Coming Out of the Wilderness

Among the many things we don’t do in the Free Church – joy, love, peace, freedom, feminism – apparently we are not much into marking Easter either. So I’m told.

We don’t festoon the church with fluffy chicks, or put bunny ears on the elders; and we don’t exit the church en masse to roll eggs down the staran after the Easter Sunday service. The Wee Frees, you would think, are the ideal denomination for an Easter bonnet competition but, well, they’d all look sort of the same, wouldn’t they – black and devoid of fol-de-rols?

Of course, we do mark Easter, in the sense that we have hung onto the heart of it. Next weekend, in Stornoway, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper – it is a sacrament, dispensed for remembrance of His death, and so that those who believe in Him will meditate upon the benefits they have derived from His sacrifice and, based on that, reaffirm their commitment to Him and the debt they owe.

When, at the beginning of the Supper, the presiding minister utters the words, ‘On the night that He was betrayed . . .’ I shiver. Nowhere else, in no other context could these words be both an accusation of guilt and a proclamation of freedom to the same person. But because Christ died and rose again for us, for the unworthy, we feel both the guilt of His crucifixion, and the freedom in His resurrection.

In other faith traditions, the period of Lent – beginning on February 14th this year, and ending on March 29th – will be observed. My first encounter with it was in school when a classmate from Barra was eating blocks of jelly during our morning interval. I asked her why and she told me that she had given up sweets for Lent. Being teenagers, none of us had much idea of what self-sacrifice was, and the jelly was a good substitute for her, while she technically kept her Lenten vow.

But I’m more than twenty years older now and I still have the same problem with dying to self that my jelly-eating school friend did. As a Christian, I should be working harder to subdue the inner voice that shouts, ‘what about me?’

Recently, I have been subject to some criticism for my beliefs. My last blog touched something of a nerve and the unbelieving community in Lewis, alongside a few professing adherents, were outraged by what I said. Well, no, sorry, let me rephrase that. They were outraged by what I am; no one actually critiqued the writing, unless you consider words like ‘disgusting’ and ‘rude’ a critique (I don’t).

The slurs are mainly inaccurate, but I am not going to bore you with that here. One very kind Christian lady whom I have not yet met, messaged me to point out that people who resort to personal attack when they have never met you, are merely highlighting the fact that they are spiritually bereft. Comments on my personality, lack of Christlikeness (how true), lack of manners . . . well, they are meaningless when they come from strangers.

Some of the arrows hit home, however, as they will do. This is a vulnerable time of year for me. I don’t say that to garner sympathy, nor to claim that I am a victim – I am not and never have been that. But I do make myself suffer. For a little while, I dwelt on the fact that there was no Donnie to make it better; I wallowed in self-pity and the memories of three years ago, when our time was running out. When the going gets tough, I often retreat into that kind of self-harm, picking at the wound, and making everything seem much blacker.

This is Lent. And Donnie’s last weeks were Lent. It is representative of forty days spent by Christ in the wilderness, preparing for ministry and resisting the Devil.

I decided last Saturday that I was going to stop blogging. Or, at least, that I was going to stop commenting on the activities of unbelievers in my own immediate vicinity. When you are alone, and feeling sorry for yourself, you can easily believe the liars. They themselves are speaking, of course, for the great liar. He seems to be fond of hanging about the wilderness.

But I don’t choose to linger there with him; and I am not alone. If the Lord doesn’t come Himself, He sends His people with encouragement and prayer. And His own Word, so full of peace and strengthening – Psalm 31, Isaiah 43 . . . and my own mantra, if a Wee Free can be allowed such a thing: ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid’?

Lent for many who observe it is a pilgrimage. It should bring us, finally, to the very foot of the cross. My journey, three years ago, brought me to rest there, in Him.

On Sunday night, I was powerfully reminded of that once more. Tempted though I had been to find a solution in myself to this latest problem, the preaching reminded me that challenging situations should not be met by doing, but by being.

Your identity, once found in Christ, remains there. He keeps you safe in His hand. Gradually, He takes you, leaning upon Himself, up out of the wilderness. If I am tempted again by the Devil to take refuge in the past, to dwell on my loss and my human frailty; or if I am slandered and inclined to be affronted, I should remember what follows Lent.

At the foot of the cross, and again at the empty tomb, we remember who He is, and who He has made us. No person, no words, no circumstance can ever undo the finished work of Christ.

 

Who Can See That We Love One Another?

The social media intelligentsia of Lewis has been airing again its conviction that the Free Church has kept the island back. They speak with one voice – the only point of diversion being disagreement as to which century the Wee Frees have tied us to. Some extremists say the 19th and, I must say, it would be understandable. The Victorian era was something of a golden age for our denomination and it would be tempting to linger there. Still, the 20th wasn’t too bad either. With it came swings to chain up on a Sunday and disco dancing to disapprove of, so we would probably be happy to stay in the 1900s too. Well, not happy obviously. . .

