Empty pews & the fellowship of the Spirit

I feel like a child in a fairytale. It feels as though, just by wishing hard enough, I have made the thing happen. ‘Which thing?’ you ask, fearing that I’m going to say I’ve met a handsome prince, and that you’ll have to send someone to show me that really it IS only a frog. No, not that thing. The thing I needed, the thing I secretly longed for has happened.

The world has stopped. And I have been able to stop with it.

For the few (I’ve lost track of how many) weeks of lockdown, I have been harbouring a secret. It has made me feel out of step with everybody else, but at the same time absolutely wonderful. And, if this really is just an enchantment from which we will all soon wake up, it’s safe to tell my secret, however it may shock.

In fact, I know it WILL shock, because right from the beginning of this, the Christian church has been chided for its readiness to embrace online worship. ‘You should be weeping for what you have lost’, we were told, the very first week, ‘you should grieve the loss of fellowship and count electronic services a poor substitute’.

It has been said before, of course. In the book of Numbers:

‘And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat!

We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”’

Am I being harsh? No, I don’t think I am. We are shown repeatedly in Scripture the danger and folly of looking back to halcyon days that were less than the perfection in our minds. God took the Israelites out of Egypt for a good reason: it was not their home, of course, and it was a corrupting influence, teaching the cults of paganism and idolatry. Their longing for the varied diet of the oppressor as opposed to the wholesome manna provided by God needs no interpretation.

It is this which makes us all repeat the mantra, ‘when we get back to normal’. We are human and we want what is easy and familiar. That’s hardly surprising.

Surely, though, the church cannot want to go back to what it was before. I cringe at the repeated requests that we not get too comfortable with live-streaming our worship. Why? What is ‘too comfortable’? It’s the provision God has made and there is no better application for man’s creative ingenuity than tribute to the Creator himself, who made it possible. Of course, I’m being deliberately obtuse; I know very well the point that’s being made.

What about fellowship?

Well, I’m here to tell you that occupying the same physical space does not add up to that. Fellowship is spiritual, not geographical. It is literally ‘of the Spirit’: we are united in him, wherever we are, and have the concern and care of one another, regardless of proximity or distance. How else can we have brotherhood with the global church or a heart for mission?

Is there not a very real danger that, when life is too easy and the pews too – figuratively speaking, obviously- comfortable, we mistake merely being in the same place twice-weekly for the deeper spiritual bonds of Christian fellowship?

Perhaps, then, God has removed that privilege for a season, so that we would understand its illusory effects.

As for the exhortation to weep, I don’t have much time for that either. Grief can paralyse in ways that do nothing to aid spiritual growth. Witness psalm 137:

‘By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” ‘

They sat down. They hung up their lyres. Grief and looking back rooted them to the spot and dried up their praise.

WE are in a strange land and never more so than now. This, though, is all in God’s providence and we must – surely – be called on to be like Paul and to worship him in all circumstances.

Which brings me to my secret. I know it is fated to be misunderstood, but still I think it’s worth airing.

I am glad the churches are closed.

On a personal level, it’s a relief. Life for me was so out of hand busy that, frankly, Sunday had ceased to be a day of rest. It was frequently one more day on which I had to drag myself out of the house and follow a timetable. More often than not in recent months I went to save face and to avoid answering awkward questions.

I was exhausted and verging on burnout.

Please don’t misunderstand me: this was never about coldness towards the Lord, his word, or his people. It was the cumulative effect of too much everything.

Now, I have the joy of worshiping without the tiredness. I can pare it all back to essentials and focus on the word and the praise.

This is not about one person’s convenience, of course, though I do wonder how many others feel as I do right now. It is about what the Lord is saying to his own people. We still have the privilege of corporate worship; he has not taken that from us.

I take two things from the current situation. First, he has demonstrated that fellowship is not a closed shop. We have been forced to go public and it is a real joy to know that the unchurched are finding comfort in acts of online worship. It is, as far as I am concerned, the ‘go’ of the Great Commission being partly fulfilled.

Second, he is chipping away at our complacency. To be together means much more than haphazardly sitting under one roof. It is love, care, gladness to be a people, concern for one another, sharing one another’s joys and woes.

If I survive to see the end of this pandemic, I will be glad to go to church. I pray that I will be doing it – that we will all be doing it – with a new heart and a new vigour. This is not a make-do and mend situation; God is giving us a blessing by keeping us apart, so that we might better learn what it really means to be together.

Churches, caravans and being apart

It is not untypical of either Lewis or social media that the weekend just past fairly bubbled with two controversies: the persistent influx of visitors to the islands, and the failure of some churches to heed government guidance on social distancing. These, of course, are not two issues, but one. The reason for both is simply that we have been spoilt, we have been used to everything turning out okay without much inconvenience to ourselves.

