political might of the Vikings flowered when their age was done. St Clement’s testifies to that, belonging as it does to that most Gaelic of eras in our history. A minority language, oppressed by the major language can still be resurgent; and, as the Norse example shows, official status does not make any language the one of your heart.

Magnus, though, and St Clement’s, and the people who visit there to read of his martyrdom, speak the greatest hope of all into the world. Some may choose political power, progress and popularity here in this life; but if you are a Christian, you surely wish to identify with Magnus who, at the hour of his death prayed for his friends, but also his enemies, forgiving their sins against himself.

In the end, it didn’t matter which Coinneach took me to Harris; I needed to go in order to be reminded of something. When even those you have called friends hate you for Christ’s sake, it’s easy and natural to feel bitter, but it is better to remember the lesson of this mediaeval Orcadian Saint: their souls are worth more to Him than my life.

Hakon appeared to have walked away with all the prizes – his life; the exclusive rights to the Earldom of Orkney; and even forgiveness from the man he had put to death. But his cousin, in fact, was the winner, able to discern which were the true riches and, in complete faith, to choose Christ over against everything else.

We have, all of us, to answer for ourselves, but I hope I can continue to say with Magnus, and with Job, ‘though He slay me, I will trust in Him’.

That will meet any deficiencies in myself, in my friendships, and in my journey through this world. Even if part of it has to be in a hybrid automatic driven by the wrong Coinneach.

No Nudity Please, We’re Leòdhasaich

Accompanying six Lewismen on a road trip this week, I met a work colleague at the airport. She said she had been trying to work out what manner of group we were. I could see her point. Too late for the General Assembly, too early for the AGM of the Crofters’ Union, and altogether unlikely that they were mature students on a field trip . . .
It was actually a delegation from the Stornoway Trust, heading for the mainland as fast as Loganair’s usual two-hour delay would allow.

We were going to be spending the best part of two days together in a car, and so I had a stack of questions ready, designed to flatter the Leòdhasach male ego, and based around what I assumed to be their main interests. Can you explain the offside rule? Which is your favourite brand of sheep drench? Have you really got your own tractor?

But, on the very first day, the unprecedented levels of nudity drove all such conversational niceties out of my head . . .

Returning to the hotel to change for dinner, I discovered my bed to be occupied by a scantily clad (well, naked) couple. The hotel had somehow managed to check me and them into the same room, and it seemed we had radically different plans for how to spend the evening.

As I explained my predicament to the horrified and ashen—faced receptionist, she offered me all manner of restitution. A room upgrade, free drinks, a unicorn . . . anything and everything to provide metaphorical bleach for my eyes.

Because that’s what we do with mistakes, isn’t it? If we can make everything look the way it should, and if we can make everyone happy again, somehow the bad events can be swept away, as though they never were at all.

In this case, my part in the whole business was sorted very quickly. A much nicer room, in a better location and with a prettier view, bought my silence. Well, not silence, exactly – what’s a blogger to do – but my temporary contentment, at any rate. Not so my roommates, I would imagine. Their grievance is greater than mine, after all.

They had their privacy breached, and I suppose, they feel some sense of shame. The grovelling required from management towards them must have been quite spectacular. Perhaps they will never feel secure in a hotel again. Indeed, I took a deep breath before entering my own replacement accommodation, lest there should be a family of gipsies encamped there. But it was fine.

Mistakes happen, and no one – not even this sensitive Wee Free widow – was materially harmed. The Trust has, of course, offered me counselling, but I don’t think I will accept. Not every mistake is so very easily swabbed away, though.

As fallible human beings, we can all too easily make the wrong choices, and be in a position where it is we who have to make restitution. Some good friends will forgive our worst excesses, whereas others will hold it all to our account. We are not, as a species, terribly forgiving.

Yet, we except to be forgiven. Nothing we do is ever so bad in our own eyes that we should be made to pay.

And I’m not talking now about the sort of professional lapse committed by the hotel management. I am talking about being at odds with our Creator.

The day after the debauchery, I stood on a hill with a quite breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside, including a large herd of red deer. All that, the work of His hand. And, all that in the hollow of His hand.