Despite our denomination’s apparently famous resistance to change, I found myself recently at two gatherings in our church hall which were . . . novel

They were different to what we have done for the last 174 years and, as far as I could see, no one had a nosebleed. But then I’m not very tall – there might have been one or two swooners at the back. Nonetheless, house policy remains fixed as regards giving them no latitude, and both occasions passed without visible drama.

The first was a Christmas Eve fellowship with carols, mince pies and a Bible quiz. Our lovely hall looked suitably festive, and the general mood was lighthearted. No, we hadn’t bussed people in from another church – this was actual Wee Free laughter.

Less than a fortnight later, we gathered for an entirely new sort of Wednesday meeting. Instead of the traditional format, we sat in groups, and discussed the first of a series of Bible studies on the Epistle of James. It’s a practical book, containing something over one hundred imperatives, and talking about the things of God from a personal perspective can only serve to bring His people closer together.

As I glanced around at these people on Christmas Eve, I saw something on their countenances. There was mutual respect, genuine enjoyment of each other’s company. And when we gathered again, at the start of a new year, there was something even more apparent. Formed into small groups, meditating upon how Christ has revealed Himself to us in trial, we were growing towards one another.

You cannot meditate upon Christ’s love for you personally, or hear how He has likewise dealt with other Christians, without an increase in that love. Towards Him, yes; and towards them.

Love is one of His defining qualities. Greater love had no one. And He has imputed that to each of us to hold in common, to enjoy personally, and to give back. That’s why loving the brethren is easy: it does not come from anything within ourselves.

Which is why we have absolutely no right to keep it to ourselves. Tertullian, a Roman theologian of the early church wrote that the unbelievers looking on at Christians would say, ‘See how they love one another’. It was, he said, how they were marked out and set apart. I have heard ministers pose that question from the pulpit more than once – is that what the world would say of us today?

I think the world just might if it saw us at our best. But when does our community get to see the transforming love of Christ at work in us? Yes, of course we too are of the community – living and working and having our place there. At times of worship and fellowship, however, we come apart from the unbelieving world. It is on these occassions that Christian love for one another is probably most evident.

Only, there is no one there to witness it but ourselves.

I recently heard a sermon on God’s expectation that Christians would be a leaven to society. That means being part of your community, and letting your neighbours see Christ in the way that you live your life.

But one of the most attractive things of all, we hide from view. And I am beginning to think that might be wrong.

Unbelievers parade their sin in open view. They are most assuredly not ashamed of defying God. The word ‘pride’ gets applied to some of the most unlikely motives these days. Shame has left town indefinitely.

So, do we display our love in open view? I hope that our lives are a witness of our love for Christ, of course. But I think we deny an important part of our witness by not allowing those living outside of Him to see how He transforms our relationships with one another.

We are a peculiar people, as Peter said, but that does not allow us to hold ourselves aloof. Retreating to the margins and letting sin hold the floor is not what God intended. Yes, this is a time of undoubted conflict and it is unerstandable that a family should seek comfort and safety in togetherness.

It’s just that there are some of our own still out there, beyond the city walls. But how will they know that their place is with us if we remain in hiding. We have to go to them and let them see what cannot be put into words

Then, surely, they will say, ‘See how they love one another’. And they will recognise, not just that we are family, but that we are their family.

 

 

 

 

A Woman’s Place is Wherever God Wants Her

Ever since Coinneach Mòr reminded me that I’m a woman, I’ve been thinking about whether it matters very much. In past blogs I have made myself subject to misunderstanding because I have played down the importance of my gender, especially where my faith life is concerned. But I wouldn’t want anyone to run away with the idea that I don’t care about that category of things loosely termed ‘women’s issues’.

Nor, for the record, do I think we’re getting it absolutely right. If I said we were, people might suspect me of being manipulated by men . . .

There are two contexts here which must be considered – my relationship with God as an individual Christian, and my relationship with His church as part of the believing family.

My personal interactions with God consist of conventional prayer, continuous prayer, and the reading of His word. In all these cases, I come to Him as myself, whether I want to or not. He knows who and what I am, regardless of the veils I may – even unconsciously- assume. Part of that self surely consists of my womanhood: it is who He made me to be.

But I don’t believe that He hears me differently simply because I’m a woman; rather, he hears me differently because I am uniquely myself.

Christ,for example, did not favour Mary over Martha, or vice-versa, but He did take cognisance of their different personalities and respond to them accordingly.

He lets us be who we are; any obstacles in the way are of our own making.

Our relationship with the Lord is untrammelled by worries about gender. I do not doubt that He loves the supplication of women as much as the petitions of men. We are all His beloved children and the blood ransom He paid had the same value for every last one.

It is really only when you take that relationship into the church visible that problems arise. I have never gone to God in prayer and wondered whether what was on my heart was alright to mention, what with me being a woman. But I have been conscious of my gender in – amongst other things – writing this blog.

