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.

Keep the Faith for Sunday Best (Part 2)

This is the second part of a guest post by Andy Murray of Ragged Theology. Challenging and thought-provoking stuff as ever.

Men like Thomas Guthrie and William Wilberforce inspired a movement rooted firmly in Micah 6 v 8.  They called the church and nation to love justice, show mercy and walk humbly with the God of the Bible.  They wrote, they spoke, they preached, they persuaded and they campaigned for change to the way the poor were treated.  The work went on long after they were dead.  Their work changed whole communities, changed laws and changed the direction of our nation.  When Guthrie died in 1873 not only was education about to be offered to all, but thanks to Christian social reformers children were finally being offered protection and care instead of exploitation.  Men like Guthrie and Wilberforce were hated and opposed because they challenged the powerful vested interests in the alcohol and slave industries respectively.  But through all the challenges, they had an unquenchable hope in the redeeming gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  A hope that the most visionary and noble secularist cannot offer.  This is why secularism soon turns to pessimism.  As Blaikie says:

thomasguthrie2

Secularism may try to keep up its spirits, it may imagine a happy future, it may revel in a dream of a golden age.  But as it builds its castle in the air, its neighbour, Pessimism, will make short and rude work of the flimsy edifice.  Say what you will, and do what you may, says Pessimism, the ship is drifting inevitably on the rocks.  Your dream that one day selfishness will be overcome, are the phantoms of a misguided imagination; your notion that abundance of light is all that is needed to cure the evils of society, is like the fancy of keeping back the Atlantic with a mop.  If you really understood the problem, you would see that the moral disorder of the world is infinitely too deep for any human remedy to remove it; and, since we know of no other, there is nothing for us but to flounder on from one blunder to another, and from one crime to another, till mankind works out its own extinction; or, happy catastrophe! The globe on which we dwell is shattered by collision with some other planet, or drawn into the furnace of the sin.

It is the Christian gospel that has been the great agent of change in human history.  Has the church at times been corrupt?  Absolutely.  Has it at times disregarded the poor and even abused them.  Unfortunately, it has.  But what has been the fruit of the revival of true Christianity?  It has always been love, particularly for the poor.  The spirit of self-seeking is supplanted by the spirit of service and love.  Vice is replaced by virtue.  When men love God in sincerity, they will love their neighbour, particularly the poor and the outcast.  The church at its best lives by that early ‘mission statement’ in James 1 v 27 ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’  As Thomas Guthrie said about the kind of Christianity that brings transformation to communities;

We want a religion that, not dressed for Sundays and walking on stilts, descends into common and everyday life; is friendly, not selfish; courteous, not boorish; generous, not miserly; sanctified, not sour; that loves justice more than gain; and fears God more than man; to quote another’s words – “a religion that keeps husbands from being spiteful, or wives fretful; that keeps mothers patient, and children pleasant; that bears heavily not only on the ‘exceeding sinfulness of sin,’ but on the exceeding rascality of lying and stealing; that banishes small measures from counters, sand from sugar, and water from milk-cans – the faith, in short, whose root is in Christ, and whose fruit is works.

 

Keep the Faith for Sunday Best (Part 1)

This is a two-part guest post by my blogging (tor)mentor, Andy Murray, author of Ragged Theology. Part two of this excellent piece to follow tomorrow.

Philanthropy is not a casual product; it is not a mere outcome of a zeitgeist, or fashion of the age; its roots are deep in the soil of Christianity; it cannot pick up a living either from Paganism, or Agnosticism, or Secularism, or any other system cut off from the influence of the love of Christ.

This is one of the first paragraphs in William Garden Blaikie’s Leaders in Modern Philanthropy published in 1884.  What follows is a barnstorming tour of all the great Christian philanthropists over many centuries from John Howard, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, Andrew Reed, Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie, David Livingstone, William Burns, John Patterson, Agnes Salt and many others.  The claim that some make that Dr Thomas Guthrie was some kind of lone voice in 19th century Scotland is simply not supported by facts.  Guthrie built on the work of Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen and John Pounds in England.  His work was taken up by many particularly Lord Shaftesbury in England.  He was part of a wider movement that rediscovered evangelical theology and roused a sleeping church to the Biblical mandate of fighting for justice and showing mercy to the marginalised.  Their work sprang from their theology.

Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

Despite the UK’s departure from its Christian heritage, much of our society remains rooted in the Bible.  The idea that we are all equal in the sight of the law, the idea of education for all, the concept of compassion for the poor, are all inextricably linked to a Biblical view of humanity.  If you don’t think this is important look closely at other societies and see the radical difference.  The foundational Christian belief that man is made in the image of God has radical implications for the way we treat our fellow man, particularly those who need special protection and care.  Christianity teaches that everyone has dignity and worth.  It also teaches that anyone can be redeemed from their fallen/sinful state.  Man’s fundamental problem is not poverty, housing or power; it is sin (Matthew 15 v 15-20).  The addict, the wife beater, the thief can all be redeemed and transformed by the grace of God.  Christianity is about grace, hope and most of all love.  It is religion of redemption and second chances.

But much more than personal transformation, Christianity places on the believer ‘a strong dynamic impulse to diffuse the love which had fallen so warmly on themselves’ (Blaikie).  Our Saviour, ‘the friend of publicans and sinners, is our ultimate example.  Jesus taught repeatedly about the need to love the poor in parables such as that of the Good Samaritan.  His teaching in Matthew 25 on the sheep and the goats couldn’t be clearer.  He defined true greatness thus: ‘the servant of all being the greatest of all.’  Remember that Jesus was speaking at a time when the order of the Roman empire masked a barbarous culture. Gladiatorial sports slaughtered tens of thousands for nothing but the amusement of the baying mob.  Slavery was commonplace and women were often used as sexual playthings.  Yes, there were occasional spurts of compassion when an amphitheatre collapsed, but there was no systematic relief of the poor.  It was a hierarchical society where groups and classes were systematically oppressed and kept down.  A bit like modern Britain.

It was as the New Testament church grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire that Christianity’s counter-cultural message of love for the poor began to change societies.  As Blaikie says: ‘In the course of time, barbarous sports disappeared; slavery was abolished or greatly modified; laws that bore hard on the weaker sex were amended; the care of the poor became one of the great lessons of the Church.’  This is not to say that the church did not frequently go wrong.  Often the methods of showing love became exaggerated and distorted.  The alms-giving in the mediaeval church became more about the abuse of power than equipping the poor to become self-reliant.   The Reformation was a great return to Biblical Christianity, and while it was a time of great conflict it also saw a return to Biblical philanthropy and care for the poor.  It encouraged education and saw the start of schools, colleges and universities.  The Bible was not only given to the common man but he was also taught how to read it.  This why William Tyndale became a hunted terrorist.  His English New Testament was a threat because it smashed the power of a corrupt church.

So far so good.  Even the most cynical atheist would surely acknowledge that Christian philanthropy has done great good.  But let’s be honest, there have been many inspiring philanthropists who haven’t had an ounce of love for God.  It is wonderful to read of philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie building libraries, donating ornate organs and building palaces of peace.  My family home in Sutherland has many monuments to the generosity of Carnegie.  We celebrate every effort that is made to relieve the poor and change society for the better whether in Christ’s name or not.  Nobody can deny that many charities have sprung up with little or no Christian inspiration.  History, however, shows us that all too often the greatest social reformers have been compelled by a zeal for God that leads to an enduring love for his neighbour.  They inspire followers who, if not always sharing in their theology, agree with their goals and are willing to follow their example.  Often secular philanthropists (such as Carnegie) are blessed with great fortunes and influence, but it takes an exceptional love to persevere in championing the poor without wealth or power.  It is one thing for an inspiring political leader to rise up, but unless it is underpinned with the theology of Christian compassion, how long will it last?

 

The Emperor of Maladies and the Everlasting Arms

When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, your world changes forever. Suddenly, you see everything through the prism of anxiety. You are afraid to make plans, afraid to laugh, afraid to presume. Life is no longer about living; it becomes about surviving. Normal service is suspended. A shadow lies heavy over everything and threat hangs in the air. Your life, that fragile, bird’s egg of a thing that you have constructed so carefully, may be crushed at any moment.

