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.

 

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.

 

Give Truth a Helping Hand

The written word has an enormous amount of power and beauty when deployed in the right way.  I am a slave to its attractions – always in pursuit of the perfectly crafted sentence, and willing to search out the tools with which to do the job. Being an old-fashioned girl, I still like to write my thoughts out longhand. Give me a fountain pen, and some good quality paper, and I am as happy as any other stationery-loving geek in notebook and ink heaven.

Every writing occasion, however, demands a little subtle tailoring. For the all-too-necessary reminders of where I’m supposed to be, and what I’m supposed to be doing, it’s a raspberry-coloured Filofax (A5, so I can cram it with other ephemera as I go). Notes on the go are jotted down in either a pocket-size Field Notes book, or my beloved Traveller’s notebook system. Proper, sit-down, I’m going to write a blog situations will bring out the big guns – a silver Waterman fountain pen, and thick, Japanese paper.

But the most problematic situation of all has been what notebook and pen combination to use in church. I have tried them all – hardback, floppy covers, clipbooks, reporters’ notebooks, Field Notes steno pads, microscopic pocket notebooks . . . and, oh, the difficulty in finding the appropriate pen! You don’t want a scratchy nib that annoys the people around you, so that caused me to ditch the weird experience that is the friction pen (ink you can rub out).

After much trial and error, though, I have found the perfect combination: the Midori Color Paper Notebook (in yellow or brown), and the phenomenal Zebra Sarasa clip pens in vintage shades of green, brown, burgundy and blue-black.  The notebook is the right size to rest on my psalm book as I write, and the pen glides noiselessly over the yellow paper so my neighbours in the pew can listen undisturbed to the sermon.

By this point – if you’re still reading – it’s possible that I have been written off as a bona fide oddball with too much time on her hands. Here’s the thing, though, these tools matter to me because I love the craft of writing, of placing words on the page, and I don’t want anything to mar the experience.

I single my sermon notes out for particular attention here, though, because it is a very specific kind of writing. The reason I write is in order to summarise the minister’s sermons for publication on our church social media account and website. Given our very good audio sermon section, it may seem like a bizarre idea to have written summaries too. However, you can read one of my summaries in five minutes, you can reread it, and you can find any Scripture references or other quotes made by the minister in the course of his preaching.

Whatever value these summaries may or may not have to our online followers at Stornoway Free Church, they have been of immense benefit to me. I listen deeply in order to note down the main points of what is being preached, and I always finish writing the digest version, feeling that I have really had to engage with the text meaningfully myself.

Two Sundays ago, the striking element of a very interesting sermon was something said as an aside by the minister. He referred, in the context of talking about Amos and the plumbline applied by God, to something quite remarkable from the prophecy of Isaiah.

‘Truth’, he said, ‘has fallen in the street’.

I nearly broke the nib, skidding to a sharp halt when he uttered that sentence. How could the words of a prophet who lived over 2000 years ago be quite so apt for the age in which we are now living?

The image is one we are well used to, of people who lack the advantages we have in life, of homeless folk, and of those whose lives have been blighted by addiction. Of course, the Christian response to that kind of need is certainly not to walk by on the other side. We are supposed to view each and every one of those people as what they are: made in the image of God.

Scribbling frantically in my yellow notebook last Sunday, I listened to our minister preaching on – I believe – one of the most beautiful texts in the Bible: ‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power’ (Hebrews 1:3).

Christ conveys the exact imprint of God and, because of that, Christ is Truth. And this is the Truth we have allowed to fall in the street. We have permitted it by our failure to stand up on its behalf. I said as much to someone recently, while we were discussing the sad state of our society, and he disagreed, saying that it was not our protests, but our prayers that are needed.

Well, I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. Prayer and action are frequently different sides of the same coin: not alternative, but complementary to one another. It is we who have failed the Truth and if we go on our knees in contrition before God, ought we not to expect that he will have a task for us in restoring it to its rightful place? When we are part of the problem, it is only right that he ask us – and that we are willing – to be part of the solution.

Writing the truth, as best I can with God’s help, is my small contribution to lifting it out of the gutter. It is not nearly enough; it is not even enough from me. Writing the word of God, as it is preached, though, reminds me of the great importance of doing linked to hearing.

