It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

In ‘Bambi’, Thumper’s mother advises him, ‘if you can’t say nothing nice, then don’t say nothing at all’. It was very much in this spirit that I refrained from blogging over the last few weeks. Every time I tried to put finger to keyboard, a host of ideas would march in hobnailed boots through my mind, and I found that I didn’t want to share them with you.

There is, right at this present moment, enough ugliness in the world. I am tired of the brutal language from parliament; I am weighed down by the solemn-faced teenager from Scandinavia who speaks to us of apocalypse; and I am tired in my heart at the many ways in which I encounter discouragement and opposition. It is so very easy to feel that you are making no difference to the world at all, except by contributing to global warming and voting for the wrong people to govern us.

It’s at moments like these, more than at any other that we have to rest on the promises which are ours in Christ. This really is no continuing city; the road we are on, as Christians, will carry us far beyond all of the strife and fear that sin has created, into the haven of eternity in his presence.

Meantime, however, is it possible for us to retain our grip on that peace whilst avoiding the accusation that we are too heavenly minded to be any earthly use?

Yes, I think it is.

For me, a particular verse from scripture has become very important in all of this. Naomi, speaking to Ruth, advises, ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out’.

Even reading it floods me with a sense of the difference between God’s purpose and our understanding of it. We know that he has his own timing, his own plan, and yet we continue to behave as though these are our hands upon the steering wheel, and our foot on the accelerator.

I have taken that verse to heart because it has a very practical application. Recently, I received news that was simultaneously concerning and disappointing. My initial reaction was negative, and then I remembered Naomi’s wisdom. We are so quick to assume that something is ended because it feels that way for us.

Do we not believe that the Lord blessed Job even more in the second half of his life than in the beginning?

If we do, then we have to live believing it. By that, I don’t just mean that we have to live while believing it; I mean we have to live out our belief in how we think, in what we do, and how we are with other people.

I thought, the day I married my husband, that this was God’s intention for me. And, indeed, so it was – it was his intention that we should have eleven years and eight months of marriage. The last few months were not filled with the same kind of happiness we had known, of course, because they were marred by pain and sadness. That, however, was not some aberration from God’s plan. We – Donnie and I – had not foreseen, nor desired such a thing, but it was in our providence. We take the good things from God’s hands unquestioningly, never doubting our deserving of them; why, then, would we question the same hand when it deals with us in ways we would not choose?

So, let’s take that individual lesson, which so many of us have learned at some point in our journey, and apply it to the world around us.

It would be easy to be overwhelmed by grief at the state of God’s cause in our midst. I have grown up in a country which increasingly ignores his imperative, and countenances the murder of the unborn child, the warping of the biological code, the reinterpretation of marriage. In a well-intentioned move not to demonise people for their differences, we have deified those very differences. The apparent conclusion of all this is that we will continue to be wise in our own sight, and shut God out of his own creation forever, just as he cast our first parents from Eden.

Mankind seems bent upon avenging Adam through warfare with God. Parents wilfully prevent their children from being exposed to the truth, in open defiance of the contract that says they should raise their families in fear and admonition of the Lord. They admit no such contract; they admit no God but their own reason.

Yet, I am not overwhelmed by grief. Instead, I consider Naomi’s words again: ‘Wait, my daughter . . .’

God is not finished. Into such a maelstrom of sin and rebellion, he has come many times, and bent the people to his will. What cause have we to believe that this is any different?

The Bible assures us that he does not leave himself without witnesses. While this is true, we may feel at time that our numbers are too few to fight so many foes on so many different fronts. This has certainly been my own feeling during the darker nights of discouragement in my soul.

Then, though, I remember that the fight is not ours, but his. Just as in our own personal circumstances, we trust that God is working everything for good according to his purpose, we have to see all of creation in that same light. Global warming, prorogued parliaments, abortion, war . . . everything is accounted for in his plan.  He will make good his promises to us, and we have to keep faith with him.

That doesn’t mean wringing our hands or turning our faces to the wall. The world, however broken, still has a chance. While we wait to see what wonders God will do, we must be about his business more urgently, because it isn’t over until he calls time.

Love IS Love

Love is all around us. We encounter the word incessantly, pouring out of our televisions, our radios, splashed across newspaper headlines and peppering social media. There has never been so much love, nor so much talk of it.

Only, I’m beginning to think that our obsession with the word belies the fact that we have lost track of what it means. For many people, the answer to that question would be, ‘love is love’ – inferring that it comes in many forms and that it can be anything we want it to be. It is yet another example of where absolutes have been removed, making it impossible to have any kind of definition at all. That’s what leaves us with the somewhat meaningless, ‘love is love’.

We don’t need to despair, however, because a proper definition does exist; it just happens not to be to everyone’s taste: God is love.

Instantly you bring Him into the conversation, of course, the eye-rolling starts. He’s a known killjoy. Funnily enough, the least Biblically literate of unbelievers know, almost instinctively, what He disapproves of. And, when you know He disapproves of what you want, then the best thing to do is write Him off as irrelevant, or even better, imaginary.