I lost my granny to cancer many years ago, when I was nine. Then, when I was eighteen, news came that my friend’s mother, a wonderful, funny, vital woman, pillar of my childhood, was dying. It was the first time in my life I ever experienced the kind of shock that makes the breath leave your body. And when I was 38, my husband was diagnosed.

All that time passed between my granny’s diagnosis and Donnie’s, and yet the word had lost none of its power to frighten. It feels like the same strong enemy it has always been. There are not too many conditions that’s true of. Small wonder that Siddhartha Mukherjee called it ‘the emperor of all maladies’. A sadistic emperor, I would venture, one that loves to create pain and grief.

What is the purpose of all this suffering? We are no more entitled to know the answer to that question than we are to know the other great mysteries of the universe. Faith is content with the fact that there is a purpose.

I have come to the conclusion that, just as sin is sin, trial is trial: there is no gradation in God’s eyes. If you have Him, you can go through it, whatever it is. Cancer scares us, but He works everything for good; whether that’s healing and recovery, or bringing you home to be with Him.

The biggest question is not, actually, why does He permit this suffering, but rather, how does He want us to go through it? We have already got part of the answer. He wants us to go through it with our eye fixed on Him. And I believe He wants us to be overwhelmed with fear, or pain. Not because He is a sadist or any of the other blasphemy that people like Stephen Fry accuse Him of, but because He wants us to stop trying to do everything on our own. It is possible that, as CS Lewis put it, pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

Not long ago, our prayer meeting heard of Joshua and the parting of the Jordan. The Ark of the Covenant led the Israelites through the river and onwards to the Promised Land. In our own wildernesses, we need to do the same: fix our eyes on the Lord that leads us through every Jordan.

It’s easy to let sheer sick terror paralyse you when you’re worrying about a loved one. But you need to take that worry to the throne of grace. In my own most despairing moments, I did and this was the answer I got:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
2 Corinthians 5:1

In the awful minutes after hearing that Donnie would die, the nurse who broke the news said, ‘if I could take this from you, I would’. It’s exactly how I feel every time I hear of another cancer diagnosis: the word itself is an assault on my heart. Anyone who has gone through it would not on any account see another suffer that fear and that pain which the word, ‘cancer’ always brings.  Yet, I know that God blesses us in these trials too, if we will only hold fast to Him.

Don’t listen to the people who tell you that you will get a back according to the burden; you won’t. He carries the burden with you and sometimes for you. God WILL give you more than you can bear, because He wants you to hand it straight back to Him. Your strength will not be up to this, but His is more than sufficient.

Shared adversity brings people together. How much more, then,  does it create closeness with God when you allow Him to carry you. I know that cancer brought my late husband into much closer communion with his Lord, and gave Him assurance of salvation. It did as much for me too. Cancer was, for us, the ugly messenger which brought good news. We no longer have one another, but we each have something infinitely better and lasting.

Cancer is not a person. It is not an enemy with plans, or feelings. We give it too much power. When it comes into our lives, like every other test and adversity – or, for that matter, every blessing and joy – we need to commit it into God’s safekeeping. He knows what to do with it because He knows its purpose.

In all of this, we have to look beyond the malady, beyond the sometimes gruelling treatment process, and see the Ark going ahead of us and parting the way. He is in the midst of these troubled waters too.

Safe Spaces and Dwelling Places

I went to a feminist event last night. It was that thing which we’ve heard there is so much need for in the Hebrides – a safe space for women to talk and exchange opinions. It was a real, face-to-face meeting of Hebridean ladies , sharing a meal and sharing conversation. Women of all ages came together from across the island, to talk, to listen, to laugh, to catch up with old friends and to meet new ones.

There was a guest speaker. She spoke movingly of her work with street children in Uganda. I don’t believe there was a heart in that room of almost 200 women unmoved by what she told us. Children, born to children, growing up without a home or a family. Without, in fact, a safe space.

