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.