When you do that, though, there are consequences. You are purposely and repeatedly cutting yourself off from truth and choosing a convenient lie. Indeed, you are doing exactly what many Christians are accused of by atheists: you are creating a pretty fiction for yourself, and denying all evidence to the contrary. Spiritually speaking, you are deranged. For the sake of an easy and self-indulgent life now, you are choosing a hideous eternity.

That, however, doesn’t mean that believing ‘God is love’ sorts everything out. It is more than a mere fridge-magnet sentiment to be parroted in every tight spot and awkward situation. A few years ago, I sat in church as our then minister thundered that many people had gone to a lost eternity believing God is love. He was right. There are those who think that, because He is love, He would not let a basically decent person, who has lived a civilised life, suffer eternal death.

Neither He would; He has made provision for us to avoid that eventuality. He is not willing that any should perish – but some of us will it for ourselves by failing to accept His gift. Even in this, we are disobedient, messing about with our eternal souls, gambling them on a nursery belief that, because God is love, He won’t condemn nice people to hell.

No indeed; we condemn ourselves.

Which brings me back to that definition of love: God is. That’s really no help if you don’t know anything about God, though. I often hear from unbelievers that He is a figment of the imagination, a patriarchal construct, designed to supress and control successive generations, and to subjugate women particularly.

Every word they utter tells me that, no, indeed, they do not know Him at all. They have believed the propaganda – the tired, dog-eared mantra that the Bible is filled with contradictions, and that God presides over it all like a power-crazed tyrant. This God, who has been built from straw, is all too easy to knock down. He can be dismissed because He is fake.

See, the definition of love extends to a bit more than three words. And, if it’s too big to distil down to, ‘God is love’, then you certainly can’t get off with simply saying ‘love is love’ either.

So, go to the Bible, to the First Letter of John, and the fourth chapter. Here is a complete definition of love. It tells us that love is from God and that God IS love. This couldn’t be clearer, really, could it? Whether we like it or not, and whether we accept it or not, we cannot understand love apart from Him.

Which is the point where unbelievers start to shake their heads at smug, sanctimonious Christians, believing that they have a monopoly on goodness. The arrogance, honestly, of these God-botherers, claiming that only they know what love is, and that anything contrary to their understanding is not love.

See? We have heard all the arguments before.

I know that what I write here will offend some. Mercifully, being offended doesn’t kill; being lied to very well might, though, so let’s not do that. However much people want us all to agree that love is whatever we make it, and whatever we’re comfortable with, that simply does not make it true.

Love is what you see in the fact that God, while we were all in open rebellion against Him, sent His Son to die in our place. He only asks that we accept it, and permit Christ lordship over our lives.

Easy when you know how, but a colossal challenge if you have lived your life apart from God, believing Him to be a fiction. We live in a country that makes it increasingly hard to talk about Him without being mocked, pilloried, or silenced. In my own mother’s lifetime, Britain has gone from depending on the Lord in warfare, to dismissing Him utterly from our public sphere. It is difficult to witness for Christ when people hate you for it. Or, more accurately, hate Him through you.

Why go out with the Gospel, why intervene in debates where God’s name is trampled underfoot when you know that the chances of being listened to are slim, and the chance of being jeered at and derided very great?

The answer is ‘love’. We love because He first loved us. Having that love in us now, we cannot contain it; it has to flow outwards to others where we once were.

We see you, walking through the storm of life, head bowed against the onslaught. Watching, we remember how it felt to be there in the cold, buffeted this way and that, our peace and happiness subject to every prevailing wind. And we are moved, by the Saviour’s love for us and in us, to catch you and pull you in where we are, beneath the shelter of His wings.

That, my friends, is love, which comes from Christ and through Him, and depends only upon Him. God is love and, therefore, when He is the foundation, love IS love.

 

The Little Islands That Could

Despite my reputation in some quarters as a religious fanatic, I am not usually to be found in church on a Friday afternoon. Gu deimhinne, I am not to be found in the Church of Scotland any day of the week, thank you very much, and yet here I was, in Martin’s Memorial, no less, at 2pm, when I ought to have been at work.

Except, of course, this was work. We were gathered for the Lews Castle College UHI graduation and I, along with my colleagues from the Gaelic team were there for two very particular reasons. Our former boss, doyenne of local history and professional Niseach, Annie Macsween, was finally being honoured for her major contribution to Gaelic language and culture. She was receiving a Fellowship of UHI from the University Court. Also, a 2008 graduate of ours, the well-kent broadcaster, Anne Lundon, was awarded UHI’s Alumnus of the Year; her career has long been a source of interest and pride to all of us who were privileged to have taught her.

It made me reflect upon the debt of gratitude that so many owe Lews Castle College, myself very much among them. These islands have always valued education and learning, but were forced to part with their young people – their future, really – in its pursuit. Until, that is, our wee technical and maritime College did what so many Leòdhasaich before it had done – and got ideas above its station.