He made it, and He made us. No, correction: He made it, including us. We tend to see ourselves as something apart, something above. Even those of us who know that a Divine hand created the world and everything in it, we still see ourselves as being distinct from His other handiwork. And we see ourselves in that light, not because we actually are superior, or special, but because we’re out of sync. We fail to realise that God made everything as one functioning system. It was not the hills, or the trees, or the birds that caused the perfection to stall; it was us.

In fact, we failed far more catastrophically than any hotel booking system ever could. That glitch, however humiliating for several of the parties involved, was easily smoothed over. For us as a species, however, the perfect Son of God had to die. Nothing less would do.

Yet, we act, in all manner of petty situations, as though we’re something special. We withhold forgiveness from our fellow creatures – as if it was ever ours to give in the first place. I am not good at letting go of grudges, and my displeasure, once provoked, is hard to turn away. But, turn it I must.

Just as I reassured the tearful hotel receptionist that there was no real harm done, I need to look to the pet grievances that I harbour. I have been forgiven everything that ever mattered by the only One who could truly be hurt by my sin; who am I to stand on my injured pride?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Would You Have Me Do?

I am, more often than not, a failure as a Christian. The ways in which I let Him down, get it wrong and just wilfully disobey are seemingly endless. But the sins which hurt the most are repeat offences. It tells me what kind of material He’s got to work with in me when He needs to give the same lesson over and over.

What was it this time? Forgiveness. Largeness of heart. Grace. Denial of self. These are just a few of the many things I don’t do well.

It’s been a practice of mine for a while now to get involved in online conversations where the cause of Christ is being discussed. Remedial Christian I may be, but I do, of course, realise that I cannot change the atheist heart, nor save the unbelieving soul. Neither, however, do I think that I should let ignorance and misrepresentation go unchallenged. So I don’t. Many Christians probably think I should leave it alone; and I know that many atheists feel that way also.

These things can escalate and a discussion forum on local democracy led to a series of misunderstandings between myself and someone I had considered a friend. We were not on speaking terms by the time it was all over.

I should have climbed down -not on matters of Christian principle, of course not, but on my own ego. What people think of me, or say, or write when I am properly witnessing for Christ, that doesn’t matter. The day I accepted Him, I was meant to die to self. All such brickbats are not meant to matter in the light of His glory and grace.

But I couldn’t let this go. No – correction – I wouldn’t let this go.

It took a Quaker to make this Wee Free penitent. He knew, somehow, of the ill-feeling between me and this other person, and suggested very gently that I should show her a modicum of support in something very brave she did recently.

Well, I’m not going to lie. He floored me with his mild common sense, and his pure motive. I thought about it from every angle and realised that the only thing preventing me from doing as he said was my own pride.

So I swallowed it. Not as graciously as I could, or should, have. But she, I think, felt as I did and all these months of bitterness and rancour swiftly evaporated.

And it felt good. I didn’t know what a weight had been pressing on my conscience until it was lifted. All because of grace. Oh, not mine. No, God’s grace at work in this man who has somehow fallen into step with me along the journey. If it had been dependent upon me letting go of my pride . . . well, I shudder to think what a state my life would be in.

It set me thinking about people, and about the latent power of the online community. All of this reconciliation hinged, as I said, on God’s intervention. But it was made possible through digital, not face-to-face, connections.

Some folk dismiss social media as being a bit of a fantasy land, somewhere Christians should avoid. I disagree. It is a mirror-image of this world with all the wickedness and danger that entails. There are people there, teetering sometimes on the edge of danger.

So, shouldn’t Christians be there too, shining a light into the dark corners? Isn’t the internet a digital mission field?

I am profoundly grateful to God for putting the wise Quaker in my life, and for teaching me so gently that forgiveness and love must not be forsaken, especially in defending the cause of Christ.

When Christ was nailed to the cross, His Iove never wavered. He was still every inch the Saviour. Remember Satan, in the last blog – he knows he’s defeated, and wants to take as many with him as he can.

Jesus Christ knew at Calvary that victory was His. And as He looked down on the soldiers casting lots for His garments, what revenge did He plan?

‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

Though we may reject Him and plot against His cause, He still loves and wants to take as many with Him in glory as He can.

And if I want to be like Him in the smallest way, I need to cultivate that love too.

Mercifully, He reminds me of this when I need reminding. Pray for me that I will not forget this lesson in humility and grace. And pray that, when any of us speaks up for Christ, we ask Him first:

‘What would You have me do?’