These are children who don’t know what it is to have a parent’s unconditional love and protection. They are exposed to unthinkable danger every minute of every day. Many of them are on the streets, nonetheless, because that terror is marginally better than the one they faced at home. We all know how short a duration childhood is; in the blink of an eye, it’s past and, for these children, never really happens at all.

The speaker, Marsaili Campbell, is a paediatric nurse who has worked with these children for a long time through the Dwelling Places project. In addressing her audience, she excluded no one, and made no assumption that the room was filled with Christians.

I have already had fingers wagged at me by people who thought I was suggesting that charity is the exclusive preserve of Christianity. It isn’t. The gathering was Women for Mission, but the challenge is for all human beings. Could we not work together to make this world a little safer for everyone? Surely there are more important fights than the ones we are having with each other, and more important rights than that of swimming seven days a week, or keeping your child from hearing about Noah and the ark.

This meeting is an annual event organised by Women for Mission, a network of committees affiliated to the Free Church, and raising money to fund missionary work. It is the preserve of energetic, intelligent, motivated and compassionate women. If you are one of those, you could come to a WFM fundraiser, just to see what it’s about. You could support the work to help street children, to bring hope to the hopeless. These events, and the planning meetings which precede them, are safe spaces.

The women I met last night are authentic  feminists. True, they haven’t hung that label on themselves, but I think that’s because they are absolutely free, and don’t need to.

I was approached by a smiley, petite lady at the end of the evening, to tell me how much she was enjoying my column in the ‘Record’. That lady taught me – and countless others – to read and write during her 37 years in Laxdale School. Elsewhere in the room, I saw my former boss, a woman who stood up to men in suits in the 1970s to give Ness its Comunn Eachdraidh. That swiftly became a movement which has preserved and recorded our folk heritage up and down the islands and beyond.

The lady co-ordinating the evening is another example of feisty Free Church womanhood. I’ve come to dislike that word, ‘feisty’ because it’s so often applied to militant moaners. Not in this case. Think force of nature with a hundred watt smile. You do her bidding because she semi-charms and semi-terrifies you. And because everything that drives her is what drives each woman in that room: love for the Lord.

A room packed with women, all of one accord: it should terrify the men. Then again, there was one present – just one, mind you. He had a camera. Probably gathering evidence to take back to the Session. I’m fairly sure he caught the woman next to me laughing, so they’ll probably shut WFM down. Women laughing and planning things is surely the way sedition lies.

Actually, women, with their multi-faceted personalities, experience, and gifts, come together in groups like WFM. They work towards a common, humanitarian goal. In striving as one, they become one. There is real sisterhood because the bonds that exist between them are forged in the fire of love. It is that simple love which says that if a child is hungry, you should feed her, and if she hurts, you should comfort her.

That is what feminism looks like in the Free Church.  It is about looking outward and serving the Lord by serving the lowliest in our world.

At the end of the evening, the beauty of 200 women singing Psalm 40 in unison said something to me about real feminism. Each individual voice counts, yes, but how much more power is there when we come together as one?

 

Make hay on the day of small things

It used to be a practice in some parts of Lewis, when you were constructing the haystack, to place a pat of butter inside the centre of it. Then, partway through the winter, when household stocks began, inevitably, to dwindle, it would emerge from the diminishing goc as a welcome addition to the table.

Our ancestors were inventive when it came to putting things by. Young women gradually built up a ‘bottom drawer’ with all the things they might need to set up a home of their own, should the joyful day ever arrive. Personal and household linens were stored away, in a custom that combined sentiment with practicality. It would have been impossible for them to purchase all they needed at once and so, it was achieved gradually. Happy anticipation salted their frugality and made it a good thing.

When I was a child, I heard the phrase, ‘na dèan tàir air latha nan nithean beaga’ so often that I thought it was a proverb. I think, actually, the older people used it as a sort of mantra for themselves, a wee memo about keeping things in perspective. It is, of course, from the minor prophet, Zechariah – ‘for who hath despised the day of small things?’ – and serves as a reminder that we should not expect dramatic manifestations of God’s work in our lives, but rather that we should be grateful for his constancy, and his faithfulness. These are not, in fact, small things, but great and wonderful things.