We humans, on some deep level, believe ourselves to be invincible. Bad things happen to others, not us.

A generation untouched by war or privation of any kind, we have grown hard-hearted. Oh, yes, we speak of social justice and helping the poor; we appease our own consciences with donations and sponsorships – but it is, too often, a cold charity. All this time we have been thinking our duty dispensed with a standing order here, and a retiring collection there.

Witness, though, how we conducted ourselves in the early days of impending crisis. A mad dash for food and soap, for toilet paper and anti-bacterial spray. Ransacking shops and leaving little for those who live from week to week. Retail assistants have been verbally abused, and even threatened; the elderly and poor abandoned to fend for themselves.

Whither now the social media virtue signallers or the ‘be kind’ brigade?

This disease is a great leveller. We are all at risk, and any one of us might die. Shame on us all, therefore, that the response has been so selfish. Not by everyone, of course, but by many. It is hardly surprising. Be in no doubt: here, we are reaping the foolishness we have sown. Like no previous generation, ours is drunk on the rights of the individual. When life was bumping along as normal, this meant that the poor and the elderly were trampled over, but no one noticed.

Now, the selfishness affects us all, and we are concerned. But we cannot figure out what to do.

Just as well there is an answer. There is even an example we can look to.

King Nebuchadnezzar famously hit a bit of a problem. He was, like ourselves, persuaded of his own sovereignty. Other people – his subjects – were equally sold on it. But then his sense of power kept smacking up against the true omnipotence of the God of Israel.

So do we. Only the most determined atheist can deny that God is speaking to us in a clear voice. Are we going to heed it?

Nebuchadnezzar was like us before Corona Virus hit. He walked on his palace ramparts and congratulated himself as the author of his own greatness and wealth. No sooner were the sinful words uttered than God spoke to him. The King would descend into mental illness and lose the kingdom for a period of seven years, at the end of which he would acknowledge God’s sovereignty.

We were walking in arrogance and pride until now. The world seemed inebriated with its own stolen power. Our first parents ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil – and since that day we have persistently chosen evil. All that he gave us, including our very own selves, we have warped and sullied with sin.

Where, even, to begin? Rampant consumerism, yet homelessness. The power to end life when it becomes inconvenient. God removed from public life, from education, and even from some of our churches. Unbridled reinterpretation of his ordinances. Truth made a lie, and lies accepted – enforced, indeed – as truth.

And, yes, a faithless, cold church. We have been too comfortable for too long, islands of complacency set amidst a sea of sin. We don’t love one another as we ought, and therefore, have nothing to offer the poor, lost world by way of a compass.

We have this providence now that surely will turn us back to the Lord. He has scattered his church, but then, his people were always thus. Occupying the same building is not what makes us a church, and perhaps he has removed that comfort blanket so that we will truly seek out what binds us – fellowship in him, strengthened by worship in spirit and in truth.

If he has to break us somewhat, it is only to build up his own church again. And that light, set upon a hill, should be a lamp to the feet of those who have wandered far from him, to bring them home.

Then, all this generation might say with Nebuchadnezzar that the Almighty is God indeed, ‘and none can stay his hand or say to him, “what have you done”?’

What he has done – is doing – ought to call us all to prayer. There is still time. 

The Power of Love . . . Or the Love of Power?

The first Baron Acton believed that power corrupts and that the tendency of absolute power is to corrupt absolutely. He was right, as we have almost daily proof. Our national politicians find themselves at the centre of scandals which would put a soap opera script editor to shame. It sometimes seems as though they consider themselves above the law – or at least immune to its effects.

I don’t fool myself that the local scene is any more decorous. It is simply that the stakes are lower and the local media is . . . not. Catch any  journalist off guard or in their cups and they might tell you things to make your hair stand on end (disclaimer: I said ‘might’). But you won’t catch any of them reporting it. Island politicians are not beyond reproach, but they are – largely – below the radar of public interest. Social media, of course, will do its thing of rumour, innuendo and downright lying, but what sane person believes the ramblings of a stranger on the internet anyway?

Power is, itself, a funny concept, especially when you link it to democracy. As an electorate, we basically play a game of chance in casting our votes, and let the cards fall where they may. Those selected by fickle voters are then left to simply get on with running things. Or they used to be. Nowadays, their every move is scrutinised by keyboard pundits and found wanting.

But they still have the last word.

From the other side of the ballot box, though, as one such elected person, what do I consider the nature of power to be? Bearing in mind I’m not exactly Chancellor of the Exchequer, that is. Well, I think living by the old adage that ‘knowledge is power’ may well be the only way to avoid fulfilling Baron Acton’s dark prediction. Power that is given, whether by divine right of succession or through the ballot box (rigged by the Wee Frees or otherwise) is something I have little interest in for my own part. The power to exercise positive change, however, through a proper understanding of your brief . . . well, now, that is something I can aspire to.

