If You’re Happy & You Know It . . .

There was a time in this island when, if more than three cars were parked at your house simultaneously, reports of your demise would soon follow.

Get two Leodhasaich together, leave them for long enough, and they will eventually start talking about death. One Leodhasach by himself is probably contemplating his own mortality. And a big crowd of Leodhasaich? Well, that’s most likely a wake – why else would a lot of maudlin Teuchters gather in the one place? A couple of hundred years ago they might have been suspected of plotting to put a Stuart back on the throne, but all that kind of fight was knocked out of them along with the Catholicism. No, if Leodhasaich are gathering, it’s probably just to look on the black side as a group.

But why do Christians, and especially those bearing the Calvinist stamp, have such a reputation for misery? I was speaking to a gentleman recently who recalled seeing the order book of a well-known Stornoway draper from some years ago. It consisted of hundreds of pairs of ladies’ shoes, stockings, hats and coats – all black. No style was specified for any of these items. The only requirement was that they should be of the soberest hue so that church-going women could be decently clad on a Sunday.

And it got me thinking: what do we look like from the outside now? I mean, we Wee Free women no longer go out in Presbyterian uniform, so it is not so easy to spot us in a crowd. Yet, though we are dressed in the outward garb of the world, more than ever we are a peculiar people.

Theologically speaking, of course, it is right that Christians should be in the world, but not of it. We must, therefore, expect a certain amount of estrangement from others. But we also want to be faithful witnesses for Christ, and it’s incredibly hard to communicate with people if all they see are barriers between us.

So what form do these stumbling blocks take? What is it in the church that puts people off? And I’m not asking why the world appears to hate Christians – we know that it ever was and will be thus. No, I’m trying to piece together what it is in our conduct that hands the world another excuse to ridicule the cause of Christ.

Well, there’s the misery. Don’t get me wrong, I think we’ve moved on from the stereotypical Calvinist who was only ever happy when he was suffering. And we’re reticent Leodhasaich, so it might be too much to suggest that our hands should be in the air during worship, or that we should pepper our service with hallelujahs. There is nothing – in my opinion – wrong with the form, or substance of our worship.

It’s more, perhaps, our demeanour. If you are a Christian, you are freed from the burden of sin and the tyranny of death. Really, if that isn’t a reason for the deepest joy, what is?

We’re telling the world that we have been given the greatest gift and that if they follow Christ, they will know true peace and freedom as we do. And the world is responding, ‘Aye? Tell your faces’.

Then there’s the ‘s’ word: schism. We have had some silly spats over the years. There is no point in averting our eyes from it, or airbrushing it out of our story. I think it’s high time we explained ourselves to the onlookers, so that they can’t excuse themselves with it, saying, ‘why would we want any part of it – you’re no better than the rest of us’.

And that’s the truth. Christians are not better than anyone else, nor should we think of ourselves that way. The church is not, as a far wiser person than me put it, a museum of saints, but rather, a hospital for sinners. We are exactly like everybody else, but for one important detail: we know what our biggest problem is, and we’ve taken the cure. It doesn’t make us anywhere near perfect, but it should help us see when we go wrong, and wish to make amends.

Unjustifiable splits in the family of the church are the result of fallible human beings thinking that their point of view is sacred and unassailable. We are all guilty in this regard. There is no value and no dignity in apportioning blame. In reflecting on such incidents we need to pray for forgiveness, humility and hearts that would focus upon Christ.

At a time when the church seems encircled by enemies, Christians need to fix their eyes on the Lord. If we are reaching out to the unchurched, we do have to make sure that there is nothing off-putting in our conduct; we surely don’t want to be guilty of giving them any more excuses. It means doing what we are asked, but what I for one find so challenging – dying a little more to self each day.

We are His portion and His witnesses in and to the world – let’s try acting like it so the world realises what it’s been missing.

‘No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us’. 1 John 4:12

Identifying as a Wee Free Widow

‘Identity’ is a word much in the news these days. Gender identity, ethnic identity, community identity . . . It’s the jargon of the time in which we live. Much like anything else, though, once the label goes on, the thing in the jar is already dead. We use the word, ‘identity’ so much because we have lost any real sense of who we are.

There was a time when, if I told my GP that I saw myself as an Irish tomcat, he’d probably have me quietly removed to a place of safety, having first said, ‘no, you’re a boring white maw lady’. But these days, you can – according to the right-on thought police – identify as anything you want.

I have trouble with this on several levels. There is an aspect of my own identity which I don’t like. Much as I may joke about it, I’m reconciled to the Carloway/Achmore/Harris genes; and I’m happy to be fluent in the language of Eden, even if we Gaels are more endangered than the corncrake.

It’s never troubled me too much that there are only two genders to choose from either because you don’t actually get to choose anyway. Occasionally, when my brother would receive his ‘Beano’, and I was stuck with dull old ‘Twinkle’, I’d wish I was a boy. However, antipathy towards Nurse Nancy and her implausible job at the dolls’ hospital was hardly the basis for such an upheaval, so I let it go.