Let me be clear: no one from within the church has ever said to me that I should keep my opinions to myself. For all my joking, none of the men has yet suggested I stick to teaching Sunday school and leave the thinking to them. That is not the root of the problem.

I am the root of the problem.

In my own treacherous heart, there is a constant battle with doubt. Every time I go to publish an article, I worry that this will be the one where I really offend someone. Each new blog post fills me with trepidation that I have gone too far and will be castigated for a meddling ignoramus.

And underlying all these nagging fears is the sense that I am a woman in a man’s world. Who has told me this? Well, no one, but it has been the way things have happened over the years. Men are the office bearers, therefore you have to be a man to have a voice in the likes of the Free Church.

Is that true, though? No, I actually don’t think it is. Recently, I was talking to someone about it, and the notion that Free Church women are kept down. He made me laugh when he said, ‘I’d like to meet the man who could oppress _____________’ The lady he named is just one of legions of island women who could never be kept in their boxes by even the most determined misogynist. They have opinions and they have influence just as the men do.

These are praying women, women who have mentored younger Christians. They have participated fully in the spiritual life and nothing God intends for them can be denied by mere men.

But another recent conversation has forced me to think about the role of women in the church as an institution. We were discussing the way in which complementarianism has been interpreted by the Presbyterian churches in Scotland. My friend pointed out that there is a simple enough way to ensure that we are being Biblical in our division of duties. If a role requires spiritual authority then it should properly be restricted to men. Otherwise, it should be fulfilled by whoever is best suited to it.

This isn’t radical thinking. It isn’t even feminist thinking. What we’re called on to have as a church is a spirit of service, of corporate service. Our collective gifts should be deployed in order to maximise their potential to glorify God. That is what we’re about.

Those outside of our walls often speak about power- any objection to attacks on Christianity are countered with derisive yells of, ‘you just don’t want to lose control ’. The relationship between the church and the world is not about that, however, and neither should our relationships with one another be.

Properly speaking, I am a Christian before I am a woman. What gifts I have to offer in the service of Christ have nothing to do with my gender. He has not made women less gifted than their brothers.

However, I do believe that there is progress to be made in bringing those abilities to fruition in the church. Not, I hasten to add, because of some attempt to create equality between the genders; God has already done that.

Authority is His; spiritual authority He vests in men of His own choosing.

But the freedom to love Him through active service, exercising those gifts which He has bestowed   – that privilege belongs to every man and woman who loves the Lord.

 

 

 

Wee Free Woman Identifies as Herself

After finishing off writing the Sunday evening sermon, I checked my diary for the week ahead. Nothing too onerous. Gaelic department lunch on Tuesday, meeting a friend on Wednesday . . and then, I received an edict from Coinneach Mòr to record an interview for his Thursday morning radio show. Consummate professional that he is, he outlined some of the areas we would cover – blog (fine); monthly column (mmm hmm); how come a woman in the Free Church is being allowed to speak out so much on sometimes controversial issues? (ok . . . er, what!?)

I don’t like that question. Someone else asked me something similar recently and I must admit, it threw me a bit.

But it’s different with Coinneach. He may be, as I said, the consummate professional, but he is also the consummate Leòdhasach. His question was posed in very much the same spirit that I myself apply to writing the blog – mockery of the attitude which prevails outside the Free Church that women inside it are somehow subjugated and condemned to a life of baking scones. Coinneach, I think, understands that this is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was.

He understands, first and foremost, because he comes from within this culture. That is his – and my – privilege. The tragedy for some people is that because of an accident of birth, they can never know what it is to be a Leòdhasach. Some get as close as possible by moving here, and indeed, who can blame them? But there are a few things I would have them know.

First of all, native islanders are not necessarily fools. Some probably are, because there are fools everywhere. However, to suggest that because you hail from Lewis you are automatically (and this is by no means an exhaustive list of the accusations to which we are subject): small-minded, nosy, gullible, brainwashed, judgmental, unsophisticated, dogmatic . . . well, I think they call that racism in the big cities, now, don’t they?

Secondly, yes, there is an indigenous culture. You may shout that there isn’t and that we only say that to be exclusivist, but I’m afraid that’s just cultural imperialism talking. We are a Gaelic people. It is possible to learn the language and not be one of us, just as I can learn French but never be a Frenchwoman.
Thirdly, whether it suits you or not, the Free Church (other denominations are available – buy a book, learn the history of this place you’re calling ‘home’) has done much to shape and influence our culture. People of my generation well remember having to be home by midnight on Saturday, or not being allowed to make a noise in the garden on Sunday. Compliance came from respect for your parents and for the norms of your community. We weren’t quite so obsessed then with pleasing ourselves regardless of who it upset.

Yes, there were always those who didn’t appreciate the Lewis Sunday, but they were never so tormented by their own ego as to think everything should change for them.

It’s all about that – self. The issue of ‘being a woman in the church’ likewise. I clumsily told Coinneach that I don’t think of myself as a woman. Perhaps his journalistic nose twitched at the thought of such a story, ‘Free Church woman identifies as deacon’, but he merely raised his eyebrows quizzically.

