The Savour of Life . . . Or Death?

Coming up to the anniversary of Donnie’s death this week, I worried. You see, I’ve learned that you never quite know how you’re going to be. It is almost as though you are watching another person, because you have zero control over your own feelings in this regard.

Nonetheless, you gather yourself inwards, tentatively approaching the dread day on metaphorical tiptoes. I suppose, three years on, I am afraid of waking the sleeping beast of grief.

Sunday was wonderful. I had missed the midweek service because of another meeting. And I felt its absence, limping towards the weekend. So, Sunday and my church family received me into their warm embrace. Preaching, praise, prayer and fellowship somewhere you can just be yourself is not to be beaten. It poured strength into me, reminding me who He is.

And, when Tuesday came, I awoke, feeling . . . fine. Better than fine. Time with Himself, a stroll with the dog, and I was chilled out. There were messages of care and love and prayer – many from people who had never known Donnie but who have become important in my life since then.

Just as He has done three years ago, God surrounded me with His peace. For that day, I could read the barrage of nastiness about me online and not be troubled. Not be troubled for myself, at any rate. The people making snide remarks struck me as rather sad, forlorn figures. What kind of person hates someone they’ve never met to that degree? I felt sorry for them.

But I’m ashamed to admit that the feeling of pity did not last. You can only hold yourself taut for so long and, by the time I went to bed, my heart felt so full of resentment I thought it might splinter.

‘Even today’, I complained to God, ‘they couldn’t leave me alone’.

I have learned to live with the fact that I am despised for being a Christian; I have learned not to be bothered by the casual lies they tell about me. This is not actually about me anyway – I could be their darling tomorrow if I denied Christ. He is the unpopular one, not me. These days, I am reviled for His sake, just as He was reviled for mine.

And there the comparison ends.

He bore His infinitely greater suffering with perfect fortitude. I simply ended up feeling sorry for myself.

On Wednesday morning, I stomped about the house, and went to work in the worst of humours. It was a culmination of things: too much coffee, too little sleep, too much holding it together on my own inadequate strength, and not enough time pouring out my heart to God. At one point, I told my sister that the day was bound to end with me hitting someone – anyone – or bursting into tears.

The day, in fact, ended in laughter and in gratitude.

What effected this miraculous transformation? Not ‘what’ – who? And I think you already know the answer.

First of all, there are friends. The friends God puts in your path are not necessarily those you would expect. Sometimes, the world might look askance at these relationships, and even wonder what you could possibly have in common. But I found the value of those God-honouring friendships right then. While I was seething through my day, these friends were, it transpired, worrying for me.

And, if you’re not a Christian, you may be thinking, ‘that’s nice – but hardly remarkable’.

Wrong. It is extraordinary in the truest sense of the word. Christian concern goes heavenwards. These friends, in their anxiety for me, were bringing me before God. In being on their hearts, I was also on His.

That is not nothing.

In their safe company, I unwound. The venom of poor, misguided people lost its sting. I remembered who I was because these friends showed me what I should be.

And we laughed. Mainly at each other. Together, as well, we reflected on the meaning of integrity, which is really  about being straight before God.

It doesn’t matter what those who are wise in their own sight think of me. They have started off from the false premise that there is no God, and so all the working out from then on is bound to be erroneous.

This is not about them, though. They have taken enough of this week from me.

Actually, this blog is not a blog at all, but a love song – to the Lord, and to His people. It is a thanksgiving.

God moves the hearts of His people to small acts of love. It was they, through Him, who soothed my brittleness this week. In the unexpected heat of this election campaign, a little  band of us have supported one another. Each day, we begin by sharing a reading; and each night, we smooth the cares of the day with a song of praise.

And, there are the messages. One person sent me assurance of their prayers, accompanied by the loveliest sound clip of psalm singing from our church. Ladies I haven’t seen in years, but who knew my parents, sending me word of their solidarity. It is worth so much more than I can ever express.

Then there are the strangers. Not the hate-filled people who abuse my good name for what I believe; not the faux-reasonable secuularists who wish I would just disappear and shut my face about who Christ is.

No, the other kind of stranger. People I have never met, but who are my brothers and sisters because they too have known God’s grace. So, so many of them have reached out and blessed me by doing so.