Besides, if I’d mentioned that I seriously wished to switch genders, my father would have counselled me in the time-honoured way of all sensitive Lewismen, ‘Ist, oinsich.’ Conversation over.

The aspect of my identity I’m least comfortable with is the w-word. No, not ‘witch’. Not ‘weirdo’ either, thank you. It’s ‘widow’ I don’t much care for. And I think that a large part of my discomfort stems from the fact that it makes others uncomfortable too.

I keep remembering CS Lewis’ description of himself following the loss of his wife, as a ‘death’s head’, reminding all couples of their inevitable parting. Often, you fret that your very presence will upset people who are ill. Equally, I worry about ruining people’s parties and gatherings – I don’t want to be the hollow-eyed spectre at the feast while others try to make merry.

The problem is mostly in my head, though not entirely. After Donnie died, the MacMillan nurse advised me to change my shopping routine – ‘otherwise’, she said, ‘you’ll meet the same people you always do, people you know. And you’ll spot some of them trying to avoid you, which will hurt.’ She was right: I spotted people ducking up aisles in the supermarket, or suddenly becoming very interested in displays of teabags as I passed by. There were colleagues who never acknowledged my loss, and there were many expected visitors who did not come.

Two years on, I’m probably deemed safe – unlikely to burst into tears, or embarrass anyone by prostrating myself with grief in public. But I’m still a widow: a forty one year old widow. What are people supposed to do with that ? For that matter, what am I supposed to do with that?

Well, it’s simple. I decided from day one that I was going to be as easy as possible to be around. (Yes, this is the manageable version). If you want company, you owe it to people not to make it more of a challenge than it needs to be. That often means being the Catriona people expect even though I’m not the Catriona I expected. Smile though your heart is aching and all that jazz. My grief is mine, and I have no right to thrust it upon other innocent bystanders so long after the event. Two years is a long time. Unless, of course, you’re the one who has lost someone.

But this is where one other facet of who I am comes into play: my identity in Christ. Even in church, I can feel out of place. There are couples everywhere, and there is so much emphasis on young families that it’s easy to wonder where you fit. The answer, though, is in Him, and the answer is: ‘in Him’. He it was who, as Newton put it, brought me safe thus far. And, He intended my widowhood.

That’s the most startling and challenging thing of all. It’s only natural for people who are condoling with you to say how awful it is for Donnie and I to have been parted so young. We view it as though this world is everything, and to be taken out of it is punishment. Donnie wasn’t taken early; he was taken when and as God intended.

The logical follow-on is, therefore, that I was widowed when and as God intended.

So, God meant me to be who I am right now; this has a purpose. I am not where I am as the result of some unhappy accident. Providence knows no accidents; and Providence doesn’t want my self-pity. I do have such periods when I feel hard done-by  – because I’m a self-indulgent, egocentric sinner.

And then I am reminded of the cup that did not pass from my Saviour’s lips, despite His repeated prayer.

If you catch me feeling sorry for myself, remind  me that whoever I identify as, that’s who I’m identifying with – and He suffered unimaginably so that I wouldn’t have to.

 

Lost Causes & Bringing Cutlery to Ness

A former minister of Stornoway Free Church once impertinently suggested that I had a bit of a preoccupation with lost causes. His evidence was my membership of the SNP and the fact that, at the time, I was a development officer in Ness. Well, the SNP has done okay since then; and I’ve heard that the Nisich are now – mainly – literate, and able to use cutlery. So much for my causes being lost.

He wasn’t entirely wrong, though. I’ve always known what it is to be in the minority. Being a Gaelic-speaking Calvinist marked me out from most of my fellow men; and now, a follower of Christ, I am a confirmed oddity in the eyes of the world.

Recently, I was interviewed for BBC Alba’s religious programme, ‘Alleluia’, and was asked what kind of upbringing I had received in terms of faith. I think I said it was ‘gu math àbhaisteach’ – fairly standard. Most households had some kind of church connection, and most attended services, even sporadically. For the time – the eighties – it was indeed àbhaisteach. So much so, indeed, that I fear we took it for granted.

Chatting to one of our more senior elders this week, he said that he and his wife had returned to live in Lewis during that very period. The pews were so full that one had to arrive half an hour before the service in order to be guaranteed a seat. Those greeting the congregation at the door had no time to do more than catch their hands and encourage them inwards, a gesture reminiscent of sheep being guided through a dipping tank.

It was easy. All they had to do was unlock the doors, and people would come. Elders and ministers were held in high esteem in the community. Even people who were unconverted, or unchurched for that matter, would go to some lengths to avoid giving offence to Christians. Bad language was refrained from in their presence. There was a culture of respect for the things of God, and even those who thought it foolishness had more manners than to say so.

It is easy when everything is as you would want it. The SNP in the Western Isles had seventeen years of Donald Stewart MP, a man universally admired and respected. When he retired, they had to adjust to a whole new world. I remember those years. Repeated election campaigns when you knew in you heart that things were not going your way. Knocking on doors, only to be told that you were a nuisance, or a gullible idiot. Having your campaign literature torn up in front of you. Being called unrepeatable names and even, on one memorable occasion, being spat at.

