Ask Not For Whom the Bells Toll – It Won’t Be Me

I have never been a fan of New Year. Too much looking back, too much sentimentality, and – for this unreconstructed Calvinist – too much presumption. It never sat easily with me to celebrate the unknown that lay ahead. What if providence brought you something hard, something regrettable?

The year my father died, my husband and I took the decision to spend New Year away from home. We rented a cottage and holed up for a few, snowy days. I didn’t have to feign a celebratory mood, but I was safe with someone who understood exactly how I was feeling. By the time we got home, it was all over, and we could just get on with the business of living.

As it happened, that new year – 2012 – was to be our last normal one together. 2013 brought the shadow of cancer, 2014 came in with great hope which sadly faded at its latter-end, and 2015 brought our final separation. Each turning year seems to bring me further away from him. I am more, and not less, aware of his absence. Every new thing that happens, every person I meet and every novel experience I have, are mine alone. There have been so many moments I would have loved to share with Donnie, things we would have laughed over together, and things we would have discussed endlessly.

These last few months, I have wondered often what he and my father would have made of some of the situations I’ve found myself in.

But these are all good reasons for me to not ‘do’ New Year. Try as you might to be unsentimental, it just isn’t possible and in what may well be a titanic act of cowardice (though I prefer to think of it as self-preservation) I have fallen into the habit of ending the old year a couple of hours earlier than everyone else. Bed, a good book, or a film, and the transition happens without me noticing.

Perhaps, ‘Gone with the Wind’, would be a good film to watch. Scarlett O’ Hara may not be the most obvious role model for a Wee Free widow, but she got one thing right – she told others not to look back because the past can drag at your heart so much that finally all you are capable of doing is looking back.

Lot’s wife paid the ultimate price for just that tendency too. Not, perhaps, because her past was happy, but because it was familiar.

We are all of us wary of the unknown. It is hard to admit our vulnerability, but if we were honest, we could all say to one another that it is something we have in common. What we have already experienced is always preferable because it is a path we have trodden before, and we know where the pitfalls may be lurking.

Faith changes your perspective on all of this, though. The more I meditate on the advice I was given after Donnie’s death not to ‘over-spiritualise’ my grief, the less I understand it. It is putting my trust in God, knowing that He has everything in His plan, which has preserved what little pretension to sanity I enjoy. I am not privy to what He has in store for me, nor even why those events already unfolded fell to my lot, but it truly doesn’t matter. He knows, and He is God; He has never been less than God to me, or to anyone else.

It is easy to focus on the silent voice and the empty chair at this time of year. Grief is selfish, though. Not in the most negative sense, but it is nonetheless about how we feel. We miss them, we wish they were here, and that life could resume its old, familiar pattern.
That is when we have to turn fully to Him. He only brings change, I think, to facilitate growth. And the only growth that matters is the spiritual kind, that we would allow Him to love us more and that He would be glorified.

When we are – quite naturally- missing loved ones who have died in Christ, though, we have this unrivalled comfort: the worst is over. Yes, we go on hurting because we long to see them, yet the next turn in our journey does not actually take us further away from them, but rather, closer to where they are. God has the roadmap, indeed Christ IS the roadmap. And the final separation has already been, as I said. Next time we meet, there will be no further parting.

And, remarkably, this is not even the best part of the story. It is only the tangible aspect, which we are probably best able to get our heads around. Besides, I believe that it offers helpful perspective.

At first, I was perturbed by Matthew 6: 21, which says that, ‘where your treasures are, there will your heart be also’. I worried that my priorities were wrong and that I merely wanted to see those whom I loved, all gone before me – that it was in them the attraction of heaven lay.

It isn’t that, though. You cannot separate  believers from the Saviour or understand them apart from Him. They, we, and He, are united by unbreakable cords of love woven by Him, and binding us all together in ways none can understand.

Yet.

What a beginning that will be, with no trepidation for what lies ahead. Those bells, now, I long to hear.

Hallowe’en is coming, and the Clocks Are Going Back . . .