And now I will explain: I try very hard not to think of myself at all.

That’s what we’re called on to do as Christians. I didn’t start this blog because I had a Free Church feminist agenda to push; I don’t. My stance is that gender doesn’t matter in the church and to say, ‘why can’t women . . ?’ is really tantamount to asking, ‘why can’t I?’ Don’t whine to your elders; go to God, and see what He says. He has a role for each of us – but it is according to our gifts, not according to our gender.

There have been many jokes about me ‘having my eye’ on the pulpit. The sermon I alluded to writing  at the beginning of this blog was not my own, however, but that of the minister of our congregation. I write summaries of them for the church social media account and help them reach a wider audience that way, hopefully. Those on the outside of the church might pity me these limitations, though, and be horrified at the jokes which are always predicated on the assumption that no woman will ever preach in the Free Church.

But I feel no self-pity. I am not a poor soul. Eldership is not a wee accolade for the person, it is a role endowed with the authority of Christ. Leading the congregation in prayer is not an ego-trip, nor are pastoring and evangelising; these are serious responsibilities which are the lot of those called to serve.

Instead of looking at others and wanting to be who they are, and have what we think they have, we must look upwards and ask God what he wants us to be. He intends each of us for service to His glory. I think we imbue the ‘patriarchy’ with more power than they possess if we honestly believe that they are preventing any of us from being what God intends.

The Isle of Lewis is what it is – James Shaw Grant said it best when he called it a, ‘loveable, irrational island’. It need not try to be like other places. For me, it’s lovely in its own way.

And likewise, being a woman in the Free Church is also lovely in its own way. It is where God has placed me. I don’t intend to limit myself or Him by looking longingly at the pulpit, or even the suidheachan mòr; I need to fall back on my faith, ask where He wants me, and say to Him, ‘Here am I, send me’.

Wee Frees and Wise Men – Not Mutually Exclusive

When the Calvinists of the Free Church in Stornoway are not busy oppressing the people who want to exercise their free will by swinging a golf club on Sundays, we like to sit around, oppressing one another. Old Christians try to prevent young Christians from enjoying themselves, men keep women in their place (the kitchen), and, I suppose, the ministers whack the other elders on the knuckles with a wooden ruler if they overstep the mark. Our times of fellowship are an endurance test, with the first person to laugh put outside by the bins.

It is remotely possible, though, that we are just harsh and humourless by nature. I mean, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame everything about us on Calvin. The atheist intelligentsia has been doing that for a long time – they blame him for destroying Gaelic culture, for taking art and music from people’s lives and they blame him for stealing Christmas.

John Calvin, a.k.a. The Grinch.

There was, it is true, a tendency among the Reformers to distance themselves from these holy days which had been so much a feature of the Roman Catholic church. Nonetheless, Luther permitted its observance and Calvin . . . well, Calvin’s position was not exactly as it has been portrayed.

The celebration of Christmas had already been abolished in Geneva before he went there, and it was later reinstated during his temporary expulsion from the city. By the time he returned, Calvin had either mellowed somewhat, or had not been strongly opposed to it in the first place, but he stated his intention to allow Christ’s birthday to be marked as the people had become accustomed to doing.

Knox shared Calvin’s reservations about the celebration of a day not explicitly prescribed in scripture. Christmas was eventually banned in Scotland by an Act of Parliament in 1640. Despite its repeal 48 years later, it continued as a very low-key festival, not becoming a public holiday until 1958.

Now, however, more and more Presbyterian churches in Scotland are tentatively marking the religious significance of Christmas. In what looks like a binning of the rule-book, the dour men in black are decking the halls. Or something similar.

Well, what does the rule book say about the matter?  The Westminster Confession of Faith says that, in addition to the Lord’s Day, there is room for. ‘solemn fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner’.

It is the manner of the celebration that matters: the spirit in which it is done and the intention behind it. If the primary objective is to point to Christ, to glorify God, then the marking of Christmas is entirely compatible with the ethos of every Calvinist church.

Of course, the Westminster Confession of Faith is itself based on Scripture, and it is back there we must go if there is any doubt about the rightness of such a move. One of the objections levelled by people like Knox himself was that the Bible does not offer any authority that December 25th is the birth-date of our Saviour. Far be it from me to call poor Mr Knox a pedant, but . . . Surely the material point here is not when the Son of God was born, but that He was born. Only last weekend, we reflected in church upon the startling fact that, in the storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee, it was God who slept, in the person of His Son. That was the real miracle – that God, as John Betjeman wrote, was man in Palestine.

He was born, then, and we have several accounts of how this came about. In John 6:38, He Himself addresses the why, ‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me’.

From that incarnation stems everything that we have as believers, starting with hope. Hope was born the day He came into the world, and gathered in strength towards the cross and finally the triumph of the empty tomb. It is because of God incarnate that we have been redeemed from the bondage of our own sin and the certainty of death.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I cannot think of anything more worthy of celebration.