Scottish nationalism, though, is no longer the social embarrassment it once was. It has gone mainstream. Properly political now, affiliation with the SNP is not, by itself, enough to get you a reputation for eccentricity. Being a member of the SNP is never going to win you universal approval either, but at least people no longer patronisingly say, ‘oh, so was I – until I grew up.’

The cause of the lost, on the other hand, looks to be in a bad way. Churches are emptier, people no longer trouble to refrain from giving offence to Christians here in Lewis – indeed, some seem to go out of their way to shock. Secularism exercises its vocal cords at every opportunity. Only this week, the results of a questionnaire survey show forth the anti-Sabbatarian agenda rearing its tedious head yet again.

Now that the church in Lewis commands little respect from those who do not share its views, then, are we to assume it has become an irrelevance? Should the Free Church pack away its psalm books and sell its buildings so that they may be converted into pubs, or gyms, or coffee shops – something that people do want?

Of course not. Recently, our congregation heard that the world hates the Gospel, but it needs the Gospel. This is the dichotomy that means we must persevere: it echoes the Great Commission. None of us knew we needed Christ,after all, until He made Himself known to us. We love because He first loved us.

When we thronged, as a community, to church every week, it may very well have been just ‘the done thing’ for many. Teenagers went to please parents, adults went out of habit and obedience to societal norms. But many who went there carelessly were eventually saved.They may have gone for months, or even years, under duress, but their bonds would sooner or later be removed by the truth which sets all who hear it free.

Being unwanted in society is not a new experience for the church of Christ. The head of our church was slain by a culture hostile to His message, yet His mission persevered. He was despised and rejected of men, as is His church – and for that very reason it must endure.

We forget, don’t we, that the cause of the lost is very far from being a lost cause. Indeed, Christ is already victorious, enthroned in Heaven. And so, His triumph should surely be foundational to our worship.

Worship is in the Spirit. Neither preaching, nor praise, nor prayer are mere words. And the same indwelling Spirit who compels our private and corporate prayer can compel people into His presence, no matter how far removed they may be from thoughts of Christ.

The only lost cause, it turns out,  is that of fighting irresistible grace.

 

Hats, hymns and the Holy Spirit

I got a bit of a shock last Sunday night. After the evening service, I met my mother. No, that’s not the shock – I’ve known her all my life. But something was different . . . It took a few minutes before I realised: she wasn’t wearing a hat! My first thought was, ‘I knew it – she’s gone back to the Church of Scotland.’ Subtly, I glanced to see if she was carrying a hymn book, and then it occurred to me that I didn’t know what one looked like anyway. Besides, surely I’d have heard if my own mother had absconded back from whence she came.

Actually, she had just got fed-up of hats and decided, at seventy-eight, that it was time to join the aotrom* throng of bare-headed Free Church women. She really does believe in doing things in her own time, and for that . . . well, I take my hat off to her.

The hat-wearing ladies have long since become a symbol of more so-called ‘hardline’ Presbyterian churches. Somehow, people got the idea that the hat symbolised male dominance and female subjugation. As if the Session appointed a committee to discuss such things. ‘What was in style ten years ago?’, the chairman might ask. After consulting a long out of date JD Williams catalogue, one of the elders would say, ‘pillboxes, with a small veil’. Two hours later, an edict would be issued to the local shops – ‘Stock only pillbox hats (with or without veils) and sell these to our women. No gaudy colours – they’re vain enough as it is.’

The hats are fewer and further between with each passing year. You will see more people (of both genders) wearing jeans to church, and fewer men are opting for the suit and tie look.

Last Sunday morning, the preacher mentioned that thousands of others had once occupied the pews in which we, the congregation, were sitting. In the more than 150 years since the church was built, successive generations have indeed sat under the Word there. Fashions changed many times over that period, and so many ministers have mounted the steps to preach in that very pulpit. Even the language of worship has changed. And the light-fitting, the Habitat-esque monstrosity which replaced – I am reliably informed – two perfectly charming pulpit lamps, was also a reflection of the (lack of) taste and mode of the time.

Were it possible for some of these Victorian worshippers to return to Kenneth Street now, they would undoubtedly be struck by some of the outward changes. They might be confused about standing to sing and sitting to pray, or the purpose of the camera, to say nothing of references to soup and pudding, Tweenies and newsletters. And I am certain that they would wonder why the whole affair was being lit by something resembling an oil drum.

But then, the reading from the Word would reassure them that all is still well with their old church. The preaching is as Bible-centred as it ever was, and the congregation hears the truth, however unpalatable that sometimes can be to us. There may not be much in the way of pulpit-thumping or histrionics from the minister, but the message remains the same. One and a half centuries on, the building still resounds with the Good News. People in varying states of grace are awakened, comforted, challenged and fed, depending on their spiritual need.