The worst thing any elected person can do is believe their own hype. Simply winning an election doesn’t necessarily mean you know what you’re doing – but it does mean you ought to find out sharpish.

This is true, I think, for anyone who puts themselves forward for election, but especially true for a disciple of Christ. Our defining trait is surely the daily realisation that we are nothing without him. If we seek to serve the Lord, then, by taking up office, we have to do all we can to avoid the corruption such power might bring. Now, before you get too excited, I’m not saying that the Stornoway Trust is a hotbed of intrigue and scandal. Corruption can assume many forms and, for a Christian trustee (or councillor, MSP or MP), the danger is that we become worldly, and start to rely on our own so-called ‘wisdom’ to make decisions.

That wisdom often consists of people basing their conclusions on feelings rather than facts. We are all guilty of it. You’re asked for your take on something and you have a gut reaction, so you go with that. Hunches are a lazy and destructive basis upon which to run anything, though. For Christians, we are back to that justified sinner thing again – we sometimes think that, because we are believers, all our actions will be righteous. And so they might well be, if only we trusted every one to God.

But, I hold up my hands here and confess that I have not done that nearly enough. It is probably painfully evident to those who scrutinise such things, anyway. Yes, I have tried to remember prayerfulness, and I have certainly attempted to learn the ropes of my role – but I have also relied on my own puny strength and my own inadequate wisdom too often. Those are all the times I have gone wrong; those are the days when my motivation is not what it ought to be.

I initially stood for the Stornoway Trust because I felt God was asking me to stand up for his cause, which was being shamefully set low in our community. He didn’t put me there, though – or any other Christian who holds an elected position – so that he could leave me to my own devices. His own know that is not how he works.

Why? Well, because he loves us, and he knows us. God doesn’t walk away from creatures so deluded that, despite Christ having to die for us, we can still be persuaded that there is something of worth in ourselves. He cannot trust us not to ruin things all over again – and so he goes with us.

Abraham Lincoln said that adversity was not a true test of a man’s character – his handling of power was. Sometimes, I have felt that, in my own small experience of (very limited) power, God is testing, not my character exactly, but my faith. Where I have taken my concerns to him, it has gone much better than when I have too much faith in myself.

Politically-acquired power is dangerous. It panders to our narcissism by telling us that we are popular, chosen. What every Christian must remember is this:

‘None is righteous; no, not one’.

It is a truth that those of us who believe in Christ need to remind ourselves of every day. If we wish to work for him in serving our communities, then the servant spirit must set self at naught.

Only, as Gandhi observed, when the power of love eclipses the love of power, will the world know peace. And that has to start with the people of God.

Storm-proof Your Heart

Lewis has been battered by gales over the past week. Even as I write this, snug in my bed, the wind is raging around the house. Up until a few years ago, I would have slept on, oblivious – but this has woken me and will not let me sleep. You see, I am the householder now, with all the responsibility that entails. If a slate goes, or a window comes in (it’s late, I’m a bit hysterical), I’ll be the one looking for a tradesman.

Yet, I cannot really claim any anxiety. In fact, in the last few weeks, I have been experiencing a period of unexpected and – it rather goes without saying – undeserved blessing.

And that also began with something of a storm.

It isn’t something I want to go into too much, because to do so might draw the wrong kind of attention. Sufficient to say that I experienced a cowardly and insidious attack on my beliefs at the end of last year, days before Christmas. Someone, masquerading as a proponent of tolerance, sought to undermine my peace and my reputation with lies. Nevertheless, while I continue to live rent-free and, indeed, Wee Free, in their troubled head, I am enjoying a tranquility that can only have one source.

Initially, and for a short time after learning of this latest onslaught, I was troubled. But, God bless that anonymous stranger, because what they intended to harm me actually brought me ever closer to the throne of grace.

See, like every Christian, I imagine, I pray not to be a conduit for evil. I don’t want to be the door by which the enemy enters the sheepfold. Every time I suffer these attacks, however, I wonder whether I am doing more harm than good. Sometimes what keeps me wakeful is not the weather outside, but the storm of doubt in my heart.

The days following this latest were no exception. Prayer was giving me no peace either way. Finally, exhausted by my own feelings, I decided to do serious business with God. I prayed in a way that I always think of as ‘putting my shoulder to the wheel’. Was I, I asked him, misguided in my attempts at witnessing. If he willed it, I told him, I would put down my pen forever. All I wanted was for him to be glorified; and this just didn’t feel like a great stride towards that aim, I said.

Of course, God doesn’t always answer immediately. He did that night, though. This is the text I got:

‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name’.

And there it was. So much of him in that little verse. He was reassuring me that my liberty comes from him. Yes, he was saying, the enemy could crush you in a heartbeat, he could use you to work his will – but he is not dealing with you; he is dealing with me.