How can the same words cause some to bitterly hate, and others to brim with love? That, I think, is a question for the unbelievers. God, help them.

 

 

Forgetting the Sabbath Day

Last weekend, I had to confront the idea that perhaps my teaching ability is not, as the Americans say, ‘all that’, when we had a quiz about Moses in Sunday School. Asked which two foods the Israelites had enjoyed in the wilderness, one team confidently wrote, ‘pigeons and napalm’.

Ah, yes, the diet of champions.

However, they did exceptionally well on the Ten Commandments, both teams recalling nine correctly.

They each listed the same nine. And they each missed out the same one.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

We joked afterwards amongst ourselves that we must be terrible teachers if none of the children remembered the fundamental rule of our faith. You would think, we said, sitting in a Sunday School, discussing the commandments, that’s the one they WOULD remember.

But, then, reflecting upon it afterwards,
I thought that maybe the kids had demonstrated something very valuable. Christ has told us we must be as childlike as them in our faith and in this, as in so many other of His teachings, I have not paid enough heed.

After all, there in our classroom, talking about the things of God, praying and singing Psalms of praise, and enjoying one another’s company, were we not living the very essence of the missing commandment? Was it necessary to remember the words when we were doing what they asked?

It actually crystallised for me where we are at locally with ‘the Sunday issue’. I have come to despise the word, ‘Sabbatarian’, which is invariably used pejoratively. It is not we Christians who believe that keeping the Sabbath is the fundamental tenet of our faith, but those who wilfully misunderstand what we are all about.

In fact, what we are – or should be – all about is John 3:16. Christ is the centre of our faith. We should be showing people Him, His perfect love and, yes, His authority.

I was not a Sabbath-keeper until I loved Christ. Even now, I am an imperfect keeper of the Sabbath by any human standard. But I love Him unwaveringly. And though my neighbours might judge me as falling far short because of my outward conduct, that is not how He operates.

My involvement, through this blog, and on social media more generally, in speaking up for the traditional Hebridean Sunday, has caused no end of misunderstanding. There have been times when I do not recognise myself from the descriptions of others. Surely, as I remarked to friends this week, that’s Ian Paisley they’re talking about.

Or, perhaps I have fallen into the same communication trap as the late Reverend. Have I been substituting noise and repetition for clarity? When I should be telling folk of quail and manna, are they just getting pigeons and napalm?

I know that there is a prevailing view among some in the online community that I am a hardliner. Sssshhhh. If you listen very carefully, you can almost hear the Free Church fathers laughing.

Right now, because there’s an election going on, there are efforts being made to portray some candidates – myself among them – as single-issue Sabbatarians.

Not only am I not a single-issue Sabbatarian, I am not a Sabbatarian at all. Certainly not the way the secularist lobby means it. And I would be very surprised indeed if any of my fellow Christian candidates see themselves as such.

As I said in the previous blog, I observe Sunday as a day of worship and devotion because I love the Lord. Before that, I appreciated a quiet Sunday because I loved and respected my heritage as an islander.

Different working-out; same answer.

It is not the day itself which matters, but people. God made the Sabbath for man, not the converse. He did it intentionally, though – and God’s intention always comes back to the one thing: the benefit of our souls.

Our souls are in need of rest and refreshing. Without Him, we try to find ways of achieving this. I know, because I speak from experience. Reading. Walking. Films. Time with friends. Sleep. And then, always that Sunday evening realisation that another week of work is about to begin and there will be no rest for five days.

With Him, though, it is different. There is no need for me to achieve that rest and refreshing because I receive it from, and in, Him. Constantly, though – every day. It is a well that never runs dry.

I am grateful for that every day and never more so than this week. It has been a time of cumulative stresses – a very intense situation at work; the inevitable (and increasingly creative) online abuse; and in the background, the knowledge that, three years ago this coming Tuesday, I was sitting by my husband’s bedside, watching his life draw to a close.

But I am a very blessed woman. None of these burdens are mine to carry alone. Every pressure and pain brings Him closer and, if He doesn’t come Himself, He sends others. His peace springs up from within to water the driest days.