Driven on by a few local visionaries, it got involved in the delivery of degree-level studies, as part of what was then just the UHI Project. University title and then degree-awarding powers did not follow until some time later. When I graduated BSc Rural Development in 1997, I received my scroll in Stornoway Town Hall, but my name was entered upon the graduates’ list at the University of Aberdeen – for it was they who had to validate these early degrees. My class was, nonetheless, the first to receive a degree through Lews Castle College; and I, merely by virtue of alphabetical order, was the first individual to do so.

Our Principal – my boss – reminded the graduates of 2019 that they should encourage others to follow the path they had. I hope, since coming to lecture at my old college in 2002, that I have been able to do that. There is something special about working there, and about providing the educational lifeline that says to students, ‘actually, no, you don’t need to get out in order to get on’. Indeed, we hardly have to say it anymore. This generation of youngsters has, mercifully, lost the Hebridean cringe that says if it’s home-grown it can’t be any good.

I have never suffered from that particular worldview. And my time as a student at Lews Castle College confirmed what I had already suspected: we may not be the same as anywhere else, but we’re every bit as worthwhile.

Sitting in Martin’s Memorial, applauding the success of our students, and the staff who get them there, I felt a wee surge of emotion. In his speech, the Principal also said that, in the early days, people didn’t really believe in UHI. He was right; they didn’t. I remember the scepticism, the struggle to convince folk it was ‘just as good as real university’ – and I remember that the doubt came mainly from within our own communities. So, watching the ceremony, with the mace, and the gowns, and the big velvet hat with which the graduands are slapped, I got a lump in my throat. This was it; this was a real university town, out in celebration of learning and progress, and of the people who constitute our future.

My degree opened a whole range of doors, the most important ones being in my own mind. I questioned, I listened, I learned, and tested my worldview against all this knowledge that was being shared with me. For a very brief spell, I even flirted with atheism, but I stopped that nonsense when it dawned on me that God knew fine that I still knew He was there. I read about land ownership, and the Highland famine, and community empowerment. And, oh, the dates – 1493, 1746, 1843, 1886 – that unlocked my people’s past in ways I would never forget.

Because of Lews Castle College and the education I got there, I have been able to keep faith with this community. I know, you see, what makes it tick. All along, I have understood and loved it, and believed that it just wasn’t hitting its full potential. Getting out to get on just didn’t make sense to me; staying and making it even better, though, now you’re talking.

I really hope that’s what some of these graduates will do now. We want their enthusiasm for the Western Isles to be invested back into the communities that made them. It’s time they added their voices to the local narrative. These islands are crying out for people who want to nurture them, and to develop them, without feeling the need to obliterate all that makes the place unique.

Perhaps my Lews Castle College education is the reason I struggle to understand the mentality of people whose very raison d’ etre seems to be moaning about Lewis (other islands are available). They don’t seek to put anything in, but they have endless complaints about it all. You name it, they have denounced it. And they reserve their bitterest criticism for people, with certain groups attracting more criticism than others – namely Christians, councillors, Stornoway Trustees, Gaelic speakers/activists, folk who aren’t Christians but like Sundays to be kept traditional, people who work for the council . . .

We have comprehensively defeated the nonsense that said we could never meet the need for undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications without leaving home. That’s done. Now, let’s set about creating a greater mood of intolerance.

Yes, I said ‘intolerance’:let’s not tolerate bitter, sad people who miscall these islands, but make no effort to contribute positively; let’s refuse to permit their negative droning to dominate the narrative about the Western Isles. If these kinds of voices had been listened to before, Martin’s Memorial would have lain empty this Friday afternoon. Instead, the little College that could just went ahead and did, scattering the sceptics in its wake.

I think scattering sceptics should be the island way. According to some, we get nothing right here in Lewis.

See me and my local education, though, we view it differently. We do things our own way, and that’s right for us. Anything else is just an inferiority complex – and I think these islands are just too good to have one of those.

Before Bethesda

I have never been able to tell when God opened my eyes to His marvellous light of truth. It dawned gradually, I think; so much so that day had broken long before I felt the warm rays on my face.

What I can recall is when that blessed assurance became mine. It was simultaneously the worst and the best day of my life.

My husband was in hospital. He had a raging infection after his third dose of chemotherapy for metastatic bowel cancer and needed specialist care. They had scanned him the previous day, and the news was encouraging – it appeared that the tumour was responding to treatment. In the midst of a truly awful, bleak period of four months since his recurrence was diagnosed, this was more than a glimmer of hope.

So, imagine how it felt the next morning when his Macmillan nurse phoned to summon me to the hospital. ‘He’s a lot less well’, she said, ‘and you should come’.

I drove, I parked, I ran to the ward. She told me, as I held his hand, that we were more or less out of options. He could go to Inverness for extensive surgery, but they doubted he’d survive the journey. Besides, she said, he’d had enough, and only wanted my say-so to lay down his arms. It didn’t give me a moment’s hesitation. Donnie had been through enough; he had battled bravely, and not once opened his mouth to complain.