What you see may be quite different, but what you hear is the same: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.

And what you don’t hear, or see? That would be the Spirit, abroad in our midst, opening ears and eyes, and changing hearts. He was there in the nineteenth century, and He is there in the twenty-first. The church he occupies isn’t, though, the lovely edifice on Kenneth Street but, as 1 Corinthians 3:16 puts it:
‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in you?’

With heads covered, or without, in jeans, or suits, or Sunday best frocks, it doesn’t matter a bit. The world sees and laughs either way. The Holy Spirit is as out of style as the pillbox hat, but His work goes on regardless. And the world rejects the Holy Spirit because they cannot see Him. To them, it is all reminiscent of the Emperor whose new clothes were not merely invisible, but nonexistent.

Christians, nonetheless, are to clothe themselves in the Spirit. That garment supersedes trends or fads, and resists the restless human desire for novelty and innovation. Whichever church you go to which claims Christ as its head, this will be the dress code: come as you are, and He will do the rest.

 

Notes

* lit. Light, insubstantial – used colloquially to denote spiritual superficiality. 

 

Collars, Cappuccinos and Change for Change’s Sake

The light above the pulpit in Stornoway Free Church has hung there so long that it’s in danger of becoming fashionable again. I know that it’s been there a while because my granny (who died some time ago) disparaged the new fitting as resembling an old tin can. She, being from Carloway, was used to the finer things, you will understand. It is said that their tobar boasted a Dresden china cover. Nevertheless, the old tin hangs there still, shedding its light unchangingly. Where I sit, on the balcony, it is right in my field of vision, the same metal shade at which my granny used to frown.

I like that. Oh, not the light fitting – retro urban chic has never really been my kind of thing. No, but I like the sense of continuity with the past. Somewhere along the way, though, ‘traditional’ has become an insulting term, even within the church. This is now, and we have to assert our modernity and break with the things of yesteryear. Just because.

Well, my name is Catriona Murray, and I’m a traditionalist. It’s been eight minutes since my last Stroudwater . . . I like pews, pulpits, handshakes, clerical collars, unaccompanied psalm singing, and the sustentation fund. I like these things because I’m used to them, and for a host of other reasons besides.

Don’t get me wrong, if modernity took over and ripped out all the pews, to replace them with bleacher seats, I’d continue coming to church. If the pulpit gives way to a perspex lectern with integrated cappuccino machine, I would still listen to the sermon. Even if the minister opted for full Highland regalia, topped off with the headgear of a Bamangwato tribesman, I might remark on it to my neighbour, but I’m fairly sure his preaching would be unaffected, so I’d stay for that too.

Tradition does not rule me and I am not wedded to it, though I confess to a fondness for it. Besides, the justification I hear from modernisers is always a little inadequate. We need to be more accessible, more approachable, more flexible, more adaptable. Why? So that people will come. This isn’t Field of Dreams, so building it isn’t enough, apparently. Folk won’t come to church just to sit on hard pews, to listen to a man in a collar who stands in a tall wooden box.

Indeed, they will not. But is that why any of us ever went to church, and will it suddenly be different if we give way to gimmickry? We can dress the elders as Morris men and put disco lights in the vestibule for all the difference it will make.

People outside are not actually repelled by the sight of a minister’s collar, or the wooden pews – they are repelled by the gospel.

So, if the priority is boosting attendance at services, let’s by all means have men in surf shorts greeting people at the church door. Frothy coffees can be handed out as they arrive and the pulpit be replaced with a revolving stage. Each minister could, like a boxer entering the ring, have his own theme tune; each already has his own signature ‘move’, a la Mo Farah or Usain Bolt, anyway. Instead of the Mo-bot, or the lightning bolt, we could have the . . . but no, I mustn’t say.

Boosting attendance is not, however, the priority. It’s all wrong to think of the church of Christ – whatever denomination – as a business which needs marketing. Musical pews and scruffy preachers will not bring people in because old, varnished pews and ministers in clerical garb are not, in fact, what keep people out. The message does; and we definitely cannot change the message.

So, what next? Do we just sit where we are and wait for people to come to us, then? Obviously not. We carry on. The preaching, the worship, the outreach, the witness all must go on. Prayer – both corporate and private – must go on.  The great challenge in this, like in every other area of life, is to carry on doing what is asked of us, while trusting that the Spirit will accomplish the rest.

Putting all our efforts into pulling out pews and restyling the minister, therefore, would be an awful lot like fiddling while Rome burns (with apologies to any fellow Wee Frees still offended by the mention of fiddles and/or Rome). After all, we can’t really believe that this is something we could, or should, manage for ourselves.

Of course we mustn’t put up unnecessary barriers, but I think that these kinds of obstacles are more likely to exist in our hearts and in our attitude to others than in any superficial traits we may have as an institution. If you are greeted with a smile and a warm handshake at the church door on Sunday morning, does it matter if the person greeting you is a man in a suit? When you are welcomed, does it signify that it is into a 19th century building with old-fashioned seating arrangements? And, when your heart is moved by the message of salvation in Christ, does it matter what clothes the messenger is wearing? Or are we focusing on these things because WE can change them ourselves?