Another of my jotters is crammed with notes on last year’s group Bible study relating to the Wisdom of James, surely one of the most practical letters in the whole Bible. It reminds us of the importance of prayer, yes, and urges the Lord’s people not to neglect spending time with him.

But he does not separate that from the edict that we should be doers, as well as hearers of the Word. Truth has fallen in the street, expressed in the passive voice though it is, does not absolve believers of blame for its sad condition. On the contrary, it is a plea to our conscience to clasp our hands in prayer, and then extend them in labour to raise it up once more.

Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

This weekend is one that many have been looking forward to. It will be, for them, a time of joy, of colour, and of togetherness. They will come out of their homes, and they will gather together to celebrate that greatest and most unifying of all human experiences: love.

It is all about love, and about life. All they ask is the right to live abundantly, and to love wholeheartedly and unashamedly.

They were persecuted from the earliest times; forced to pursue their chosen lifestyle in secret. Many the world over have been disowned by their families, tortured and even killed. And yet, through it all, that great love persists and drives them on.

Love. A love so strong that though they are spat at, though they are ridiculed, ostracised and called for every name under the sun, they will come out and they will proclaim that love unashamedly before their detractors.

I hope to be among them. Last time, I didn’t make it, and I have regretted it ever since. It’s important, you see, to shout it out with . . . not pride, exactly, but with a complete absence of apology or shame.

It isn’t just one day either: it is a weekend of celebration. On Saturday, we will congregate to prepare our hearts and minds for the sacrament on Sunday. Because this is a small ‘in-house’ communion, the process of readying ourselves is shorter. There is a bit less outward preparation, but the same inward joy.

What joy, though, unbelievers ask, do you derive from being part of a death cult? You are gathering to commemorate the Lord’s death – where is there joy in that?

Well, no, indeed. If this were a mere memorial service for a loved one gone before, it would bring precious little comfort. But there is rather more to it than that. This is not the empty celebration of self; this is not a futile attempt to glorify human frailty and make it immortal. 

In the sacrament, we commemorate the Lord’s death – until he comes again. Think on that: we remember his death until such time as he returns for us. 

That, my friends, is love. He tasted death so that we would not have to. And now, in the Lord’s Supper, we taste life in remembering what he accomplished for our sakes. 

He vanquished death. In Jesus we see the death of death. Life in him is forever. There is nothing bigger or greater than that.

And so, when I walk along the street on Sunday morning, I am making a declaration of love. I carry the props that tell the world of this: the Bible, the Psalter, the monetary offering .

Yes, outward trappings, some will scoff; Pharisaic declarations of your own piety.

Not so.

They are all acknowledgement of his absolute sovereignty and sufficiency. And they are a message to the onlooking world, to tell of what we have in our God. We have a Bible full of his promises to us; a psalter by which we might praise his worthy name; the money to demonstrate that we continue his work until he returns. 

Oh, I missed one, didn’t I?

The communion token: a wee oblong of metal, inscribed with a Bible verse (usually ‘Do this in remembrance of me’). 

Surely, you say, the ultimate badge of exclusivity – the smug wee membership card that says ‘I’m perfect and you’re not’. Insufferable pride? 

No. This wee token tells more than you can imagine. 

It says: ‘you are not enough on your own’. Press it against your palm, and imprint its message upon your heart. You cannot live – you cannot even love – apart from God.

But, it does not leave you there.

It also says: ‘I have made a way. You don’t have to be on your own. Lean on Christ; give yourself up to him.’

Clasp that little piece of metal tightly, taking its meaning to yourself. When you hold it in your grasp, know that you have taken hold of love, and love holds you safe in its arms forever.

Walk unashamedly to join with those who have that truth in their hearts. And let us pray for anyone who has not yet found that love.

It is a love which has been mocked and derided, and crucified to death. Today, it is barely tolerated, and pushed aside to make way for impostor loves.

But it will return in the risen Christ, victorious over death, over lies and over darkness. 

So, this weekend, let us look upon the love of Christ, and the joy we find in him. Let us take to the streets, God’s promises in our hands and on our hearts. And let his pure love be the only one of which we speak.