Not celebrating as the world celebrates. The bloated excess of Christmas as it is marked and commercialized these days would turn the least sensitive of stomachs. In that feast of self-indulgence, all that remains of Christ is the name – and there are those who would expunge even His name from the proceedings.

Last year, Christmas Day coincided with the Lord’s Day and we concentrated in church upon Mary’s Song, and upon the importance of unwrapping and making our own the gift which God has given us in His only begotten Son.

This is the message of Christmas when told properly. The world took Christ, it beat Him and abused Him, and it finally crucified Him.

Now, it is doing the same with His very name.

It was appropriated, and all the meaning with which Christmas is redolent has been leached out, to be replaced by a consumerist frenzy.

Advent is all about waiting. It is about silence. And it is about anticipation of the greatest event our world has ever known. This year, I am grateful that I will be able to draw aside with God’s people, singing His praise for what He did all those Christmases ago:

Sacred Infant, all divine

What a tender love was thine

Thus to come from highest bliss

Down to such a world as this.

Advent, òrduighean and the return of the King

This Sunday, I hope to be doing two things at once. In Stornoway Free Church, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will be dispensed. Those who sit at the table – and, I think, many who don’t – will remember the death of Christ. They will think back to Calvary, and they will begin to measure His love towards them.

But the service does not last long enough for anyone to finish that calculation. His love is the very definition of immeasurable.

Sunday also marks the beginning of Advent. It is the beginning of the waiting, the anticipation. There are four Sundays between now and Christmas Day, counting forward to the date which marks the birth of Jesus Christ.

Was He actually born on December 25th? Does it matter? Like the Creation, it is the same miracle, however and whenever it took place. Those who try to punch holes in the details of timescale and location are guilty of a very human smallness. They try to shrink God to fit their limited vision also, but He will not be contained. It’s the Devil who lurks in the detail, after all.

God is in the greatness, the unparalleled truth, the soaring wonder. He became one of us in order to show how we should live. And to die so that we would not.

We eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of Him. It is not a forlorn ritual, but a meaningful act which brings before us the always remarkable fact that He was perfect, and sacrificed Himself for sinners because He was perfect. Everything about Him is eternal, an unbroken circle without end or beginning .

So, because that is true, we have to look at communion as more than just an act of remembrance . He did not stop at dying, so we should not stop at commemorating His death. We are to mark His death only until He comes again.

It is fitting, then, is it not, that we should partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of Advent? We are remembering, but we are also waiting. This is not a counting down to the lowly birth in a stable which ends in the horror and ignominy of crucifixion: no,it is something far more wonderful.

Christmas is not something we have traditionally marked in the Free Church. At home, yes, but not in church, not the way other denominations might. Historically, there were no hymns sung, and so no carols either. We do not light candles, nor bring greenery in from outdoors, nor set up nativity scenes in front of the suidheachan mòr.

These, though, are only the outward trappings of Advent. They make a pretty enough show, but are not in themselves Christmas. It may be a festival of tinsel and lights and ‘tissued fripperies’ as John Betjeman put it, but if it is to have any meaning for us, it is not to be found in any of those details.

Bring together, though, the remembering of the Lord’s Supper and the waiting of Advent; then you have something.

Remember Jesus, the baby born into a world already unwilling to accommodate Him. Think of the danger this tiny, helpless child was in. Imagine the hope vested in that infant Jesus, and the wonder of those wise men from the East.

It is lovely to dwell on that Christmas long ago because the people who were walking in darkness suddenly saw a great light. There were angels, hosannas and everything was suffused with hope.

We love that, as human beings – a happy, hopeful story. No one wants to see the dark figure lurking, just in the edge of the frame. Our world has captured the baby Jesus and placed Him in amber, forever a golden hope for mankind.

Remember, though, that He came to die. Remember that first Christmas as something which was always destined to culminate in crucifixion thirty-three years later.

But remember also, that was not the end. In fact, for believers, that was the real beginning in many ways.

So, we should certainly look forward to Jesus. When He comes again, it will not be as a powerless infant. All of that, pretty though it is, is done with. This time, we await our King.

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine

 

Better a Bible in the post than being post-Bible

The local patriarchy of the Free Church this week played a blinder: they allowed a woman to share a platform with actual men. She was asked for, and allowed to express what can only be described as opinions.

Of course, it was a safe enough move – they probably know that they have brainwashed her so thoroughly that whatever she says is really just furthering their agenda.

But what is their agenda? Well, that depends on who you speak to.

The people of superior intellect, the ones who really know where it’s at, they say it’s about hanging onto power. That’s why these men want Lewis to be a six-day island, why they want folk going to church and reading their Bibles. It’s about maintaining status and holding sway.

My dizzy wee brain has been working on this problem for a while now, but I can’t for the life of me figure out the nature of their power.

Some of them have a strong handshake. And there are others who can lift a pretty flat rendition of the psalms out of the doldrums. Is that the power?