The light that is shed by Biblical teaching and by the faithful, steadfast witness of God’s people, does not waver. If we wait on it and follow it closely, I firmly believe that it too will come back into style. If we truly commit ourselves into the hands of our Lord, trusting not in what we do, but in what the Holy Spirit is doing, then we must let it be. While the world sees prayer and waiting on the Spirit as doing nothing, the church of Christ surely knows that it is everything.

Silence does not equal inertia in the work of the Spirit; in fact, it often means that He is drawing breath, just about to speak.

 

 

Free Church Android

I have a friend who does not come from a Free Church background. Actually, I have many such friends. In fact, a lot of the people I grew up with have little or no church experience and absolutely no truck with Christianity. Many of them fall into what I think of as the Iain Crichton Smith category – having a pretty tired and hackneyed view of Hebridean Calvinism which is largely based on stereotypes that are no longer true (if they ever were). These stereotypes wear black hats and sombre faces; they shake their heads at mirth and sigh in response to vain worldliness. And they live in the imagination of people who ought to know better.

However, this friend has no such prejudices. She wandered into my life in a haphazard, vaguely work-related way. We hit it off over coffee (me – after all, I’m a neurosis-ridden Wee Free) and herbal tea (her – a bit fancy like that, what with being ‘from away’). One Sunday, I took her to a Gaelic service in the Seminary in Stornoway, which is nothing to do with training priests, despite the name.

And then she came along to some English services too. I was impressed at her tenacity because, the previous summer, on a reconnaissance visit to Lewis, she had been to such a service. The children’s address, about the irrepressible manse dog, had appealed to her, but the content of the sermon had not. She was discomfited, I gather. Now I can’t remember if I explained to her that this would usually be viewed as a good sign in the Free Church. Wallowing in comfort and self-satisfied complacency is not how a spiritually healthy clientele should be. The hard pews, the hard truth, the hard stare from the pulpit: they are all part of the strategy.

Some weeks ago, she and I met up with another friend of mine for dinner on a Wednesday evening. Yorkshire Lass asked Island Girl (yes, I’m aware that they sound like runners in the 3:15 at Aintree) whether she would be coming with us afterwards to the prayer meeting. Island Girl laughed in a mildly hysterical way, ‘On a Wednesday!? No way!’ And so I had to explain why Wednesday was a ‘thing’, whilst simultaneously reprimanding Island Girl for allowing her daft Leodhasach hang-ups to emerge in front of a visitor from the Real World.

Yorkshire Lass has experienced much of what Free Church life has to offer. She has heard fine preaching, beautiful psalm singing, shared in prayer meetings and witnessed the Lord’s Supper being dispensed. This month, she was astounded by the groaning food table at our congregational fellowship. We have experienced the Harris conference together, and the WFM annual dinner. I know she has made lasting friendships besides my own.

Just before our recent ‘off-peak’ communion, she asked whether it would be ok if she attended the Saturday preparatory meeting. When I answered in the affirmative, she said, ‘what do people do who don’t have a you to ask these things?’, as if I’m some kind of Wee Free Siri. A faulty one, at any rate, but perhaps more reliable than Wikipedia.

The fact of the matter is that most people here in Lewis do have plenty people they can ask. They won’t, though, because they’ve already had their heads filled with daft rules. Wednesday night meetings are for communicants only, preparatory services are likewise for the converted . . . the list goes on. Worse, though, is the idea that you may not be welcome, or that people might judge you if you haven’t been to church for a while. They picture it being like the saloon bar in a John Wayne film where the stranger enters and many hostile eyes turn to stare. Wee Frees are gloom merchants and their churches oppressive places. Probably the minister will thump the pulpit, shout a lot about hell and maybe even castigate the newcomer for their sinful lifestyle and lax conduct.

Yorkshire Lass had no such preconceived notions. She came with an open mind and an open heart, but with no very positive formative experience of Christianity. Here in Lewis, she has met Christians whose faith is not about a series of formal steps, but is a living reality. They are far from perfect, but they are authentic. Christ is the centre of their lives. I see my brothers and sisters now through her eyes, as well as my own.

For me, meeting her has been a gift. She may do funny things with nettles, but she has given me the ability to see the Christian heritage of Lewis as something precious. We so often have to defend it against prejudice from within our own community. People get hung-up on the ouward badges and rituals of church life. In her, coming with the heart of a child, to ask questions in good faith, I see Him. I always believed that He had brought her to Lewis so that she might be among some of His believing people. In my blindness, I failed to realise just how much of a blessing her presence might be to us. To me, anyway, because in answering some of her questions, I am answering my own.

When you remove all the inside track stuff that needs explaining – who is allowed to go where, when do we stand and when do we sit – there is only one truth anyway. Christ reigns over all, and His people have been released from bondage.

There is also only one church after all: His, and it is most entirely free.