These words are precious, but I believe I already knew their truth.The gold for me was really in those first four: ‘I know your works’.

They have been the balm to my soul in the early days of 2020. If I focus upon glorifying him, then it only matters that he recognises it. Whether my witnessing has any effect is ultimately not my business anyway,  but his. After all, if I do with might what he gives my hand to do, then I am glorifying him in obedience. Results are the department of the Holy Spirit. It is certainly of no consequence that the enemy despises my work. Indeed, it doesn’t even matter that some of the brethren disapprove. What is any of that to me, if I am following him?

He, himself, was able to sleep in a boat at sea in the midst of a storm. That is, God in human form slumbered, while the God of all Creation continued to rule the universe.

When we know with all our hearts that this is the God in whom we trust, what on the earth of his making should ever steal our peace?

I have been feeding this unrivalled sense of calm with his beautiful songs of praise. Every morning of this young year, I have been reading and praying through the psalms. There is nothing, I think, in the whole of Scripture, that comes closer to painting him as he is. As surely as God spoke the world into being, these psalms sing a wonderful image of him.

He is my Father. He is my Lord. He is my hope and confidence. He is the stronghold of my life. He is my high tower. This God knows me, he knows my heart; this God knows my enemy, and yes, he knows my enemy’s heart. He is mercy, grace, love, truth, justice. From him, the Father of Lights, all these blessings – and more – flow down. This is the author of my providence, the keeper of my fate, and there are no safer, surer or better hands than these.

This year, it is my prayer that those who are blind to his beauty would have their own storm stilled. It only takes a moment in his presence to become aware of  your smallness. Yet, when that realisation comes, it is also accompanied by an awareness of his greatness.

His greatness is in his name. And his name conveys all the attributes that make him God. Rest on that, and no night will be too long, no storm too savage.

‘He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler’.

I will never stop witnessing to that.

Pan pipes in the pulpit and Wee Free Flower Power

An alternative lifestyle is not the kind of thing one expects to hear advocated from the pulpit of Stornoway Free Church. You imagine that, suddenly, the sober suits will be swapped for tie-dyed cheesecloth, and vegan sandals; or that there will be crystals hanging on the vestry pegs where once there were Homburg hats. Will the cailleachs be unwrapping pumpkin seeds instead of bachelor buttons? And, rather than a precentor . . . pan pipes?

Well, no. That does tend to be our image of an alternative lifestyle, though, doesn’t it? Something a bit way-out, a bit hippyish? But I can’t see us downsizing from manses to yurts, or getting the ministers to do their pastoral visits in a VW camper van. Changes like that would be – in one sense – easy to make. You just dress differently, adopt a new vocabulary, and affect a laid-back demeanour in your dealings with people. Maybe utter the odd ‘peace’, or ‘far out’. Add a CND badge or two, and a Greenpeace bumper sticker to the VW and people get the message: you are not like everybody else.

The alternative lifestyle that was spoken of is something way more radical than deacons with joss-sticks, or ministers with henna tattoos, however. It is following Christ wherever He leads, whatever He asks you to do, and however that changes your circumstances and priorities.

And the change does not begin with anything as superficial as your clothes, or your diet: it begins with your heart. Christianity does what we used to believe of microwave ovens – it warms you from the inside out.

You don’t pick the Christian life from a catalogue. Whatever right-on secularist parents say about letting children ‘decide for themselves’, that is not how this works. No one is drawn by the clothes and the traditions. This isn’t steampunk, or goth, or hipster. I doubt very much if anyone looking dispassionately on says to themselves, ‘yeah, I was just drawn to the whole culture of, you know, prayer meetings, and soup and puddings’.

You don’t have a change of heart – you have a whole new one created in you by the Holy Spirit.

And then you become one of these peculiar people. From the inside, that means you are united to all the others in unbreakable bonds of love for Christ. You all have this knowledge of what He has done – is doing – for you, not because of any cleverness on your part, but because the Spirit has shown you. What He wrought in your life causes you to adore Him, but seeing Him do as much for others does not cause envy; instead, it makes you love them also.

Christians are commanded to lead a different life in the world, and they do so because they see it differently to everyone else. This world is not the point. Restoration to a right relationship with God for all eternity is. And that relationship begins when you are saved by grace. It changes you, and it turns your life into something lived for the Lord – which makes certain that it will also be something that those outside of Him do not comprehend.

From outside Christ, from that cold, cold place, what must Christians look like? Strange, undoubtedly. Spiritual bonds create friendships which the world finds odd, to say the least – and which some will try to taint by looking through a lens of sin. But the world is not our judge: it made that same mistake with our Saviour two thousand years ago, and has been repeating it ever since.

Yet, we are responsible for our conduct before the world. If I greet another Christian with a holy kiss, I should not care if onlookers try to warp that into something unclean. Much more serious is my being heard to slander other Christians before the world, or my failure to offer them the hand of friendship in their need. That is where I may harm the cause of Christ.