The ambulance came within the hour and took us to Bethesda. His family were there, and my sister. I cried then. But from then on, I was surrounded by what I have only ever been able to describe as a bubble of peace. If I called to God, it was with my heart, not my voice – but those prayers, He hears them too: perhaps even more so. My soul inclined to Him instinctively, because somewhere along the way, it had become His property without my knowing it.

Donnie lived a week after that; Friday to Friday. We were both in God’s tender care, I have no doubt about that. All of this I have said before, many times.

But what I have not done justice to is the instrument God chose. For the last week of my married life with the man I will love forever, Bethesda Hospice became God’s hands and feet.

I can’t recount every instance of their ministering to us, but I can tell you enough. The kindly-stern nurse who insisted I eat a proper meal at lunch and teatime; the one who brought me tea and toast each morning. Those lunchtime naps I was forced to take, away in a room by myself where I could weep, and pray, and then gather myself again to face everything. And halfway through the night, I would leave his room for a little while so they could tend to Donnie, making him more comfortable.

One evening, nearing the end of the week, I was exhausted. There’s a little room with a recliner and a sort of giant lava lamp. The nurse more or less shoved me in there, dimmed the lights and shut the door; within seconds, I was away. That nap refreshed me; but the memory of the kindness with which it was orchestrated remains to this day.

And I will certainly never be able to repay the nurse who sat with me as I held Donnie’s hand for the last time, who gently confirmed for me that he had indeed gone home.

All of this might have been so different. For many families in years gone by, it was – loved ones died in the clamour and bustle of a hospital ward. Or, far worse, inadequately medicated against pain, and frightened, in their own homes, helpless relatives looking on, unable to help.

That was before Bethesda. A group of like-minded people, largely drawn from the Christian community, sought to provide a facility for palliative care in the island.

Having been in receipt of that care, I see how inadequate a word like ‘facility’ is to describe Bethesda.

Because of the hospice – the staff, the people who raise money to fund it – I can look back on that week with no regrets. The merest flicker of a frown on Donnie’s peacefully sleeping face was noticed by nurses, and more pain medication administered ‘just in case’. They ensured that I did not worry for one second that he was suffering. He was, I can truthfully say, gentled into death.

They couldn’t take my pain away, but they did everything short of it. I could not have thought of or asked for better treatment for him, or for me.

I left there the night he died, his wedding ring clutched in my hand. Thanks to the care I had – God’s own care administered by human hands – it was possible to reflect upon a good death for my husband. Their tenderness made me strong enough to return home unbroken.

And home was not a nightmarish place, littered with hospital paraphernalia, as it might once have been, in the days before there was Bethesda. Because of that, I was returning to a cocoon of happy memories, to a place I had shared with someone who did not have to die there, our much loved home becoming his prison of pain.

I don’t think the authorities realise what they have in Bethesda. It’s the kind of place that shouldn’t have to beg for the resources to do what it’s doing – making the awfulness so much less awful for people who just need to be upheld.

For me, the hospice is symbolic of the Saviour’s love. There is an untouchable peace and dignity at its heart, even as the politicians and the money men wrangle over every last penny. Still, Bethesda stands as a beacon of all that is kind and caring. Established to minister to the sick and dying, used by God to draw near to His own suffering people, we surely cannot let it become a tawdry pawn in the hands of politicians.

I don’t write this as emotional blackmail – it wouldn’t work anyway; but as a letter of thanks to Bethesda, and praise to the God who established it for all such hours of need.

May it be there for others as it was for us.

Glory in the glen . . . or anywhere

‘These are our Castle Grounds’, I found myself thinking on Thursday night as I watched the little tent in the glen fill up with people. There was something special about seeing them arriving in knots of two and three – intentionally leaving their homes to come and gather under canvas in worship of the Lord. Psalms, songs of praise, prayers and Scripture readings. It was all about ascribing to Him the glory that is due and, nestled there in the hollow of God’s hand, we were not several denominations, but one church.

And I feel that this kind of event is all the more important in our day. Just as, last summer, a couple of hundred of us gathered in the glebe at Baile na Cille, for worship, this too felt like a statement. It is primarily an opportunity to spend time in adoration of our Lord – but it is also a witness to a world that seems blind to His glory. Being outside, though, is not just important because we are more likely to be overheard than when we are closed up in a building.

No, there is something else; there is as much of reclamation as there is acclamation in our al fresco praise. Every place where God’s name is spoken with reverence, I feel a flag is planted for His cause. Where two or three gather in His name, He is in the midst to bless. And so, on Thursday night, in Willowglen, God was undoubtedly present.

I do not pretend that certain places are more sacred than others, because that would be to confine our boundless God, and make Him small. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how a place where His spirit has moved can ever be mundane again. Will I be able to pass through Willowglen and not remember with joy the night it became a place of worship for its own Creator and mine? Hopefully not.