Cracking Pots & Wee Free Code

Those who are out both ends, and follow this up by coming out on a Wednesday night, are often expected to go forward. In the Free Church in Lewis at least, this has been the time-honoured course of things. It is code for regular attendance at Sunday services, leading to appearances at weekly prayer meetings, culminating in a profession of faith.

The fact that we have our own terminology surely suggests that it’s of some cultural significance. A social anthropologist would call it ‘ritual’, which word on its own used to be enough to make any respectable Wee Free faint. ‘Ritual’ evokes images of candles and altars, and . . . I’ll stop there out of respect for any of my denomination who might be reading this in possession of a pacemaker.

It is, however, a cultural norm. Not one set in tablets of stone, though. Contemplating going forward, I used to think of all the things I’d be more comfortable doing. Having a chemical peel, bathing the cat, parachuting out of a plane . . . and I settled it with myself that I wouldn’t – couldn’t – do it. You see, I had an image of what it was going to be like. Let me paint you a picture . . .

I knock on the door of the session room. The hubbub of voices from within ceases immediately. There is a long pause. Heavy, Calvinist footsteps. With a creak, the door opens a fraction.
‘Yes?’ the elder says. He doesn’t smile. Their smiles have been left on the pegs outside, along with the black coats and hats.
In a tiny voice, I mumble my desire to profess faith. A moment of silence, then a long, drawn-out sigh. The door is opened wider. Behind him, I see a scene exactly like David Octavius Hill’s famous Disruption painting. My eye falls on the minister, who is looking at me in disbelief.
‘You? Really? I mean, really – you?’ he asks incredulously, as the whispers of, ‘who is she?’ rise to a crescendo behind him . . .

IMG_0475

My horrified imagination would go no further and I nursed the label, ‘secret disciple’ to myself. Our cultural norms give you plenty opportunity to justify secrecy. There was, historically, a strange sort of almost-pride in not going forward. It was suggested that such and such a person ‘could’, or even ‘should’. No one ever said it explicitly, but it was always implied that what kept them back was a kind of superior humility – oxymoron, if ever there was one. Nevertheless, secret disciples were a thing and I could be one.

The Lord was having no more of my nonsense, though, and smacked me between the eyes with two truths. First, if He has healed you, you have to tell. Second, if He is everything to you, you must be ready to defend that hope to those who do not yet possess it. And he smoothed my path to obedience. Going forward was not a grim ordeal. There was no one there from the 19th century, but instead a group of Christian men wishing to welcome another person into the visible family of God.

Last Sunday, our church commemorated the Lord’s Supper again. Many outside of this situation misinterpret it. They think those who sit at the Lord’s table see themselves as beyond reproach, perfect and holy. In reality, those who partake of the sacrament do so because of their imperfection, their awareness of the sin that is woven into every fibre of their being. God, we are told, is of purer eye than to bear looking at our sinfulness. We, on the other hand, are of such a sinful heart that we cannot fully appreciate His purity.

Yet, in this sacrament, we are given the chance to contemplate it more deeply.

What a privilege you deny yourself by hanging back. The Kirk Session is not a Heavenly court; it is a group of sinners saved by grace. If you have submitted to your Father in Heaven, what is stopping you from telling them? We allow cultural norms to over-complicate what is actually very simple.

And if the Free Church gets anything right, it is simplicity.

Christ did not ask His church to have lavish festivals in order to commemorate Him; He doesn’t need candles, or gilding, or acres of flowers: His beauty is in His love for us; His love for us is manifest in His sacrifice. That, He asks us to remember.

And how? We are told to remember Him in the two simple elements of bread and wine. These are broken and spilt, as His flesh was broken and His blood spilt for us. His people share these things in communion with one another and their Saviour. To sit at His table is to say that you belong to Him, that you wish to come apart from the world, to die to self, and to identify your life with His.

A perfect man or woman would not need Christ. There is real beauty, therefore, in imperfection – He is the golden weld that mends the pot of clay.

 

Safe Spaces and Dwelling Places

I went to a feminist event last night. It was that thing which we’ve heard there is so much need for in the Hebrides – a safe space for women to talk and exchange opinions. It was a real, face-to-face meeting of Hebridean ladies , sharing a meal and sharing conversation. Women of all ages came together from across the island, to talk, to listen, to laugh, to catch up with old friends and to meet new ones.

There was a guest speaker. She spoke movingly of her work with street children in Uganda. I don’t believe there was a heart in that room of almost 200 women unmoved by what she told us. Children, born to children, growing up without a home or a family. Without, in fact, a safe space.

These are children who don’t know what it is to have a parent’s unconditional love and protection. They are exposed to unthinkable danger every minute of every day. Many of them are on the streets, nonetheless, because that terror is marginally better than the one they faced at home. We all know how short a duration childhood is; in the blink of an eye, it’s past and, for these children, never really happens at all.

The speaker, Marsaili Campbell, is a paediatric nurse who has worked with these children for a long time through the Dwelling Places project. In addressing her audience, she excluded no one, and made no assumption that the room was filled with Christians.