Common grace – God’s mercy enjoyed by all, regardless of whether they believe – is probably not talked about enough. Those who reject Christ would certainly argue that they are who they are, and have what they have, through their own efforts and that of other human beings. Many of us have been fooled into that kind of thinking.

Since becoming a Christian, I look back at the years before and see Him acting on my behalf in so many ways to which I must have been blind at the time. It’s like opening up an old, familiar photograph album and seeing a person that you had never previously noticed in every single picture. What did I feel on realising this? Many things. Sadness that I had carried burdens of worry, guilt and sin needlessly; grief, that I had not listened sooner to His voice; shame at my own pride and arrogance. Yet, overriding all of those feelings was joy – joy that now I am His, but also a sort of retrospective comfort. Past trials and celebrations are past, but I see them differently now, knowing that He was always there in their midst.

We are always looking for something significant. I think that I had been a Christian for quite a time before receiving assurance. Perhaps I expected some sort of fireworks display to show that Christ had saved me. No word that all the drama had already taken place 2000 years ago.
And even those who are already Christians sigh and long for the days gone by when churches were full on a Sunday. That’s natural, and we are all praying daily for an increase of God’s Kingdom. Yet, while we are fixing our eyes and our hearts upon the hope of a great and glorious revival, like the kind we read about in books, what is it we are not seeing and hearing now?

The work goes on. God is present. You pray for family and friends who are without Christ, but you remember that they are not completely alone even now. They have not noticed Him at their shoulder, they have not yet turned into His embrace, but He is there. And people are hearing the Word and being changed, sometimes like water wearing away the stone, but being changed all the same. These are the days of small things. We mustn’t give so much of our hearts to longing for a great and glorious miracle that we forget the daily miracle of God’s grace.

Sometimes, He speaks not in wind, nor earthquake, nor fire, but in the still, small voice of everyday. That is something we can put by for later, until the winter passes and the days of plenty come.

The Family Tree and the Well

If you want to change your identity in Lewis, forget fake passports – you had better be prepared to forge an entire family tree for yourself. Even if you do, though, someone is bound to recognise you on your auntie Effie, or your cousin Angus. We cannot escape our dualchas, it seems, and especially not in a place which has eyes everywhere and a memory as long as time. Whatever you do may very well be written-off as, ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’. If Effie had one Babycham too many at her sister’s wedding in 1973, well, chances are you’ve got a weakness for the hard stuff too.

We have an interest in our genealogy here that is stronger, I think, than in many other places. People tend to be aware of relatives that are actually fairly distant. Recently, through the wonders of modern technology, I have been corresponding with just such a person about our shared Achmore ancestry. My maternal granny was from that village and it is nice to have names, dates and addresses to fill out the sketchy pictures in my head. It is good to know about my people, and to see Achmore as somewhere other than just the place my father threatened to move us to if we didn’t behave.

That interest can even transcend geography. Relatives long since emigrated to Canada will follow with interest the news from ‘home’. My great-uncle Henry, brother of my Achmore granny, went off to live in Australia as a young man of eighteen or so. He died, while reading the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ (me too, many times . . .) The point is that he died an old man, but was still keeping up with goings-on in Lewis, until the very end.

When I was a student, one of our lecturers mentioned that his brother, who had lived in New Zealand for the greater part of his life, would soon be coming back to Lewis for his first visit since emigrating. ‘I wonder’, he mused, ‘how many people who don’t even know him, will have heard that he’s coming home’. He made a valid point. That is how news is shared in Lewis: people frequently tell me things about people I have never met. I have felt heart-sore for men and women who I wouldn’t recognise if I tripped over them.

A few months ago, at a church conference, I met a lady and we got talking. She began the process of ‘placing’ me. It didn’t take too long. Being a (fairly) young widow in a wee place like this makes me easy to identify. ‘We didn’t know who you were’, she said, ‘but we prayed for you’. I was moved beyond words. No wonder I had felt the Lord upholding me in my grief, no wonder He had seemed so near – even strangers were bringing me before Him.