This lovely corner of God’s handiwork has been abused lately. Instead of a protective instinct for all this beauty, something much uglier has been in evidence. Many have chosen to vandalise and sully the Castle Grounds in a fit of pique about policy. It is too petty for words. But it is a stark reminder of where we are.

I reflected on the harsh words of the last few weeks, even as I listened to these much more attractive ones drifting out of the tent:

Ach mise molar leam do neart;
gu moch a’ seinn do ghràis,
Airson gur tu mo thèarmann treun,
‘s mo dhaingneach fhèin ‘s gach càs.

God is the defence of my life. With every passing day I am more conscious of my need for such a refuge. And why? You have no use for protection except when you are in enemy territory. But, then, that’s what this is, even the beautiful Lews Castle Grounds: made perfect by God, but marred by man. From this enmity against the very Creator stems the mistreatment of what His hands have made, whether that is earth, trees, water . . . or humanity itself.

Nothing is sacred: not even life, and certainly not places like Willowglen.

On Thursday, though, there were all the elements assembled that we might need to recreate Psalm 137. We had a river to sit down by, and boughs of willow in which to hang our lyres. Here we were, being required to praise the Lord’s song in the midst of hostility.

I felt, however, that it was not a time for weeping – not for ourselves, anyway. Gathered under that canvas shelter, we testified to the impermanence of our sojourn in this world. We pitch our tent for a while, yes, but the house of many mansions is home. What God makes, what God provides – whether it is a garden, or a temporary place to gather – we should esteem, because it is by His grace and from His hand, the hand His children love, that we receive it.

That evening, for a few hours at least, we remembered Zion. It’s a particular kind of memory, though. Just as the prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming Christ in the past tense, we sing for joy at the recollection of Glory that awaits

Meantime, we have to rise up to our feet on that riverbank, and take down our lyres from the willow branches. I am more certain than ever that this strange land is crying out in its captivity to hear the Lord’s song; and who shall sing it for them, though they try their utmost to quench the sound with mocking?

That’s why Grace on the Green matters. The world does not believe that we are free, that we are filled with joy that no amount of their hostility can kill. We usually worship shut away from them; we politely contain our praise for God in buildings from which little sound escapes.

Those confining edifices are not the church: we are. And our oneness with Creation is never more apparent than in praising the Creator’s name in the midst of all He has made.

The least we owe Him, then,  is to sing His song for those whose eyes remain blind to amazing grace, and the immeasurable glory of God. It isn’t found in a place, but in a person. And they might find Him anywhere – but  certainly wherever His church gathers to adore Him.

 

The Way To Go Home

He didn’t look like a threat of any kind, this visiting minister. Taller than what we’re used to, certainly, but of otherwise benign aspect, I unwittingly settled into my pew and surveyed that Sunday morning’s ‘Bulletin’ – and there it was: undeniable proof that we were actually dealing with a dangerous radical. Psalm 118, right enough, but the Sing Psalms version, to be sung while the elements were laid for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Trying to quell my panic, I looked up at the pulpit, and saw our own minister leaning forward, whispering something to the visitor. Ah, I thought, he’ll be pointing out the mistake; he’ll sort this out. Imagine, then, my feeling of betrayal, of abandonment – which I’m quite sure the rest of the congregation shared – as we rose to sing the modern rendering after all.

He had mentioned in his sermon about our tendency towards ‘Jesus plus’. We’ve all heard this before, this human propensity to complicate the saving truth of the Gospel, and to believe salvation requires some input from ourselves. Of course, it doesn’t; God saw what our efforts were worth back in the Garden of Eden. But this radical visitor elaborated on the theme. Adding to Jesus can take many forms, including – he said – our own preferences.

These words came back to me as I sang 118, not to the old, familiar Coleshill, but another tune entirely. Did it matter? Or was I just taken a little bit outside the comfort zone of tradition? I like what I’m used to, but it’s hardly the end of the world if something happens a little differently.

In my folklore classes, I try to teach students about the notion of motifs in traditional tales. There are many versions of, for example, ‘Cinderella’, from a lot of different cultures. Some aspects of it vary from place to place: the characters’ names, perhaps, or their occupations. These things don’t matter very much to the integrity of the story, however. What remains the same becomes a motif, an essential ingredient that cannot be removed without altering the whole message and nature of the narrative.

Well, so it is with celebrating the Lord’s Supper. If he is the host, and we are his people; if we are there to remember his death and be strengthened in faith by meditating upon who he is and what he has done, does it matter which version of a psalm we sing? He is the author and finisher of our faith, not us.

Why, then, would we think that Christ needs our help? This same Jesus who, our visitor pointed out, had been subject to all the traps of this world, yet evaded them in order to present Himself, blameless and clean to God as a sacrifice in our stead – what could we possibly add to Him? I know that I am still liable to be trapped by sin, and even to willingly permit myself to be when it comes to certain of my pet failings. Contrary to what the world thinks we believe of ourselves, Christians do not esteem themselves perfect; it’s just that we recognise sin but – sadly –still sometimes do it anyway.