And His commandments are no longer written on tablets of stone, but the heart of flesh He has given me.

 

Singing my Sorrow in a Strange Land

The night before my public ordeal by presbytery last Tuesday, I got a message from a friend saying they were praying for me. They didn’t know that I was nervously facing my first gig as a male impersonator (well, you know, sort of), but that only makes it lovelier in my eyes, that these Lochies would pray for me, while I was miles away, sitting by my stove in Tolsta.

On Thursday, after a moving and thought-provoking service of thanksgiving, I went off to Isles FM – our local community radio station- to do a live show, called Glow. It’s a mix of Christian conversation, music and readings. The host is an easygoing Siarach with a pleasant, laid-back style. He manfully endured my ramblings about the Reformation for the entire show, and we parted company late on a very wintry night.

The midnight drive home over freezing white roads was unpleasant. I registered with surprise the unfamiliar sensation of being glad to see Tolsta: I was home. Back within wi-fi range, my phone pinged out messages. Laid-back Siarach doing his ‘mum thing’ and checking I’d arrived safely. A very dear friend reminding me of something so lovely from that evening’s sermon. And a new friend joking that I seemed to be everywhere, but that he’d enjoyed the show.

The road home had been a challenge, but there was light and warmth and kindness at the end of my journey.

It caused me to reflect on other things that had happened this week. Someone who is researching for a documentary about loneliness called on Monday to discuss it with me. And, just yesterday, a friend very perceptively said that she realised how difficult it must be to have no one to talk to about my day when evening falls.

Yes, that silence has got a particular quality to it. There is no one asking about how work went, or telling me I look tired. Donnie was a generous man and gave of his love and concern liberally. He cared in a very practical way because his heart and his conscience were both larger than was sometimes good for him. And, just when I was most tired, or at my lowest ebb, he would do something unexpected. Our life together was one of small kindnesses – and great ones – which I miss very much.

But, even this is something from which I can learn. I know that this life I find myself living is part of something intentional in God’s scheme. So, with His help, I am trying not to follow it as though it’s some kind of plan B.

By extension, then, the inherent loneliness that accompanies my widowhood is something of which God is aware and which He knows will be the lot of anyone in my situation. He supplies much which alleviates it. I am blessed in having a supportive and loving family, good friends and no shortage of activity to keep me distracted.

Which is fine if all I’m supposed to do is survive. One of my initial thoughts after he died was to wonder how many years I might have to ‘get through’ alone on this earth. But that was transient, something borne of the acute despair I felt at the thought of living without him.

Until I remembered that my strength had never come from Donnie. That was a mistake I had made many times before. When it really mattered, though, God gently showed me who it was that had taken me through.

Three things occur to me, then, inspired by what I have heard and where I have been this week. First of all, I believe that being distracted from grief and loneliness is not what God wants for me, nor is it why He has placed so many incredible people along my path. I think he wants me to see my widowhood, and yes, even the loneliness, as a gift through which I can experience more of His love. That was one message in last Sunday evening’s sermon.

And on Tuesday, discussing the Reformation solas, we were reminded that soli deo gloria, or ‘to God’s glory alone’ may sometimes be overlooked. It is a personal challenge to remember in everything I do and, though I try, of course my efforts frequently fall far short. After all He has done for me, how can I even think of keeping the smallest bit of credit for myself?

Reflecting on all He has done was the theme on Thursday as we gathered for a service of thanksgiving on an icy cold evening. Even in sorrow – perhaps especially in times like these – the minister said, God wants His people to sing their sadness to Him. In singing to Him, they remember His name; His name is wedded to salvation; and so in the midst of their sorrow, they remember all that His grace has accomplished for them.

That song of desolation becomes a song of praise and thanksgiving because they are no longer looking backwards at the night, but forward to the eternal daybreak.

It has been a busy week, one in which I have rarely been alone. Now that I am, my mind does not dwell on the silence, but on all the love He has shown me in these last few days. How can I sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? When I think of all He has done – His steadfastness, His forbearance, His mercy, His love towards me – how can I be dumb?

 

Who Stands at the Door and Knocks?