Someone – and I’m not prepared to say who – created a bit of bother in Stornoway Free Church last weekend. They posted a flippantly captioned meme onto the church Facebook page, featuring a photograph of our two ministers. This flagrant misuse of the image was bad enough, but to compound the felony, it was heavily implied that one of the reverends could not be trusted to put the clocks back.

Which is ironic, really, because we all know that the Free Church has been setting this island back centuries since its foundation in 1843. What would one hour more have mattered?

I am a little bit obsessed with time myself. In the normal course of things, I like to be early. Sometimes ridiculously early. This is why I don’t like going to things with my less punctual friends and relatives. Walking into an early morning prayer-meeting once, after the door had been shut almost caused me a nose-bleed. It is my uptight side coming out. And there’s not a lot I can do about it.

On Hallowe’en night, I was due to give a talk on the Otherworld. So, I duly press-ganged my sister into accompanying me, and she wrong-footed me by being at our appointed meeting place early. We both arrived at the Leurbost Community Centre a good forty minutes before I was expected to utter a single word about witches. As we sat in the car park until a more respectable hour, hordes of children dressed as ghosts and witches (well, I assume they were children) rushed past. It brought back many happy memories of similarly dark and cold evenings, when a crowd of us would go from door to door, singing for a donation to the party fund.

And nostalgia was the tone for the whole evening. There was something about it . . . talking, as people did long ago, about superstitions, about mysterious lights and unexplained noises, and women who were suspected of being a bit uncanny. Woven into it was Gaelic, and genealogy, and laughter, and scones. My more eccentric granny was from Achmore, and the previous generation from (inevitably) Ranish. All North Lochie genes seem to emanate from Ranish. And there were lovely ladies there who had worked with my parents in the Old County Hospital, or knew my mother, or were related to a neighbour.

It was an old-fashioned evening. People wanted to ‘place’ me, and I in my turn had to figure them out. There was darkness, cold and an atmospherically howling wind outside. Inside, though, I felt like some magic had indeed taken place, and that, in talking about the tales of da-shealladh and taibhsean, I had unwittingly conjured up the past.

The tea and baking that followed my rambling was preceded by a grace. It makes me glad to know that some communities still continue with this, and some still open all their meetings with prayer.

But it makes me sad to think of the people who would see this humble gratefulness to God for His unwarranted goodness to us as just so much more superstition. There are those who would place the dignified words of blessing and thanks in the same category as charms to ward off the evil eye, or rituals to protect a child from felonious elves.

People are interested enough to come and hear about Hallowe’en, and the things that our ancestors believed. They were, I think, afraid of what might come out of the darkness to harm them. It wasn’t really spirits of the dead, or witches bent on evil that threatened them at all, but the nameless fear of things they could not comprehend. Illness, infant death, loss of all kinds . . . if these come at you unexpectedly and without explanation, perhaps you just have to create your own framework in which to understand them.

And people who dismiss God as superstition are just the same. They have built up their own version of the Otherworld, just a lot less plausible than the one populated with fairies and witches.

Their imaginary realm is the one they inhabit now. And they think it is all there is. The atheist thinks that when he closes his eyes on this world, he simply ceases to be. They do not waste time speaking to an imaginary deity now, because they do not expect to meet him later.

But they will. We all will.

I don’t like to dismiss the beliefs of our forefathers as mere superstition. They believed the things that they did in good faith, but also at times out of ignorance. Some of our good old Highland ministers (not at all the sort to forget to wind the clocks) believed that second sight may have been an example of hierophany – God communicating directly with a rural population which was largely illiterate and unable to read Scripture for itself.

The truth is, however, we don’t know. There are indeed, as the Bard (nope, not Murdo MacFarlane, the other cove) once said, ‘more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.

‘Philosophy’ here might well refer to all of learning – whether that is astronomy, biology, or some daft creutair from the local college who has learned a few things about witches and wise women.

But the really wise women are not waiting for revelation in dreams or visions. They are setting their clocks to spend time with the Lord. His book is better than magic, and in His presence you will find more things than are dreamt of in any philosophy, I’m sure – even in the fondest prayers of the Christian.