The Crook for all Lots

‘You’ll have been picked up by the CCTV’, the elder informed me solemnly on Sunday. I had tiptoed past his gate early on Saturday morning, glad rags from the previous night’s carousing in my hand, and thought that I might just get away with it. The confusion of waking up in a strange bedroom in Stornoway had probably been at fault; after all, experience should have taught me by now that wayward women cannot fly under the surveillance system of the Free Church: EL-DAR.  There are Wee Free drones everywhere, and they can’t all be watching clothes lines.

I had gone out at the respectable hour of 6.30pm on Friday evening, to enjoy a meal and some speeches in a local hotel, to mark the occasion of the Estate Factor’s 25th year in post. We were doing so a year after the actual event because . . . well, they had been waiting for a blone to be elected in order to remember stuff like anniversaries, and organise parties . . .

A good time was had by all. Appropriate gifts were presented, including an inscribed shepherd’s crook, upon which the gentleman of the hour proceeded to lean in a rather too-settled manner as he articulated his thanks. I imagine there will be many future occasions when he leans similarly upon the stick, and regales his audience with wisdom from his considerable store.

Aside from providing the owner with a prop upon which to lean, however, the shepherd’s crook has a much wider variety of functions.

In fact, for those tasked with the management of sheep, there may be a requirement to travel over rough ground, and it is an aid to them on the journey. Anyone who has ever walked the moor will know the value of any prop which will help you stay upright, and out of the bogs.

Of course, your crook may well come in handy as a weapon too. Your flock can easily fall prey to predators – especially the lambs – and it makes sense for the protector of the flock to have a stick that he can wield in their defence.

And, the curved end of the staff is perfect for hooking a sheep around the neck in order to catch or move it to where you wish it to go.

While any and all of these functions might well be exercised by our Factor – either in his private capacity as a crofter, or his professional role as Estate manager – I am going to resist the temptation to speculate here on how he might use the crook to steer wayward Trustees. Far be it from me, either, to suggest how he might deploy his new weapon against . . . but let’s just leave that there.

A couple of weeks ago, the Factor put me right on an important point of theology. (I should point out that, though his duties are surprisingly wide-ranging, this is not normally considered one of them). He reminded me that sin could be committed in the thought, just as much as in the word or deed and, thereby, threw a carefully-constructed view on a given matter into total confusion. I have still not resolved that particular inner conflict.

But then, the Truth does not exist in order to make us comfortable with sin.

Theology, in fact, might well be seen as performing the same role in our lives as that shepherd’s crook, if it is deployed dextrously and for the purpose for which it was intended. And, make no mistake, by ‘theology’ here, I do not mean man-made rules, or academic theory: I mean the Scripture proofed truths which meaningfully direct our lives towards God.

When I have found myself in the terrain that, sometime or another, meets all Christians, I have been – on occasion – slow to reach for the supporting staff of theology. At this point, I am tempted to lean on another one altogether: that of my own wisdom. Let me tell you, though, nothing is guaranteed to sink you in the mire quicker than your own faulty reasoning. That is why Proverbs 3: 5-6 says,  ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths’.

At those times when I have failed to do this (and they are many), the next thing that happens is I leave myself vulnerable to the enemy. When I miss the means of grace, when I let my prayer life weaken, when I fail to open the Word as often as I ought . . . of course the enemy senses that I am distant from the rest of the flock. He moves in slowly, preparing to pick me off. But God has given his people the crook to use as a weapon also; Scripture has so many reminders that there is nothing the enemy can do against the power of Christ. For me, the battles with Satan have been won many times through the strengthening of Psalm 27, and its triumphant reminder:

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

But, sometimes I find that the Shepherd still has to hook me around the neck, and pull me to himself. Wherever I am, however, no matter how far, his reach extends there, and he will draw me gently and lovingly back. It may be that he achieves this through the preaching of his Word; but more often, it is actually through the love that he communicates via his own people who are, of course, my people.

Like the shepherd’s crook we presented last weekend, then, God’s Truth is lovely, but its real beauty lies in its purpose: to support, to protect, and to draw us to Himself. If we make use of it, then it will uphold us in any situation.

 

 

 

NOWHERESVILLE?