Or maybe they mean something a bit more, well, mysterious.

On communion Sunday, I’ve seen a few elders do a deft, wee trick in which they simultaneously shake your hand and take your token. That?

Or, perhaps it’s the power to drive cailleachs in minibuses to church. Or the power to visit the housebound. Perhaps it is, when all is said and done, the power to be a stoical presence for you in the worst moments of your life.

I have not forgotten the elder, despite all the hard times I give him, who came to me after my husband’s funeral service, and put a comforting arm around my shoulders. Or the minister, up off his sickbed, to visit and pray with me on my first morning as a widow.

Nor do I forget the moments of real empathy I have experienced from men who had plenty other things on their mind, but still saw how fresh grief for others might reopen old wounds for me.

They are counsellors, encouragers, friends. I see them as what they are – men who love Christ and try to serve Him in an increasingly hostile world. Many of them are husbands, fathers, grandfathers. Some are retired, the rest are in a wide variety of jobs.

Among them are people who can’t hold a tune, who are handless in the kitchen, who can’t match a tie to a shirt, who are hopeless at small talk, whose jokes are a bit corny, who are simply not for turning.

These men are human. Real. But they are making an utter hash of being an exploitative patriarchy.

Not one of them has ever whacked me over the head with the Shorter Catechism (or the Larger, which has more impact). They do hover protectively about the pulpit steps as I pass, but I don’t think they actually expect me to try storming it.

Or maybe it’s all a clever ruse so I won’t spot their real agenda.

The Presbytery event they permitted me to attend marked 500 years since the start of the Protestant Reformation. This was, amongst other things, a reaffirmation of the complete sufficiency and authority of the Bible.

In other words, if you are trying to figure something out and popular opinion says one thing, while the Bible says quite another, scripture gets the final say. It’s well worth being clear on that point – scripture, not ‘the church’, and certainly not individual men within it.

Recently, a shopkeeper in Stornoway was sent a Bible by the Lord’s Day Observance Society/Day One, accompanied by a supporting letter. She, it would seem from all the media coverage, felt threatened and harassed by this, which I would assume was not at all their intention in contacting her. Their motivation I think I can guess at. They were trying to remind the lady that, whatever she thinks is right and acceptable, the Bible says otherwise.

This, to the unbeliever feels like an imposition, like the dark-suited men of the church trying to assert some authority. They are – but not their own. It is not about control; it’s about love.

I know already what the response to this would be: ‘I don’t believe what you believe. Live your life the way you want and leave me to do likewise’.

However, the plain truth of the matter is that, regardless of whether you believe or not, God’s supreme authority as revealed to us in scripture is that: supreme. For a Christian to accede to the ‘leave me alone’ request would be a denial of one of the central tenets of their faith. When you have been plucked out of dangerous waters yourself, you do not sail blithely away, leaving others to drown.

Remembering the birth of reformed doctrine is not just an idle look into history for Christians. The man credited with sparking the birth of Protestantism – Martin Luther – is an example of that. He also felt the weight of unwarranted authority pressing down on him and, like many non-Christians, regarded God as a distant figure, threatening damnation for every misdemeanour.

And then Luther’s eyes were opened, and the chains which bound his heart fell away. He risked his life to bring that same freedom to others – all because he opened scripture and really read it.

Receiving a Bible should not offend you: it means that someone cares for you very much, and wants you to have all the chances they’ve had.

 

Free speech? What free speech?

You won’t be surprised to learn that, as a Lewiswoman of the Wee Free persuasion, there are certain things which I am not encouraged to have an opinion on. These include, but are not limited to: whether elders should wear ties, the use of more innovative psalm tunes, or anything to do with the carpark.

That still leaves me with baking, when to use doilies, and what colour of shirt is most becoming to the ministers. That last one needs very careful consideration if they’re standing against an all-white backdrop, and had a late one at the Session the night before. Peelie-wally face, grey shirt: you see the problem.

However, the restrictions imposed upon my thinking within church confines are as nothing compared to those that society has put my way.

Indeed, the overbearing Free Kirk patriarchy which has repressed my kind for so many years seems positively liberal by comparison. Why, this week alone, they allowed me to press buttons on the recording equipment unsupervised. And when the singing elder ran at me, shouting, ‘who let you loose on that?’ the minister reprimanded him. Progress, you see?

But what happens inside our secret society of Calvinist oppression  is well-known to those who merely look on. They know that the men rule with a rod of iron and the women meekly obey. It is a matter of common knowledge that the minister tells us how to vote, what to watch on television, which newspapers are acceptable, and which horse to back in the Grand National. Well, no, not that last one. Our local intellegentsia are not daft enough to think betting is encouraged; just that their neighbours are robots.

They are particularly good at making those kinds of judgements – what is harmless, what is harmful, what is important, what is not. And, of course, they are well aware that we Presbyterians are strangers to rational thought . It is for our own good that they tell us what to think, what to say, and when to be quiet.