If our behaviour is reprehensible to the world, but defensible before God, there is no charge to answer. But if we fail, as Christians, the least of His, then we have failed Him also. That, then, is where our eye should be: upon Him. As Thomas a Kempis wrote in ‘The Imitation of Christ ‘:

‘If God were our one and only desire we would not be so easily upset when our opinions do not find outside acceptance’.

His life is the pattern for ours. If we follow Him faithfully, doing as He would have us do, the world can lay any charge it wishes; but we will be found righteous in the highest court of all.

 

The hope that saves

I once tried to explain the doctrine of election to some students. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t an unqualified success. One – a Roman Catholic looked at me with mounting horror and, when I’d finished, said, aghast, ‘Well, we have hope’.

It’s the hope that kills, according to many people in desperate situations. Hope keeps you going, only to be finally dashed on the rocks of reality. Wasn’t it cruel to have false expectations dangled in front of you, only to have them snatched away at last? Isn’t it always better to know the worst?

Well, I don’t think so. Four years ago this month, my world changed forever when the dread word, ‘cancer’ came into my own and my husband’s experience. I imagined the worst; he imagined the worst. And then, little by little, hope was restored. The tumour was contained, the operation was a success, no lymph-nodes were affected. Post-operative chemotherapy was optional, but advised as an extra precaution against the cancer which, seemingly, had an 85% chance of non-recurrence.

Little by little, he got his strength back. He was able to come with me to walk the dog. The first time, I remember, just after getting home from hospital, with a vacuum pump dressing. We walked maybe 1000 yards, but it was all progress.

And, when he was well enough, we both agreed that we had neglected our souls long enough. He knew as I did who had got us through all those terrible times. Twice, I had sat, frozen in terror, as Donnie underwent surgery. The first wait was bad enough; the second – to remove an adhesion, ten days after the resection – was a little foretaste of things to come. I know he thought he might die; I certainly thought so too. When the phone rang at 11pm and I heard the surgeon’s voice, I really thought that he had died in theatre.

But he came home, and the nodes were clear, and everything just might have worked out fine.

It didn’t, of course, as everyone now knows. Things took a negative and aggressive turn very rapidly. So rapidly that one day we were told the scan showed some shrinkage in the tumour, and the very next, that there was nothing further they could do. He died exactly a week later.

We had almost a year, though, of looking forward and of thinking we might just have beaten cancer. A year of hope. That, I believe, was God’s gift to us. He wasn’t cruelly tricking us, letting us believe we had a future together while, all the time, laughing up His sleeve. I think He was dealing with us gently, like the Father He is, knowing the hurt we would eventually suffer.

And isn’t election another example of that? All of us fell in Adam, not one of us deserves resurrection to eternal life, nor even the hope of it. Yet, by God’s grace, that is what we have. Isn’t it the case, therefore, if we can say that we have that hope, then we have everything?

Recently, in church, we heard that it isn’t necessary to understand the doctrine of election to be saved. We must, of course, endeavour to absorb the teaching of Scripture regarding it, but never to make any difficulty in fathoming its mysteries an obstacle to our right relationship with Christ. Being able to explain election to my students will not save me; only submission to my Saviour can do that. Making our calling and election sure is a lifelong task, but it is one founded on faith, rather than doubt.

Faith in God is very different to fragile, human hope. It is knowing your own weakness and dependence, while acknowledging His complete sufficiency. Yes, there will be trials in this world, and hard trials at that, but these are preparing you for an eternal weight of glory.

God does not play with the minds of men. If He has implanted a desire for salvation, and begun that good work in you, He will see it through. If you can say, along with that other lady, ‘we have hope’, then work at that. He does not encourage the harbouring of unfounded hopes, but that is why we have to remember Romans 15:13:

‘Our hope comes from God. May He fill you with joy and peace because of your trust in Him. May your hope grow stronger by the power of the Holy Spirit’.

It isn’t the hope itself that counts, it is the God on whom that hope is founded. He will not see you ashamed.

Status: in a relationship – and this one’s for keeps

I am hoping to be busy this Hallowe’en, if I’m spared, speaking in North Lochs about the supernatural world. It is an engagement which was made on the very doorstep of the manse, though I should stress that neither the Rev nor the First Lady had any knowledge of it. Nor do I regularly meet Lochies in the manse garden to discuss things that go bump in the night.

Not that I think we should fear the night. It certainly doesn’t bother me that, after an evening spent talking to – let’s just assume there will be an audience – folk about ghosts and witches, I have to drive back to North Tolsta. In the night. In the dark. Through the glen. Alone.

Gulp.