I have already had fingers wagged at me by people who thought I was suggesting that charity is the exclusive preserve of Christianity. It isn’t. The gathering was Women for Mission, but the challenge is for all human beings. Could we not work together to make this world a little safer for everyone? Surely there are more important fights than the ones we are having with each other, and more important rights than that of swimming seven days a week, or keeping your child from hearing about Noah and the ark.

This meeting is an annual event organised by Women for Mission, a network of committees affiliated to the Free Church, and raising money to fund missionary work. It is the preserve of energetic, intelligent, motivated and compassionate women. If you are one of those, you could come to a WFM fundraiser, just to see what it’s about. You could support the work to help street children, to bring hope to the hopeless. These events, and the planning meetings which precede them, are safe spaces.

The women I met last night are authentic  feminists. True, they haven’t hung that label on themselves, but I think that’s because they are absolutely free, and don’t need to.

I was approached by a smiley, petite lady at the end of the evening, to tell me how much she was enjoying my column in the ‘Record’. That lady taught me – and countless others – to read and write during her 37 years in Laxdale School. Elsewhere in the room, I saw my former boss, a woman who stood up to men in suits in the 1970s to give Ness its Comunn Eachdraidh. That swiftly became a movement which has preserved and recorded our folk heritage up and down the islands and beyond.

The lady co-ordinating the evening is another example of feisty Free Church womanhood. I’ve come to dislike that word, ‘feisty’ because it’s so often applied to militant moaners. Not in this case. Think force of nature with a hundred watt smile. You do her bidding because she semi-charms and semi-terrifies you. And because everything that drives her is what drives each woman in that room: love for the Lord.

A room packed with women, all of one accord: it should terrify the men. Then again, there was one present – just one, mind you. He had a camera. Probably gathering evidence to take back to the Session. I’m fairly sure he caught the woman next to me laughing, so they’ll probably shut WFM down. Women laughing and planning things is surely the way sedition lies.

Actually, women, with their multi-faceted personalities, experience, and gifts, come together in groups like WFM. They work towards a common, humanitarian goal. In striving as one, they become one. There is real sisterhood because the bonds that exist between them are forged in the fire of love. It is that simple love which says that if a child is hungry, you should feed her, and if she hurts, you should comfort her.

That is what feminism looks like in the Free Church.  It is about looking outward and serving the Lord by serving the lowliest in our world.

At the end of the evening, the beauty of 200 women singing Psalm 40 in unison said something to me about real feminism. Each individual voice counts, yes, but how much more power is there when we come together as one?

 

Samhain and the Power of Darkness

The veil between this world and the world of spirits was always at its thinnest on 31st October: Hallowe’en to the kids of today, but Samhain to our long-dead ancestors. Samhain was a fire festival, marking the end of harvest and the beginning of the dark months. It was also a sort of passage in time, no longer in the old year, nor yet quite into the new. The spirits of the Otherworld could insinuate themselves into such breaches in continuity; they could return to warm themselves at the hearths of the living, and even take possession of their bodies in order to remain in the earthly realm well beyond Samhain.

Don’t run away with the idea that our Celtic ancestors were morbid, with a fixation on death, though. No, no, that sort of glumness didn’t kick in until 1843, when the Free Church outlawed fun, laughing within a six-mile radius of the minister, and wearing your hat at jaunty angles. Think instead of Samhain as a jolly festival, with flames to light up the encroaching darkness and a whole lot of clamour to confuse the ghosts.

You see, Samhain wasn’t really about death at all – it was about keeping these very forces at bay. It was about marking the safe in-gathering of the harvest. And, while we look on winter as the end of life, the Celts saw it quite differently. Time, for them, was cyclical and Samhain was both an end and a new beginning. They realised that the budding and blooming we witness in the spring does not just happen spontaneously, but is the latter-end of a process which begins many months before.

In nature, regeneration first requires darkness. You plant a seed. Then you water it. And you watch. Nothing happens. Repeat the watering, the watching and – yes, probably – the despairing, many times. One day, though, your patience and your care are rewarded: a single, green shoot has made its appearance. Conceived and prepared in the dark, but flourishing in the light.

I recall an evening last summer, planting flowers in the long bed at the front of the house. It is surrounded and shaded by trees planted and lovingly tended by my late husband. With the warmth of the sun causing sweet fragrance from the fresh-cut grass to perfume the air, and the sound of birdsong beginning to drowse above me, I listened to a sermon on Genesis 1. Never has it been brought home to me more powerfully that we were meant to live in a garden.

Listening to those familiar words, ‘In the beginning, God . . .’ being described as a prelude to the whole Bible, I found myself wondering what it would have been like had we lived only in a Genesis 1 world.

For an idea of how it might have been, play Haydn’s oratorio, ‘The Creation’: all is the glory of God and the perfection of His handiwork. Indeed, the Catholic Church took great exception to it and banned its performance in places of worship precisely because of its portrayal of a perfectly-ordered world. Its emphasis is, undoubtedly, positive because it largely dwells on God’s perfect work. Nonetheless, the Fall does intrude towards the end, however minimised it is by the composer.