I suppose that’s one of the main differences between Christians and the world. Having had that meaningful encounter with Jesus, the absolute of truth, you can see where your life is out of true. After all, a line will only be recognised as squint when it’s compared against one that is perfectly straight. If you have not met and been changed by Him, however, you have absolutely no chance of knowing just how far your life has departed from the right road.

So, when we are witnessing – actively or passively, through our conduct – the first, last and most important thing we can do is show people Christ. Otherwise, we risk repeating the mistakes made by the Kirk Session at Cramond who tried to impose godliness on the people of the parish. I’ve been reading Alison Hanham’s book, ‘Sinners of Cramond’, based on the minutes of the Kirk Session over two centuries, and it offers a black and white account of just how futile this is.

It is why, despite much criticism, I stand by what I have said previously about picketing Pride marches or other worldly gatherings. Unless we are telling people about Christ or – better still – bringing them to Him, we are simply exercising our own vanity. We are, whether we intend this or not, being perceived as saying, ‘I’m better than you; I would never live as you do’.

This is why we have ongoing debate about Sunday opening in Lewis. People like me have unwittingly given the impression that the day is the thing that matters; it isn’t. What matters is that people would know Christ for themselves. Then, neither golf nor swimming, nor coffee, nor films would seem all that important – because life would no longer be all about pleasing themselves.

But we have to get better at communicating that fact. I love Sundays in Lewis because they are, for me, an oasis in a frantic week in which I can spend proper time in prayer, in reading, in worship, and in rest. It isn’t my job – or my right – to prevent others spending their Sunday as they wish. It is, however, my privilege to do everything in my power to change their minds so that they will submit freely to the power of Christ.

Others did as much for me. I was not won over by the suggestion that it was sinful to stay away from church, but I was drawn in by the irresistible message of salvation. Christ is enough. And, after last weekend, I am more persuaded than ever that all He requires of us is to point to Him, to His beauty, and to His sufficiency. Show them the Way, and He will bring them home.

 

 

Sin: Catch It, Bin It, Kill It

There is usually a man standing by the roundabout as I drive to church on Sunday mornings. He wears a t-shirt that proclaims, ‘God Hates Divorce’. I fell to wondering recently whether we’d run out of denominations before we ran out of things God abhors, were we to dress every churchgoer in Stornoway similarly, listing a different object of divine wrath on each garment.

‘God hates gossip’ and ‘God hates lies’, or ‘God hates cheating’. Maybe even ‘God hates schism’ for someone edgy in the Church of Scotland.

Or, how about, in the interest of brevity, ‘God hates sin’?

I have been wrestling with sin myself lately. Sin is very much like . . . now, wait while I spend a convincing amount of time pretending to think of a suitable analogy. Hmmmm . . . erm . . . Oh, I know, just plucking one out of thin air: sin is like rubbish. We generate it; we have to be the ones to deal with it. And if we all took care of our own, there would be a lot less of it about for other poor souls to have to mop up.

When I fell victim to someone else’s badness recently, I was reminded of an old neighbour we had when I was growing up. Plagued by crows, plundering his garden and stalking his newborn lambs, he took matters into his own hands. Catching one, he killed it, singed it and nailed it to a fence post as an eloquent warning to other feathery felons.

It was in light of his display of native ingenuity that I finally agreed to report my foul-mouthed online stalker to the police. Make an example of just one loose cannon and the others will get the hint.

I made an error of judgement, though. Crows have the intelligence to recognise their own likeness, even when it is charred and nailed up and quite dead. Not so much with the keyboard warriors, though. They failed to see why, having reported one bona fide weirdo to the police I should not still go on submitting myself to their barbs and jibes as well. Oh, that person had gone over the score, some of them admitted – but not them.

They are, if you will permit me just one more Castle Grounds-related analogy, a little bit like the rhododendron ponticum. A great show is made, a display of concern, but every single one contributes to the toxicity of the environment. Each person who forcefully and repeatedly hammers home their opinion, and does so by naming names and making accusations that have no basis in fact, poisons the online atmosphere and makes it just that little bit harder for the fragrance of truth to break through.

You see, other people’s sin is much easier to spot than our own. I can see in the flamers and trolls that twisted humanity which enjoys humiliating and victimising their fellow man. If I could, I would make them t-shirts that read, ‘God hates bullying’.

But the point of bullying, like any other sin, is that we have to diagnose ourselves. Before we can don any garment emblazoned with our guilt, we have to own that sin, admit to it and meet it head on. I cannot do that for the many people – strangers mostly, but some who are not – who think that it’s acceptable to use a public forum to pillory and threaten me for having a different opinion to them.

That is actually their burden to bear; not mine. Besides, I think that someone who loses their dignity and their decency, ostensibly over the question of litter bins in a public garden, has bigger problems than poor online etiquette.

Episodes like this are distasteful. They upset the people who care about me and they persuade onlookers that public life in Lewis is a harsh and lawless thing. No one is encouraged into any kind of community service by witnessing my experience. Who would want to have their good name trodden upon for being . . . well, what? What am I that attracts such hatred?