‘Are you wise?’ I hear you ask, ‘letting Ali Moley guest on your blog!?’ Well, he’s an elder now, so he’s basically able to requisition space here whenever he likes . . . However, I am more than happy to share this piece of writing with you, and will be interested to hear people’s reactions to ‘Nowheresville’, by Alasdair ‘Ali Moley’ Macleod.

The Lewis Revival of 1949-53 is one ofthe most famous revivals in the world.

But did you know that there has been, to a greater or lesser extent, a revival a Christian spiritual awakeningleading to an enlivening of the Lord’s people and the saving of many unbelievers – somewhere in the Isle of Lewis every 20 to 30 years for the last 200 years?

Why should this be the case?

Why should it be that at least 10 – 20% of our island population still attend church regularly on a Sunday when only around 7% of the Scottish population as a whole attend regularly?

Why should it be that only 18% of people in the Western Isles identify as having no religion when the average for the rest of Scotland is 3045%?

I know that the number of Christians in Lewis has sadly, significantly declined over the last 50 years like the rest of Scotland, but why is there still such a marked difference in the numbers of Christians and strength of influence of Christianity in the Island compared to the rest of our country?

Are we special? Is our island special?

One Christian from the Central Belt previously exclaimed to me that he was amazed at how many Ministers he knew who had come from such a small place as Lewis, which currently has a population of 18,500 souls.

For example, in the District of Back where I grew up, I can think of three serving ministers and two retired ministers who also grew up there. Extraordinarily, there are another three serving ministers from other parts of the island, who were in my year in school.

Why have so many ministers in Scotland (and missionaries sent to other parts of the world), come from such a small place?

Are we actually the last stronghold of the gospel as has previously been claimed? Are Hebrideans a particularly holy or prayerful people? Are we doing something right?

Some Christians take pride in our islands Christian culture, history and traditions as if we are something special, as if we are ‘getting it right’ when so many other Christians in Scotland are ‘getting it wrong.’

May God have mercy on us if the abundant blessings He has granted to our island lead us to take pride in ourselves rather than give praise to Him.

Scripture clearly teaches us that these revival blessings have taken place in our island solely because of God’s Grace and Mercy to us and not because of our own merit.

But the question still stands – why should God choose to bless our island in this way rather than other areas in Scotland that are, in Christian terms, currently barren and dark?

Well……….

Have you ever heard of Tomasz Shafernaker?

In 2017 he was voted the UK’s favourite weatherman.

Amongst his many on air gaffes, which have made him so popular with UK viewers, is one particularly relevant to Leodhasachs everywhere – in 2007 Tomascz amusingly described the Western Isles as ‘Noweheresville’ during BBC weather reports and later had to apologise to livid Hebrideans who had been watching.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I really love the Island of Lewis and the people in it and am very thankful to live here in our still rich Christian community and culture.

But did Tomasz actually say more than he realised withhis tongue in cheek comment?

The island of Lewis, to most ordinary people in the UK,is ‘nowheresville.’

The Isle of Lewis, to most people in the world, is ‘nowheresville’.

A slice of humble pie, anyone?

But wait…….maybe……just maybe, the fact that we are ‘nowheresville’ in so many people’s eyes, is why God has blessed us so abundantly.

As 1 Corinthians 1:27-31 says –

27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

Has God blessed our insignificant little island in order to shame the strong, more populated, more ‘significant’ areas of our rebellious nation?

Has God blessed our little island, seen by so many as being full of foolish little, backward Christian islanders, in order to shame the haughty, ‘wise in their own eyes’, spiritually rebellious, men and women from the rest of Scotland?

In bringing so many revivals to our poor little island, and in sending so many ministers and missionaries, the fruit of these revivals, from Lewis to the rest of Scotland and the world, who can boast? Certainly not us Leodhasachs. It is God alone who receives, and deserves, all the glory!

As 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 goes on to say –

30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Next time we think about or discuss our blessedChristian community and culture here on the Island of Lewis then let us ‘boast in the Lord’ and give thanks for what He has done here, for His name’s sake and Glory.

And if……if by God’s grace we, His people, humble ourselves and pray……..God may, by His Grace and in His mercy, bring another revival to ‘nowheresville’……..the fruits of which may spread too, humble and transform for good, all the ‘somewheresvilles’ of our foolish, rebellious, little nation.