This week, I shared a ‘Spectator’ article on facebook. It was called, ‘Questioning transgenderism is the new blasphemy’.

So, I questioned transgenderism.

The response? I was variously accused of being uncaring, ignorant, commenting on something that didn’t concern me and, inevitably, I was told to be quiet.

All of which rather made the author’s – and my – point. You cannot discuss transgenderism rationally. The same applies to abortion, to gay marriage, and to any number of other social phenomena which have quietly been ushered onto statute books in the west, without anyone really talking about it.

The responses are always the same: those arguing against you position themselves as caring, and will use words like ‘hurt’ and ‘shame’ and ‘rejection’. With no evidence whatsoever, they will tell you that generations of islanders suffered shame, mental illness, and even took their own lives as a result of being judged and rejected for things over which they had no control .

And perhaps that is true. But Christians do not mean to add to anyone’s unhappiness. It’s just, no one has asked their opinion. Had there been debate, they could and should have been part of that. Then, an appropriate response could have been discussed – by which I do mean with all sides being heard, not just those voicing the socially acceptable view.

What is not socially acceptable, as I am fast learning, is Biblical authority. People will dismiss it, using words that I find chilling – not because I am offended, but because they are.

They are offended at the idea of submitting to anything that is not their preference, or their will. In all of this, the supreme irony is that they are in chains of their own making. Like Jacob Marley, they have forged them inch by inch, and tightened them further with each half-turn away from the will of God.

There is, of course, another taboo here. You may not talk of sin. In this fruitless online exchange, the opponents of free speech write emotively and scathingly of the shame inflicted on generations of people for their lifestyle choices. While I have no doubt that may be true, and regrettable where there was a want of empathy, the truth has not changed.

So, don’t be offended at the mention of ‘sinner’, because I freely admit to being one of equal, if not greater guilt.

No Christian calls sin into question to humiliate, or judge anybody. That is never the aim.  Yes, we may indeed quote you Romans 3: 23, ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.

That means you, but it means me as well, and I speak to you, not as a would-be judge, but as a fellow convict who has been granted the key for my cell door.

You see, Romans 3 has a 24th verse. It says, ‘ and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’.

That is the key. If a Christian tells you you’re imprisoned, it’s not to cause you despair. They want you to open the door to freedom like they have.

Perhaps, after all, your hurt and offence has nothing to do with hearing the word, ‘sin’, and everything to do with being out of step with the only One who can truly dry your tears.

 

Bovril, brokenness and adoration

This week, I went to pieces over a jar of Bovril. I’ve never liked the stuff anyway, but finding it lurking at the back of my kitchen cupboard was unexpectedly emotional. It wasn’t mine, you see; it was Donnie’s. And seeing it there, knowing I would have to throw it out, and that I will never again buy another jar of the revolting substance brought me to tears.

Every clear-out I have is difficult because, no matter how thorough you’ve been, there is always something. It is like stripping away layers of your life together. When you come across the object – Bovril, a CD, a book – you remember it in its old context. And now you have to deal with it in its new. Worse, you have to decide whether to keep it or not. It would have been ludicrous to keep an out of date jar of beef tea, though, so I didn’t. It was thrust decisively into a bin liner in a single, rapid movement I’ve become very practised at.

It took me months before I could do that with his toothbrush, or his toiletries. There is still a bottle of his aftershave in the bathroom cabinet. Little by little, as kindly as you can to your own heart, you have to make changes.

Two months after he died, I traded my car in for something that had never been parked in the hospital car park, nor sat for a week outside the hospice. I just needed a neutral vehicle, with no leaflets about coping with cancer in the door pockets. But it took more than a year before I could shake myself to give Donnie’s car away.

Grief is a painstaking process – it is like piecing the mosaic of your life back together with a toothpick, after it has been shattered into a billion shards. Some days, none of the tiles fit, and all you can see are empty spaces.

But that is not every day. Or, at least, it is not every day for me.

For a long, long time, I could not bear to sing Psalm 100 along with the rest of the congregation. It was too poignant, there where we married, singing the verses I walked down the aisle to. Every time it was announced, I wanted to flee from the building before the precentor even got to his feet.

But I knew this could not be allowed to continue. It is a psalm of praise to God – it is not about me, or my loss, or my grief, or my very unbecoming self-pity. So I read it again. I read it over and over, trying to hear His voice.

I’m no theologian. In fact, a lot of the time, I worry that I might veer into heresy, or take too much on myself in how I read God’s word. The Bible is not art, or poetry, and it isn’t safe to interpret it just how you please. But this Psalm speaks to me very clearly. It says ‘come into His presence with singing’, and it says, ‘enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise’.

It does not say, ‘come into His presence and sing’, or ‘enter His gates and give thanks’. We are surely to come into His presence already doing those things.

But, more than that, as I have found out – we are to come into His presence by doing those things. Praise Him, bless His name for all that He is and all He has done, and He will draw very near.