God, of course, does not need to be told anything about me, or anyone else – that is why the gravestones of those who die unidentified frequently bear the legend, ‘known unto God’. Prayer is not intended to inform Him, but to involve Him; it is the greatest kindness one human being can do for another. Imagine, in the worst moments of your life, that unseen community of praying people, committing you into the care of the Almighty. Whether you cannot, or will not, do it for yourself, it is their privilege to pray on your behalf.

The woman of Samaria did not enjoy these benefits of community. Her lifestyle might have shocked and offended her neighbours, so she lived a solitary life, even purposely going to the well for water when she knew that none of the other women would be present. There, however, she met a man who told her everything she ever did. He met her where she was, and to her declaration that her people were waiting for the Messiah to come and reveal all, Christ responded with, ‘I Am’.

We islanders were not the first to place value upon family history, and upon names to embody enduring truths about us. In the Old Testament, a person’s name frequently tells of their character, or their greatest attribute. God often renamed them to fit their new life – Abram became Abraham and Sarai, Sarah, for example. Jesus, who had a human genealogy, just like you or I, chose instead to use ‘I Am’ when meeting this marginalised woman.

We are not told her name. Not even a family nickname to go on. Had she been from Shawbost, rather than Samaria, the lack of detail might be frustrating. But then, she’d had five husbands, so perhaps we could place her after all. Jesus didn’t concern Himself too much with her past, though. Yes, He mentioned it, to show that He knew her, but He didn’t cast it up against her. The woman’s inward transformation came through hearing His name and knowing – really believing- who He was.

Just as we need to ‘place’ people within their family trees in order to feel that we know them, this woman also had to hear who Jesus was. Even if she had been told his human name, however, it might have meant nothing to her. On the other hand, hearing, ‘I Am’ caused her to forget her outcast status and run headlong towards the very people who had shunned her.

That’s the change of identity we should all be striving for. Your DNA might say you’re descended from Vikings, and your family tree tell you that great-uncle Alasdair was a bit of a one for the boireannaich. But your Saviour says, ‘I Am’ –  and none of that other history matters anymore.

A Highland River of Life

If I had to pick just one day out of my life to relive, I might choose the first time I walked the Dunbeath strath with the man who was, the following summer, to become my husband. It was May holiday, 2002: warm, sunny, just one of those perfect days that stands out in my memory for reasons too insubstantial to put into words: you had to be there; and of the two who were, I am the only one left.

Part of the magic was that this was Neil Gunn’s strath. He has been my favourite writer for many years now and I can still recall the delight I felt as I recognised places mentioned in his novels – the meal mill, the House of Peace, the Prisoner’s Leap. Most of all, it brought to mind his 1937 novel, winner of the James Tait Memorial Prize – ‘Highland River’. Ever since reading that unique book, I found it impossible to walk beside any river without thinking of Kenn, the central character, making his journey towards the source: the source of the river, the source of his own identity.

Gunn believed that the Gaels were united by more than a mere language, that they were bound together by common experience, and by landscape. He was a great believer in the collective unconscious: Jung’s idea that people may share a second-level consciousness which cannot be related to their own direct experience. It describes what we might otherwise call ‘instinct’.

Calvin was a proponent of instinct in a way too. He argued that the light of nature – natural man’s awareness of God’s existence – is in each one of us, however distorted by sin. This was, and is, not to be confused with the light of the world in the person of Jesus Christ. In no way was Calvin suggesting that the sensus divinitatis, this awareness of God, was sufficient in itself; without the Spirit’s illumination, we cannot know God savingly. As the Westminster Confession of Faith has it:

‘Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.

As Kenn nears his final destination, the source of the river, he feels a strong sense of his own abiding solitude:

‘That was his destiny. He saw its meaning in his people, even in their religion, for what was the Calvinist but one who would have no mediating figure between himself and the ultimate, no one to take responsibility from him, to suffer for him.’