I am a sinner – saved by grace, yes, but still a sinner. My wardrobe could be filled with t-shirts enumerating my guilt for the world to see. And that is for ME to deal with; it is between myself and God. It’s a daily struggle, and never more so than when I’m denigrated by strangers and have to remember one important truth. While that behaviour is theirs, and I have no control over it, or guilt for it, I DO have agency in how I respond. That’s the real test.

Do not, the Bible tells us, repay reviling with reviling. The world hated Christ to death and it shouldn’t surprise me to be loathed for his sake. I have looked on him, nailed to a cross, his human countenance marred by violence and hatred, made sin for our sake – and I have recognised myself.

It is simultaneously the lowest and the most exalted point in his story, and in that of any repentant sinner. You see what you are and what you have done, but at the same moment you realise that this is also the route to redemption.

From then on, the path is not smooth, as I have found out. Once you have seen yourself as you truly are, every day is a battle against that – but it’s a beautiful battle because of the template to which he is conforming us, little by aching little. What do I care, really, for lies told about me by strangers?

If there is any Christian looking on and questioning why I would expose myself to this kind of life – and I know there is – I can answer that very simply. He has called me to witness. I don’t serve an ungrateful community that hates me; I serve an incomparable Saviour that loves me. Christ loved me, as he loves them, before I ever knew his face. When they finally lift their eyes to him, as I pray they will, that understanding will become theirs too.

Sin is like rubbish. It is we who produce it, and it is we who must dispose of it. No one is asked to manage other people’s sin; only their own. Ignoring it is not a solution, nor is dumping it on others.

God hates sin, and he’s asking us all to deal with our own, leaving the rest up to him.

The Wrong Coinneach; the Right Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Offensive Truth

It’s all getting a little bit boring. I mean, irony is all very well in its place, but I have had it with reading what the so-called ‘progressives’ in our society have to say about the sincerely-held beliefs of Christians. They talk about tolerance, and they talk about everyone being free to do what they want, and believe what they want . . . but they just can’t shut up about it for one minute, can they? For people who don’t believe in God, they sure love talking about him. Any and every chance they get, those so-called unbelievers are tweaking the nose of the Almighty.

Now, if they were here (and I suspect that some of them may be), they would tell you that they find Christian beliefs so laughable that they cannot permit our childish fantasies to inform or influence public life and policy. Or – and I actually saw this from someone on social media last week in response to local decision making in Lewis – they will say that they cannot permit Christians to bully the rest of society into following a lifestyle that society has rejected.

I have a few issues with this. First of all, there is the arrogance inherent in judging my beliefs when you do not share them. Every believer has had the patronising, ‘comfort blanket’ remarks lobbed at them. Indeed, if that were all my faith amounted to, it would be an inadequate covering in times of trouble, and atheists would be justified in mocking. But it is much more. Would that the ‘progressives’ would use their much vaunted reason to consider the possibility that Christians have experienced something that they have not. If I have come to a different conclusion about God, then perhaps it is because I have seen evidence that you have – thus far – not.

Secondly, and I apologise for repeating this yet again, my holding of a different worldview does not make me a demagogue. Last year, while pretending to be reasonable, the local branch of Secularists Anonymous repeatedly invited me for coffee via Facebook, so that they could ‘explain why secularism is no threat to your faith’. I didn’t accept their disingenuous offer because, amongst other things, I already knew that their secularism was no threat to anything I believe. My hope is pinned upon something immovable and unchanging. Only the most arrogant person could think a Christian would feel threatened by their puny doctrine.

By the same token, however, should unbelievers not realise that my having different views to them is no threat – particularly if they are right and I have the intellectual capability of a small child, believing in a non-existent God? Yet, here in Lewis and further afield too, Christians get accused of bullying for . . ? Well, for adhering to the principles of their faith.

We skirt around this sometimes because it’s difficult, and because I’m afraid there are some branches of Christianity which have allowed the world, and even its own followers to exist on a mistaken interpretation of the phrase, ‘God is love’.

Yes, he is: God IS love. That means that he is the very definition of it, the template for it, and the yardstick by which all other manifestations of love are measured. While he is love, God is also truth. God is the blueprint for all that is right. And he is the ultimate in grace, in holiness, in perfection.

That’s who I am – inadequately – trying to follow. If you haven’t seen him for who he is yet, you cannot know what I know, or see him as I do. He showed me who I was and where I was headed and you know, Christ did me the greatest favour of all by being the very opposite to what the world asks.

If he had been the kind of Saviour our society has tried to build for itself, he would have showed me myself, and he would have said, ‘that’s you, with all your flaws and the blackness of sin – but I accept you that way, because it’s part of your identity, and it’s fine’.  Christ would have told me that if I was happy in the way I was living my life (and I was), and as long as I didn’t purposely hurt others, he’d take me at face value.

That’s not what he does, though. He couldn’t. Society is a mirror that has taught us to say that we can be whatever we want as long as our intentions are good. But it has taken away the gauge by which we measure what ‘good’ means. No wonder we’re adrift, seeking answers in our own flawed wisdom.