Except, not really on my own, of course. The Christian is never truly alone. Christ experienced that complete desolation so that we wouldn’t have to. Without doubt, the greatest privilege of my life is to be able to say that He has never left me, nor forsaken me. I cannot actually recall what it feels like to be alone.

There are still, however, some things which frighten me more than they should. Spiders. Mice. Exam boards. The minister’s wife when she’s recruiting for the soup and pudding. Or when she finds out I’ve been making odd arrangements with Lochies outside her front door. .

But other fears, I’ve left behind. One, fortunately, is public speaking. It used to terrify me; the very thought of getting up and talking in front of people gave me a dry mouth and a blank mind. Everything had to be written down, just in case all I’d ever known flew out of my head.

Recently, I feel I’ve been doing my best to scunner the Wee Frees of Lewis with my ubiquitous presence, answering questions about my experience of coming to faith. It’s a tough gig to get right – a bit like writing your testimony, where it’s an account from your point of view, but you’re not actually the main character.

And the fabulous Mairiann, who questioned me on behalf of our own congregation, has a great way of putting you at ease. She exudes calmness, which makes you calm. Because she was relaxed, I relaxed. Then, she utterly flummoxed me.

‘God has a particular heart for widows’, she said, ‘what could we, as a church, be doing, to fulfil His desire that we should care for them?’ It’s incredible how much ground your mind can cover in a few seconds. I glanced at the assembled people. How to answer that question? What advice could I give; what request should I make on behalf of the widows among our number?

I believe my poorly expressed response was something like, ‘keep doing what you’re doing’. This is surely not the answer anyone was looking for. Nor, in fact, was that the answer they deserved. Not from me.

The day my husband was buried, the presiding minister prayed that the church would now be a husband to me. Donnie was not a tall man, but, nonetheless, these were big shoes to fill. How could an institution like the church ever hope to be what he was to me? One of my friends, an atheist, actually repeated this sentiment afterwards, and laughed. In that strange fog, which accompanies bereavement, I registered her scorn, but had no reply.

Now I do, though – for her, if she chooses, and for the congregation who got no very adequate response to a reasonable question.

Love. Safety. Friendship. Care. Compassion. Identity. Closeness. Laughter. Acceptance. Freedom. Respect. Generosity. Trust. Protection.

These are the gifts I got from Donnie, as his wife. Since becoming his widow, I have felt moments of fear, of vulnerability, of pain that is almost physical, of lostness, of loneliness. I am no longer one half of a couple; I am simply one half. In the weeks and months that followed his death, I’m sure that was writ large on my countenance.

But always, Christ was at my shoulder. He never left me; He never will.

And listening to His voice always, His bride. Not that I’m suggesting for one minute that Stornoway Free Church is the whole church of Christ; just that it is one lovely limb. It has accepted me, flaws and all; it has supplied all that I need and more.

A church is made up of God’s people. Why should anyone mock the notion that they could be a husband to me? They are in-dwelt by the Spirit, and are moved by grace. To be a widow in their midst is a privilege not afforded to everyone. Unlike Donnie, wonderful though he was, Christ’s church does not love me for who I am, but for who He is.

And that, I am certain, is a love that will not let me go.

 

Doing everything by the Book

In the last, difficult weeks of Donnie’s life, we spent a lot of time on planes and in hospitals. I say, ‘we’ because, although he was the patient, I went through it all in my own way too. My way involved reading. Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ were satisfyingly bleak and waiting-room long; they suited the mood, and they passed the hours.

And for a while, I thought they were going to be the last books I would ever open.

After Donnie died, I could not read. At first, it didn’t matter, and I barely noticed. There were other things to fill my time, other concerns to occupy my imagination. But, gradually, it started to worry me. I had already lost what felt like the greater part of my identity. The months and months of anxiety and nursing had ended abruptly; I was no longer a wife. Now, it seemed like reading had gone too – I simply had no appetite for it any more.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a big deal, especially in the context of my loss. But reading had always been part of me. I remember being endlessly chided for trying to bring books to the dinner table, and for walking from room to room, book in hand, nose buried in a story. Once, hilariously, my father watched me bring home yet another purchase and said in exasperation, ‘surely you have enough books now!’

Yet, some of my most treasured volumes are the ones he bought me because he knew how much I wanted them.

I think I worried him enormously by insisting on finding a new home for the bookcase full of theology texts I’d amassed while doing a short course with the Free Church. He must have despaired when I kept saying, ‘I won’t need them again – they should go to someone who will use them’. And although I’m not sorry that they joined the fledgling library of a now newly-ordained minister, I am sorry for the anxiety I must have caused my father in the process. Did he think I was turning my back on God?

Yes, books have played an important role in my life. I wish I had told my father about the devotional I read as a child that caused me to kneel and ask Jesus into my heart. It may not quite have been a conversion, but He never quite left me after that either.