In a work entitled ‘The Creation’, Haydn might well have been excused for excluding sin altogether. But for one thing. He had been inspired to compose his great work after hearing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ performed for the first time. It made a powerful impression on him. No one who has once encountered the Messiah can then look upon Creation in the same way again, nor be unaware of the need sin has created for salvation.

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It is just as well that we humans do not know what lies ahead, because with our small minds, and limited life-spans, we frequently reach the least optimistic conclusions.  Adam and Eve must have been so weighed down with sorrow on leaving the garden; they couldn’t see the Saviour who would come to make reparations on their behalf. Perhaps, for them, the story ended like Haydn’s, with the Fall.  But God, omnipresent and omniscient, is also wholly trustworthy.

Nature witnesses to its Creator. It has an inherent wisdom, and a completeness to it. Where we see darkness and decay, nature is actually resting and regenerating. Last year’s roses shrivel and fall, the shrub a desiccated stick. Yet, beneath the ground, the roots are gathering strength, ready to produce new shoots.

As it is in Creation, so it is with the Creator: He nurtures that growth, hidden from our view until He is ready to reveal it to our sight, and to His own glory.

No Denominations in Heaven

The Wee Frees are famously not big on symbolism. Step inside one of the denomination’s churches and your nostrils will not be assailed by the aroma of incense, nor your eyes by art and effigies. There may be coloured glass in the windows, or there may not, but there is no gilding on display, no costly baubles adorning the walls.

Yet, it is not without its idiosyncrasies. It is like every other community in the sense that it has its own unwritten codes and customs which only those who belong to it ‘get’. Those who belong to it feel great affection for it; those who do not belong to it may be a little nonplussed. I’m speaking here of the Lewis incarnation of the Free Church, of course.

Communities frequently have their own language. Elsewhere, I have spoken of the inelegant description of regular churchgoers as being ‘out both ends’. At a conference some months ago, one of the speakers mentioned the confusion that might be experienced by those not ‘in the know’ when their Free Church friends declare with delight that, ‘Margaret came out on Wednesday night’. And, recently, I confused a friend who is still new to worship in our congregation by casually alluding to a ‘retiring collection’.

All of this just witnesses to the fact that our denomination has a long history; that we function as a community with a rich culture all its own. Our roots go deep in this corner of the world. Yet, somehow, the Free Church remains a mystery to those who only view it from outside. They see their friends, neighbours and even relatives trot off to church each week and still have an incredibly warped notion of what goes on inside these edifices.

In recent months, the non-church (honestly, it’s the only label I feel safe to use) section of our community has displayed a woeful ignorance of, and sometimes incredibly imaginative take on, Free Church practice. From what I can gather, they think that women of this denomination are weak, biddable, suggestible automatons, who allow their menfolk to tell them what to do,read, think, and even how to vote. The men are bullies with a very 17th century take on marriage. Kirk sessions instruct their congregations in political matters and hold secret, sinister power over the local council (though not, apparently, the Licensing Board). And, let me say again, those who take this view are people who know us personally: our friends and our neighbours. They know us in our villages, our schools, our workplaces, our clubs and our committees. Their children and ours play together. Yet, despite all those real connections, they seem to believe this utter nonsense about people who have  given their lives to Christ.

I have something I’d like to say to such people:

When you live next door to someone who is a Christian, regardless of denomination, don’t you take them at face value? If they seem nice, reasonable, ordinary . . . isn’t it just possible that they are? And, if they are, what is your hostility about? Might it be something in you? Couldn’t it be that you have created a foe to despise because, to see things as they really are might be dangerous? What if something in their lifestyle appealed to you?

There is absolutely no point in attacking a denomination, for the same reason that there is no point in me defending one. They are all made up of people – individuals whom you know. Turning your attention onto some outdated Iain Crichton Smith meets Lars Von Trier meets the Wicker Man parody of the Free Church is a painfully obvious, nay, childish tactic. Don’t do that to yourself. You are worth more than that. Instead, get to know someone who lives for Christ, and ask them why. Ask them why they follow Him, and why He rules their lives, instead of why they won’t compromise over Sunday openings. Once you understand their faith, I guarantee that their obedience will make more sense.

I heard a story of a man who had a dream, in which he saw buses arriving at the gates of Heaven. The first, marked, ‘Church of Scotland’, was waved away. Then, the second, labelled, ‘Free Church’, was similarly dismissed. Being a Free Presbyterian, he was surprised when their bus met with the same response. Then, though, one arrived, bearing the legend, ‘Church of Christ’, and the gates opened wide to admit it.

Do not, in your fear, try to make Christ small. He isn’t interested in denominations; and He isn’t in one more than another. Come to ours, come to any – but do come. Please, in the words of the hymn, ‘turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of this world will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.’

Follow Christ, not Christians. We will let you down; but He never will.