 

In unity to dwell . . .

Many years ago, my granny used to tell a story about an indignant woman from her own neck of the mòinteach who once nailed a list of her grievances to the door of the manse. While I would in no way suggest this as the best means of communicating with your minister, it certainly would be a non-confrontational means to tell him . . . oh, I don’t know, say, how much he hurt your feelings by implying you wouldn’t get a singing voice till Heaven. If that had happened. Hypothetically-speaking.

Generally, though, nailing stuff to doors is not the way to get taken seriously. Particularly, I would imagine if, like the woman in the story, your missive culminates with a threat to ‘cud of’ the hands of anyone removing your notice. Such dark ravings will only ensure that people avoid you in the street, while also keeping your exploits alive in folk memory long after you have passed away, hopefully to that place where – apparently – everyone will have the voice of an angel. She added, bitterly.

There’s one fellow, though, we remember for the door-nailing carry-on, not because his behaviour was eccentric, but because his influence was so far-reaching and long-lasting. Martin Luther did not like what the church had become and so he took very direct action, according to tradition, hammering his 95 complaints into the door of Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517.

This set in motion the chain of events which history recognises as the Protestant Reformation. It was not a time for subtlety, or gentle implication. Objections had to be nailed to doors, not whispered in corners, or written into politely phrased letters.

These days, though, perhaps we need to hammer our concerns to the inside of the door. It really takes someone exceptional to effect change from outside and, in the case of the church, isn’t it always better that we work together for the greater good, rather than react to external forces?

Luther, and the other Reformers are not remembered and revered because they created the ultimate schism. Surely, we celebrate their legacy because their eyes were opened to the truth, and they were used by God to relentlessly spread that message, whatever the personal cost.

One very important facet of their message was that Christ is head of the church, no one else. As such, then, it is His church – not ours. Logically, therefore , the outworking of that is for us to treat the church as we would wish to treat our Saviour. Of course, I hardly need add that by ‘church’ here, I mean the people, not the building.

Who has not been moved by descriptions of His plight at Gethsemane, and at Calvary? Which Christian has not shed tears over this perfect man being made sin for our sake? And yet, which of us has not harboured ill-feeling towards one of His sheep? Haven’t we had partings of the way which were unedifying and unnecessary? Most would agree that there are few things sadder than a family divided. How much more true is that of God’s family?

Besides, if we are of the reformed faith, then surely we must remember that the Bible is our guidebook. Too often, we act on our own instinct, which is never a good idea.

I don’t know about you, but my instinct is governed and guided by ego, by self-interest, and by pride. I may even be the guiltiest of the sinners in my church; I wouldn’t be surprised.

Nonetheless, I cannot be the only one whose judgement is constantly clouded by self. Yet, if we allow ourselves to react to every perceived slight and wrong and hurt inflicted upon us, and if we think our own behaviour beyond reproach, then we will always be at odds with a church which is full of imperfect people.

Sinners saved by grace are still sinners. I had heard about conviction of sin before, but really only felt the guilt of it once my prison door was opened. This, I imagine, is a truth which applies to all Christians – that we struggle daily with sin.

And as such, ought we not be moved to help one another, rather than to judge? If sin is our common enemy (which it is), we have more to gain by sticking together, and by helping one another with our burdens. The thief, that is Satan, comes to steal, and kill, and destroy. He knows better than any of us that a divided household cannot stand.

That love which we are exhorted by Peter to have for one another, is the same love which he later tells us covers a multitude of sins. When a Christian stumbles, the world purses its lips, and gleefully crows that he is no better than anyone else. It takes pleasure in his misfortune, and holds up his sin as proof that Christianity is a sham.

This is no more than we have come to expect from the enemies of Christ.

If his brothers and sisters in Christ do likewise, however, or stand aloof in his misfortune, how are they different from the world? And how are they showing obedience to the Lord that forgave them so much?

As Christians, we are the body of Christ. One body, of which no part can be afflicted without it causing suffering to the rest. That is why we are to love one another, to help one another, and to bear each other’s burdens.