As I ascended into the pulpit, I wondered nervously whether anyone would come through the door today. Turning, I looked across the expanse of empty pews. Not one solitary soul. And no bodies either. Still, it was early.

So early, surely – you’re thinking – that I was still asleep and dreaming. What was a woman doing in the pulpit of Stornoway Free Church, if she didn’t have a can of polish and a duster in hand? Well, the truth is that I was taking a photo from the finest vantage-point in the building. It was the first of many times throughout the day when I would stand there. We have opened our doors to visitors this weekend again, inviting them to come and see the building and learn about the history of the congregation and its mode of worship.

Even the visitors were a little taken aback when offered the opportunity to stand in the pulpit. One lovely Danish lady gasped, putting her hand to her chest, and asked, ‘Really?’ Mo chreach, I thought, maybe she misunderstood and thinks I’ve offered her some sort of permanent post. But no, it’s just that she was making the same mistake that we are all inclined to – thinking of the bricks, mortar, wood and glass as sacrosanct; thinking of them as the church.

Culturally, we have been long attuned to the idea that worship can take place anywhere. One does not need to be in a church to pray. Church buildings are wonderful for corporate worship, but private devotions are just that. When the Lord was instructing His disciples how to pray, after all, He said they were to go into their room ‘and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who is in secret will reward you.’ Yet, throughout our programme of open days, I have witnessed the way in which people interact with our building, and it has been very revealing.

So many comment on the simplicity and the absence of distraction. This being the work of dour Wee Frees, there is no gilding, no ornamentation, lest we lose our heads and give our lives over to the worship of idols.

Others have remarked on the cleanliness, which shows how well cared for the space is. And now that we have interpretive boards, the questions about our history have become more challenging. My favourite so far this summer was, ‘So you guys believe that salvation is by faith, it says here, not by works – but you’ve got a cafe raising money for charity next door, so how come?’

It was a better question than ‘when was the church built?’ because it allowed me to talk about not only the Christian hope of salvation, but about the transforming power of the Spirit, who motivates good works.

Many of those who come, though, simply want to sit in a pew and listen to the recording of Gaelic psalm singing, which we have on a loop. Some stay only a few moments, others a bit longer. Perhaps they pray, or contemplate God; it is hard not to when the place is so . . . expectant.

On Friday morning, I entered through the side door and into the church. There in the loveliness of a July morning, this was a place of tranquility. It made me want to linger, to be in God’s presence, just myself and Himself, for a wee while.

Good Calvinists have not traditionally venerated buildings. But that isn’t what I mean, anyway. Think of the generations of worship which these walls have witnessed, the souls moved for Christ in that place. Sit there in the beautiful stillness of the morning, and the very air seems to whisper His name.

I did stop to contemplate. How many prayers had been uttered here, how many verses of psalm? The very grain of the wood must have been nourished with tears: tears of sorrow at times, but so many tears of joy too as the Saviour’s incomparable love became real to one soul after another down through the decades.

The Lord brought people to us this weekend who had need of kindness. This is not an advert for Stornoway Free Church, nor a boast of any kind. It was His work that they came, His provision which supplied their needs – it is all of Him. But He wasn’t, I believe, just speaking to them.

Even as we hold our broken world up to God in prayer, I think He sometimes confronts us with it too. Today, I met some people who have nothing much to their names. I was glad that our church was not covered in gold and draped in velvet; and I was glad it was open.

The same man who asked me about the relationship between faith and works also asked me about Sunday Christians. You know, the kind who ‘put in the time’ once a week, attending services faithfully, but forgetting all about it in between. As I reflect upon that now, I wonder whether the starting point might be having our doors open a little more often.

We have a lovely, clean building, of which we’re very fond; and we use it to worship God for something over two hours a week. Yet, as soon as we opened up on each of these two days, He sent us strangers in need.

How long might others stand at our door and knock, only to find it firmly shut? And aren’t we worshipping Him by helping the least of these?

This afternoon, an Australian visitor said something quite simple and yet so profound that they might have been Jesus’ own words: ‘I have gone to many churches, hoping to find them open, but I am always disappointed by a locked door.’

Our hearts were locked against the Lord for so long; will we grieve Him more by barring the door to His church on those who need it most?

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.