There are many shattered lives in this world. People see their plans unfulfilled, their hopes and dreams broken before their very eyes. The world is a place of brokenness and has been since the end of Eden. We were intended for perfection, yet we chose sin. If God was the cruel, remote entity unbelievers would have Him be, the story would end there and the atheists would be right: this world would be all there is. After all, we made our choice. Knowing and living in perfection, our first parents still rejected it and left us this legacy of grief, of doubt, of corruption and all the manifold horrors that sin brings in its wake.

God has not dealt with us as we deserved, though, has He? He offers us the beauty we rejected. In Jesus, He has made for us, not a mosaic from the pieces of our old life, but a perfect, new creation. I see it, even as I fit my life back into some semblance of order.

What I thought were spaces in the picture, are simply those things which are unseen. They are what will endure, just like His steadfast love.

Asked last week to write a short piece on ‘adoration’ for the forthcoming Free Church Day of Prayer, I had no hesitation in basing it on psalm 100. It does not represent loss to me any longer; but the only gain worth counting.

If we are His people indeed, ours will be a song of praise without end.

Evicted by an Elder and Other Open Doors

Twice in the space of a week the same elder has attempted to have me removed from meetings. In the first case, he simply objected to my presence; in the second, I think it may have been something I said.

It is encouraging, though, to realise that the objection centres on my person, rather than my gender.

That, surely, is progress for womankind, and especially the subjugated Hebridean truaghag of the Wee Free variety – when people start dismissing you for your objectionable personality, and not simply because you are, well, a blone.

At the first of those gatherings, our work SU group, the same elder gave a very interesting and thought-provoking talk on the work of the Gideons. It is an organisation I have always been dimly aware of, but knew little about, and it was good to learn more about the valuable work that they do, placing copies of God’s word into the very situations where people most need Him.

That is to say, anywhere and everywhere we go.

Here in Lewis most of us grew up in homes where there would be not just one, but a good many copies of the Bible. Yet, this man in his work for the Gideons spoke of meeting people who were beyond delighted to be given their very own New Testament, never having possessed one before.

I own a lot of Bibles. There are two pulpit tomes which Donnie bought and lugged home from second-hand bookshops. And the one I gave him when we got married, as well as the Bible presented to us by Stornoway Free Church on the same occasion. We also have a family Bible, which I have not yet had the heart to write Donnie’s death into.

There is the one I use every Sunday, tastefully covered in blue tweed. And the handsome leather-bound study Bible, a gift from my brother, which I use daily at home. By my bed, there is a journaling ESV, with notes on many of my favourite passages; in the car is the pink version I use with my Sunday School girls.

And there is a desperately battered Gaelic Bible in the glove compartment too. I would love to replace it with something less fragile, but you just can’t buy them anymore.

At work, I keep a minuscule New Testament, an even more battered Gaelic Bible, and Donnie’s ESV. Oh, and a Gideon New Testament that all staff received shortly after I started in the college. I even have multiple translations on my iPhone.

No excuse, in other words, to be unacquainted with what my Father wants of me. But simply owning a Bible – or 100 Bibles – will not help, if I never open any of them. They are not holy relics, or sacred objects in and of themselves. God intended that they should be read, and their truth applied. That was what Luther and Tyndale and other great Reformers won for us: the privilege of having the Word of God at our fingertips, in our own language.

The one that I love best, though, is not the beautiful journaling volume, nor even the familiar Sunday blue tweed. It is a well-thumbed KJV Study Bible, stuffed with post-it notes and place markers. I had not picked it up in many a long year until recently, but it is my old friend because, through it, I think I came to a better understanding of the Lord’s plan for my life.

After hearing the elder speak about the Gideons, I came home and took the old KJV down from the shelf, and leafed through it. Seeing what I had marked and written notes on, I can almost trace the development of my relationship with the Lord. Including this, in Romans 15:4:

‘For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope’.

Reading it painstakingly for myself, trying to get closer to God, I must have marked that passage in hope. I struggled to understand anything that I had not heard explained in church, but I’m glad now to see this passage highlighted.

Elsewhere in Romans, Paul tells us that those who believe in God will not be put to shame. As I look back over this very long road, strewn with Bibles that mark every stage along the way, I can acknowledge the truth of that.

Now, as I look at the beloved KJV full of post-its, I realise how very like Gideon I have been. God was speaking to me in every one of those texts. When my heart swelled for joy at the words ‘those that are BEING saved’, didn’t that tell me something? Every word that I marked, I knew in my heart to be His truth.

Yet still, yet still, I needed another reassurance that He was speaking to me.

It did not once occur to me that I would never even have picked up the Bible, far less opened it, unless He had something to say to me.

And no matter how crammed with notes it is, how dog-eared, how tattered, or how pristine, God speaks the same message through your Bible as He did through mine:

‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me’.

Please don’t follow my example, lingering  too long on the threshold between life and death. Pick up your Bible. Hear His voice. Open the door.