Armour was always easiest to put on with help from a friend. If the breastplate of righteousness should work loose, who will help me tighten it, if not my brothers and sisters? And if I see theirs slipping, my hand should be first to help, and my lips silent of all reproach.

 

 

 

I can’t feel your pain, but I know a man who can

Recently, I read a blog post by the late Rev.Dr. Iain D Campbell, in which he reflected on his own father’s death. As a minister, he said he felt that he owed an apology to many families for having failed to fully appreciate the pain of parting with a loved one. I rather think he was being a bit too severe upon himself.

You cannot feel someone else’s pain for them. No matter how much you empathise, it can only go so far. If I ever complained to my late husband of an ache, a pain, or a bad day, he would make all the right noises and then say, ‘but, look on the bright side, at least I’m ok’! Of course he was joking, but there is some measure of truth in it.

My father passed away at the age of eighty-one and, when the minister came to visit my mother tried to play down her situation, mentioning the death of a young man that had happened the same week. ‘But’, the minister said, ‘everyone’s loss is painful to themselves’.

There is a limit to how much of another person’s burden we can shoulder, because we are not them. In the moments after the news was broken to me that my husband would die, the nurse said that, were it possible, she would take it from us. I think on that often; I’ve probably written about it elsewhere. But, of course, she couldn’t take it from us. We had to carry it ourselves: first, both of us together; and then, just me.

I had prayed, of course, that God would heal Donnie in a dazzling miracle, and restore him to me. God is unfailingly merciful, though, and doesn’t play with people’s emotions. He didn’t put false hope in my heart. Instead, He opened my eyes to what healing really is.

But my desperate petition reminds me of something else. Our Saviour also asked that the bitter cup of sin and death should pass from Him. In His very humanity, He flinched in the face of what was to come upon Him. And small wonder that He should.

What a uniquely lonely situation He was in: only He knew just what a weight there would be in the sins of the whole world; only He understood what it would mean for us to be parted eternally from the Father; He alone knew that the hope of salvation rested squarely upon His shoulders. And, of course, He alone has viewed death from both sides.

Although Jesus knew that He would raise Lazarus from the dead, He still wept with the man’s grieving family. And although He knew that He was fulfilling God’s redemptive plan at Calvary, He still experienced fear and pain. No one could take that away from Him either.

We have to remember that He was also wholly God, which makes Him uniquely capable of understanding our pain. And totally human, which made Him desire to be freed from His fate.

That very fact means  He is weeping alongside every person going through a difficult time – through family troubles, through loneliness, through illness, through death. He wanted to push it away from Himself, but still drank that bitter cup to its very dregs for us. This is no well-meaning, aloof God, patting our hands and saying, ‘there, there’. Jesus has experienced all the horror of death so that we never have to.

I would be lying if I said that the bereaved Christian does not suffer. Of course they do. There is a sentiment I hear expressed in prayer for the bereaved from time to time in church which, I feel, sums up the great emptiness of it. ‘We pray for those who have lost loved ones – how difficult that a familiar voice is gone and that the home is now silent’. That is unendingly hard, it’s true.

Throughout Donnie’s illness, my mother kept getting the same text: ‘This sickness is not unto death’; she and I both clung to that promise. We forgot something, though. Our understanding of death, and God’s meaning in these words, are simply not the same.

After all, it doesn’t end there – it continues, ‘but for the glory of God’.

My home is a lot quieter these days, and a much-loved voice is gone. I would have him back, but I also know that if there are bolts on the doors of Heaven, they are sure to be on the inside.

I have nursed my husband when there was hope he would recover, and when there was none. And I have done many things I had believed were years away – cleared his wardrobe, stopped his mail, picked his headstone – but I cannot feel the pain of other widows doing the same things. Of course I empathise with bereaved people, and yes, probably more now than ever, but I am limited in what I can take on of their suffering.

Jesus is not limited. He is limitless. Our Saviour weeps with us, binds up our broken hearts and gives us not only the one comfort to be had, but the greatest comfort that could ever be: death shall have no dominion.