By the time I was a widow, all these years later, I was also His completely. I had lost the ability to get absorbed in a novel, but was beginning to find a new identity in Christ. Wrestling with mounting concern about my reading mojo being gone, I began to tell people how worried I was that it was never coming back. Privately, I actually thought I was mentally ill. When I would try to make myself read, I could not finish anything. It was like a sickness when food turns your stomach. My sister in-law suggested that it was the result of my conversion, that perhaps I no longer cared for ‘worldly’ books. Okay, but I wasn’t exactly devouring Christian ones either.

Except for one, that is. The One. Morning and evening, and in those still stormy, tearful times in between, I reached for my Bible. Gospels, Pauline epistles, the beautiful Song of Songs, the melancholy Ecclesiastes, the inspiring Job, and the incomparable, endless Psalms. They all spoke to me in their different ways, and in my different moods.

This Bible that had been a dumb thing in my hands for so many years, it was transformed by the power of the Comforter. Now it was ministering to me in all my need. When I wondered what all this fog of pain could mean, it spoke truth into my heart.

The Bible is not just a book. It is the living Word of God and He reaches us through it. If I did not know this before, I know it now. Books, the very things which had once peopled my world, receded from me when I needed them most. They would have been no use anyway.

His Word, though, did the work. It caused me to feel my pain, to regard it through the lens of God’s mercy and justice. For all that people call it folktales and fairy stories, it does not provide a means of escape. We have got our means already; He from whose lips the cup did not pass. But the Bible helps us accept that, it helps us see where we fit into His plan.

It did not always use soft words, nor did it beguile me with pretty promises for this world.

But it does speak absolute, inerrant truth. It comes from the Lord, and it tells us what we need to hear – that is, not what we want, but what He knows is best for us.

Trying to run things for myself, I had begun to panic, and to struggle against what was happening. Actually, though, I see it now: it was as if God had taken the book from my hand, laid it down, and whispered, ‘listen to me’.

The more I listened, the clearer His voice became.

No, the Bible is not just a book. It is a direct line from God. There is no pain, no loss, no heartache, into which it cannot speak. But it’s got to come down from its high shelf first; and so do we.

 

Fiery Crosses and Rightful Kings

If you wanted to foment a rebellion today, it would be a simple matter of texting all your supporters the where, when and why. ‘C u @ Gfinnan – B there or die.Charlie x’ . The Jacobites didn’t have Vodafone though, so their technology was rather more primitive, and quite possibly a lot more reliable – the crann-tàra. This was a cross of wood which had been partially burnt and then dipped in blood before being passed from person to person in a kind of relay until all had been rallied.

A scattered population has always presented a challenge to any cause. It was difficult to provide a uniform education system, or equal access to healthcare in all the corners of the Highlands and Islands. And it was difficult to evangelise those who did not live in or near a large centre of population.

That is certainly one of the reasons why the Reformation arrived so late in our neck of the mòinteach. Keeping the effects of the Reformation alive is proving to be an equally great challenge in the present day.

People do not come to church if they don’t want to and, increasingly, they don’t want to. Attendance at the means of grace has dwindled alarmingly across the country and even here in the islands.

There is still a thing or two that we could learn from the Jacobites. They did not sit around waiting for their supporters to show up – they went and demanded loyalty from each one. The symbolism of the crann-tara was that anyone who did not respond accordingly could expect to meet with fire and blood. It was quite literally a life or death proposition.

That, I think, is how the Gospel has to be presented – urgently. All who hear His call must know the truth, that it is a straight choice between falling in with Christ, or dying eternally.

Of course, you have to know where the people are. Otherwise, how can you obey the great commission and ‘go’? We don’t have to trudge across the region, or gallop on horseback, though, to go where the people are.

They’re right here: online.

We can’t assume that methods of communication which don’t work in the real world are going to be any more successful on the internet, however. If people don’t want to walk into our churches, then, why are they going to follow us on Twitter, or click on our Facebook posts?

At Stornoway Free Church we have recently been stepping up our use of social media. This is not in some painful effort to make ourselves cool. (Mo chreach, I’m just not sure we’d know where to start).
We simply recognise two things: Jesus wanted us to go to where the people were with His message; and where the people are, the Devil is always prowling. It is incumbent upon the church, therefore, to bring light into the darkness that can sometimes exist online just as it does offline.

Christ’s church exists to glorify Him, which I think we can sometimes forget, even with the best of intentions. We think it’s up to us to devise the initiative that will be the golden key, the thing that brings people flocking to us.

What will bring people to us, actually, is grace and that is not within the gift of the Free – or any other – Church. We must surely accept the Holy Spirit’s divine authority. So, we ask for God’s guidance, and we continue worshipping and spreading the Good News.

And, we show forth who Christ is, and what He has done on our behalf. That is sufficient. Using social media is just another way of ensuring that people know the truth. We don’t have to do anything more: there isn’t anything more to be done.