Christ, on the other hand, shows us what we are in comparison to him, in light of what he is and what he has achieved for us. I have seen myself time and again, measured against his perfection and found badly wanting. Yet, I have also seen his free offer of the grace that will mould me in his image in the fullness, not of time, but of eternity.

This Christ doesn’t want me to be a bully. It was not how he persuaded people to follow him, and it is not how he would have his church behave. You cannot impose salvation or the freedom of identity in Jesus upon people who are wilfully blind. I cannot make those who have not seen themselves in his light understand that I am not brainwashed, nor enslaved – but committed to following him as faithfully as I can.

That means I will believe things that seem hurtful to them, because they don’t yet realise that, while a lie comes in many editions, the truth only ever had one. We can reinterpret the facts to suit our own narrative, we can deny them a voice, and pretend that they do not exist – but in the heart of every believer, the truth burns as an everlasting and immutable flame.

I’m sorrier than I can say if shortcomings in me, or the church to which I belong have caused people to believe that there is a softer version of Christianity that permits people to live just as they please, to exercise the power of life or death based on convenience, or to write large tranches of the Bible off as irrelevant.

There is no such Christianity. One Christ and one truth – these are all we have. Once we have them, though, we come to realise that they are all we need.

 

 

No sheilings in heaven

I recently took my dog – a gangly, daft collie named Mr Roy – for a walk out to the Pentland Wind Farm. He loves it for pretty much the same reason it appealed to the developer: Wind. Mr Roy loves to feel the breeze rumple his hair. Sniffing and lolloping about, he barely takes any heed of our surroundings, wherever we go.

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On the other hand, I find the place conducive to much thinking. Its solitude promotes meditation.

My mind went back to a conversation I had with my father many times, about his grandfather’s sheiling, out beyond Loch Lacsabhat Àrd. He talked about it often to me, saying that it had a special, peaceful atmosphere. It was evident that, for him, the site of that àirigh had an almost spiritual significance. It held, of course, the sweet fragrance of memory – of people he had loved, and a departed way of life.

I understand that better now. His own passing was the first breach in our small family circle. And I nurse special recollections of places that were dear to him, and where we were all happy together.

Place, and people, and love: they are impossible to separate from one another.

As I walked along the road with Mr Roy, I thought about that day, twenty-five years ago, when my father and I drove out to the Pentland Road – an impromptu spin on an evening in late summer.

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We used to spend quite a lot of time together. A walk here, a drive there, evenings on the croft at Doune. Our conversations were real – about the place, about our history . . . and always, in the end, about spiritual things. He lived his Saviour for long years before he professed faith as an old man. I see that now too. At the time, it was just part of who he was, and I was too blind to see why we both always longed to talk about God while out in His creation.

On this particular day, however, there was something different. Even as he parked the car, I could see that his thoughts were gathering in a particular direction. At long last, we were going in search of his grandfather’s sheiling.

It was no more than an hour’s walk into the moor. Being early August, it was warm, dry and full of midgies. They hastened our steps and made conversation difficult, but did nothing to dampen my anticipation.

Eventually we reached the place where the àirigh had once stood, marked by a few stones scattered across the green sward. We paused just long enough to take some photos and to get our breath back. As we both surveyed the scene, our eyes met, and I could read the question in his. I nodded. Yes, I could feel what he had described: peace and tranquillity of the best and simplest  kind.

All these years it had been a memory to my father, and an enticement to me. We had spoken of it so often that I felt I too had been there. He was obviously afraid that we might go there only to find an ordinary moorland glen, just like countless others.

It was far from it. These many years later, as I took an easier route through the moor, along a road built by progress, I recalled that other walk. With my father going before me, the way had been easy, and the destination absolutely sure.

Afterwards, we talked frequently about the evening we found the sheiling. Our conversation had changed because now I had seen for myself all he had sought to describe. It had been so beautiful in my imagination, but its loveliness was enhanced once we were able to share that memory.

I know that we talked about God a lot. My father clearly felt His presence in the places that he loved. Sometimes, even now, when I sit in church, I remember when we would go there together, and the talks we had afterwards. It’s only human, I suppose, to regret that I didn’t tell him then what the Lord was to me too. Of course, I didn’t really know myself that He was precious, or that I was His. But I know it now; I know that He walked with us out towards the old àirigh. He witnessed the conversations on which His own presence lingered and, as we stood in contemplation of the place, God held us in the hollow of His hand.

At my father’s funeral, a woman I didn’t know said to my mother, ‘he’s in the happy land’. Her words stirred something in me. I knew she was speaking of a place that my father had longed for; that he was standing there at that moment, looking around himself and swathed in peace.

I realise now that this was the beginning of another journey for me – towards assurance. It took almost four years, and another loss, before my eyes settled on that green sward of memory. Then I saw what had been true all along: God leading me on a walk, not to a transient summer dwelling, but homeward to my Father’s house, in which there are many rooms.