This Jesus, on the brink of a savage death, was afraid. He suffered unimaginably, but He went through it. My prayer for anyone whose home is silent because of death, is that they would speak to Him. Speak and He will answer. He will not leave or forsake you. He knows what you are feeling – better even than you do yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

OCD Fairies & Fellow Passengers

Whenever the fairies took a child, it was an act of straightforward covetousness. They admired the beauty of human infants and, in a very practical measure, would effect a direct swap with an elderly personage of their own race. It was a way around care in the community: guilt-free residential homes for their cailleachan, and a pretty, gurgling baby into the bargain.

People took all kinds of measures against the felonious pixies. Oatmeal might be scattered on the floor to repel them – I’m unsure whether they were OCD about a clean floor, or if they just didn’t like the feel of it underfoot, but it was deemed efficacious in keeping them at bay. Another, more revolting remedy for fending off thieving elves was . . . well, there’s no polite way of saying this, really: daubing stale urine on the door jambs and lintels. This kept fairies and, I would imagine, any other semi-civilised person out. And remember, a lot of the race of little people had only the one nostril, so if it bothered them, what must it have done to everyone else?

Nowadays, stories about changelings are deemed to be a kind of folklore of disability – a way of explaining the kinds of ailments and conditions which are either not present, or not apparent, at birth. A seemingly ‘normal’, healthy child suddenly appears to have ceased thriving. Of course, today, we would take him to a GP, be referred to a specialist. In the days long before the NHS, though, when the path between cradle and grave was frequently much shorter, people looked to the supernatural world for answers.

Frailty of either the physical or mental variety was much more difficult to accept. A limited life meant that person was dependent on others who all too frequently struggled to provide for themselves. Small wonder that an explanation had to be found.

In a recent sermon, something was made very real to me, something that I perhaps knew already and yet, didn’t know, until I heard this: the Lord’s love for, and valuing of us is not dependent upon our physical or mental abilities. It is our life which is precious to Him, regardless of the earthly tent in which that is contained.

This set in motion a veritable cavalcade of thoughts. Not the kind of thoughts we can all sometimes have in church – how does her hat stay on, not that tune again, at what point in their training do ministers learn to pronounce ‘wholly’ as ‘holly’ – all of which are totally irrelevant. No, these thoughts were more productive because, suddenly, as can also happen in church sometimes, it was as though God had revealed yet another wonderful truth about himself. A palpable truth.

We know, as Christians, that this world is not our home. Our humanity, however, clings to it, and loves to play by its rules. If we accomplish anything, if we are praised, we revel in the credit. Yet, if we follow Jesus,we do know that He does not want us setting all our store by achievements in this life. Our treasure is to be in Heaven. This doesn’t mean being what the old folk used to call being too heavenly-minded to be any earthly use. Of course, we do have to live here for a time and engage fully with the life God has ordained for us.

But we do not walk the road alone. In ‘A Christmas Carol’, Charles Dickens spoke of the need for us to treat other people as what they are in truth: ‘fellow passengers to the grave’. Sometimes, I think that I concentrate a bit too much on my own feet along this route to ever notice whether the man beside me has shoes on his, or whether he might be lame and in need of my arm.

Last week, I saw people rummaging in bins for food, right here in Stornoway. There is vulnerability of every kind – people are poor, hungry, addicted, mentally ill, struggling financially, psychologically- on our very doorstep. God loves every single one just the same as us. We have also been commanded to love those people, whom we have seen, or to accept that we cannot, therefore love Christ, whom we have not seen. To love them, that is, not their circumstances, or their problems, or their sins.

In that same sermon, we were told ‘Poverty does not make people look up to God. We have to take that into account as we deal with them and pray that God’s power will turn them to himself and bring that hope that this world can never bring’.

When we meet with human frailty in all its forms, we must do what our forefathers did and turn to the supernatural world for answers. Not the fictitious realm of fairies and superstition, but to the Heavenly realm and the God whose thumbprint is on even the most despised of these.

 

 

Lost Causes & Bringing Cutlery to Ness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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