If God becoming man, God suffering and hanging on a cross to die for us is not enough; if His defeat of death is not enough, then we are not people who can be satisfied. Gimmickry and hashtags will certainly not impress if His name leaves you cold. But then, if His name fails to rally our heart to His cause, we must be prepared for the consequences.

Like the Jacobites, we should use every means at our disposal to spread the news. But in passing this fiery cross to others, we have to let them see that its terrible beauty and power lie in something not unlike the original crann-tara.

The cross we hold up before them is dipped in the blood of the Saviour, and fired with the power of His salvation offer. How we pass it on hardly matters. He is not willing that any should perish, and so we may be quite sure that it will reach all those who belong beneath His royal standard.

Wee Free Fantasy (Here be no dragons)

It must be a drag, heading to the prayer meeting on a sunny evening. Imagine having your everyday life restricted by a list of don’ts as long as Psalm 119; a list that has as its heading, ‘don’t have fun’. And what about bookending your day with readings from the Bible, and conversations with an imaginary friend? What kind of fool submits to all that, and crowns it off by sacrificing their Sunday in order to sit on hard seats, listening to dry, dusty sermons from dry, dusty men?

At least, that’s what I used to think. Church was good in bursts, but then, for the least reason, I would excuse myself from going. A long lie was often more beguiling than the Gospel. Whenever I thought that perhaps I belonged with the people of God, another thought would follow on its heels, ‘live your life first’. And when I would see them going midweek to sit in church, on a lovely July evening, I would breathe relief that I was out in the fresh air, and free.

I’m glad that I can remember these thoughts, because it may help me understand church-avoiders a little better. You see, during these periods of church-going, I had no problem with what I was hearing, indeed I was frequently very much affected by it. The repeated, central message of salvation made complete sense to me.

But, sooner or later, the world would lure me back – I’d miss a service here and there, then a whole Sunday, then the next one. And, before I knew it, I was someone who wasn’t a churchgoer anymore.

People will say – I saw such a claim only this week on social media – ‘I don’t need to go to church to believe in Christ’. No, but it certainly helps. Perhaps not everyone is as weak-willed as me, or as prone to sin, but I think that there is a huge danger to anyone in staying away from corporate worship. We know that it is not a good sign in the Christian; but it can prove fatal in one who has not yet professed faith. Like the prodigal son, before he eventually ‘came to himself’, if you are away too long from your Father’s house, you are liable to forget what it can offer.

Nothing I say could make church an attractive proposition to those who feel as I once did about it. When you are not there, the world puts you under an enchantment until you forget that it has anything to offer. Instead, you listen to Satan telling you that you’re the wise one, using your own time as you see fit and not listening to what some narrow-minded miseries think you should do. Yes, you start to believe, they are enslaved, and I am utterly free. I can go to church if I want, you think . . . or not, if I prefer.

And then, you get drunk on your own wisdom – quickly, because it’s been spiked by the Devil with lies. All of that stuff about Jesus and salvation, that can wait. Live a decent life and deal with God later.

But, what if God chooses to deal with you now?

No, you can dismiss that kind of morbid thought from your mind. That’s just Christians with their doom and gloom, their scare-mongering. Really, most people don’t die young. It’s exasperating that people still feel that way. No wonder you don’t feel like going to church when they’re all so out of touch with reality.

A friend suggested this week, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, that a sermon series from our church could not compare with ‘Game of Thrones’ for boxset entertainment value. The television series is a mediaeval fantasy with swords and dragons. It seems that most people would choose to stay home and watch this of a Sunday evening, while the black-hatted drones obediently trot off to church.

One group is immersed in a realm of darkness; the other group is praying to get them out of it.

Many of those who prefer ‘real life’ to Christianity would tell you that they don’t want your prayers, that you are simply speaking to an invisible friend.

It would be easy to give up hope for them, and it’s heartbreaking to see Christians weeping over their children, worried that they are moving further from Christ all the time, not closer.

Well, to them I will quote Aslan, hero of another great fantasy series, ‘Courage, dear heart’. What unites these two groups, unbelievers and Christians alike, is that they each forget the power of the Holy Spirit.

I didn’t suddenly find the company of the Lord’s people appealing of my own accord. Left to myself, I would probably still be at home, watching implausible television, happy in the knowledge that these dragons aren’t real. Because of the intervention of the Holy Spirit, however, my eyes were opened.

Heading to the prayer meeting on a sunny evening is now one of life’s greatest pleasures. You see the Creator’s work at its best in weather like this, and then you are with His people, who are also your people. Best of all, you get to meet with Him.

This is no fantasy. There are two kingdoms, but only one monarch. Pick your side – but pick the right side. Choose the realm of darkness and you have no king, only a pretender; choose light and there you have a King whose throne is not subject to any game.