Well, true in part: Calvinists do not place their trust in priests, or bishops, in confessionals or man-made absolution. Calvinists, however, do believe in the great and only mediating figure. He has already suffered and taken responsibility for our sins. If, knowing this, we choose solitude and suffering for ourselves, we are not Calvinists, but fools.

Far be it from me to disagree with Calvin – that’s not how I was brought up. There is, I believe, an instinctive awareness of God in us, which the Creation further demonstrates. That, however, is surely as far as one can go with that. You can be aware of the existence of the Creator by witnessing the work of His hand, yes – but you cannot know Him apart from the Son and the Spirit. To truly know Him, you must know how He has dealt with mankind, how He has dealt with you. You must know the sacrifice He has made.

When I go back now, in my mind, to that strath, and to that day, I see Him there. Yes, in the beauty of the river, in the brightness of the sun and in the fragrance of nature. All of that, but this too: He planned that day, we two, and all that would become of us. Not just planned, but ordained, brought into being: authored and finished.

The mere, dim light of nature is not enough. It will leave us like those poor Greeks at the Areopagus, with an altar ‘to the unknown god’. If He is unknown to us, that is not because He is unknowable, but because we have not yet traced the river of our life back to its source.

‘For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light do we see light.’

The Seer and the Promise of Rain

There was a time when every village in the Highlands and Islands would have had a taibhsear, a person gifted with the ability to see into the otherworld of ghosts and death. These people operated at a different level to the seer, whose concerns were less domestic and frequently strayed into national issues. No, the taibhsear was mainly plagued by visions of phantom funerals, of shrouds on his neighbours, and of the visitation of death to the locality.

In discussing these aspects of our heritage with students, I am frequently asked why the gift of second sight seems to be in retreat. Of course, I am not qualified to give a definitive answer to that – no one is – but I do have my own thoughts on it.

Firstly, why do we use the word, ‘community’ so frequently nowadays? It derives from the Latin, communitas and was originally a noun of quality, meant to name, not a physical place, but a feeling of fellowship, of unity, of oneness. In Lewis, my parents’ generation and all of those preceding would never have dreamt of using the word: in Gaelic, they talked about ‘baile’ and in English, ‘village’. The rest was implied. ‘Anns a’ bhaile againne’, meaning, ‘in our village’, was a frequently used phrase which took as read all of those attributes with which we now associate the word, ‘community’. People lived in close proximity to one another, shared a similar worldview and an almost identical experience of life.

Also, if you go back far enough, they feared the same things. The threat of illness, and of death hovered near them and manifested itself in belief relating to the fairies, to the evil eye and to witches. Many of life’s events can seem random and unexpected. If, however, you can anticipate them to some degree, you may regain a little power. To a certain extent, you can even take the sting from death if you see it coming.

And secondly, isn’t it possible that such closeness bred something else – an instinct, an intuition for your neighbours, as much as for your own family? Look at Derick Thomson’s description of a Lewis sky:

Probably there’s no other sky in the world
That makes it so easy for people
To look in on eternity

Did they get some deep sense of their own smallness against the vastness of Creation? Perhaps it caused them to cling more closely to one another in ways that we simply cannot understand. We have lost something more than just the gift of second sight along this way; we have lost the care for one another that used to operate at such a natural level. And, dare I say, we have lost our own innate sense of eternity?

This is how it is possible for division to emerge in our midst where none previously existed. It is sadly inevitable that atheists and Christians will not be able to agree on certain matters. This rift cannot be healed by arguing round in ever more ill-tempered circles.

It can, however, be healed by prayer and by the constancy of God’s people. In the past, many of those who were reputedly gifted with the second sight were ministers and ‘Men’. No less a person than Dr John Kennedy of Dingwall thought of second sight as hierophany – the Lord manifesting Himself to those lacking regular access to the Word. His own father was thought to be thus gifted and foresaw, amongst other things, the Disruption of 1843, though he did not live to see his prophecy fulfilled.

The Disruption, which formed the Free Church of Scotland, was much more than a mere political movement. It was preceded by a widespread spiritual revival in the Highlands and Islands. Otherwise, the people could not have taken such a radical, faith-fuelled step. And such revivals are always precipitated by prayer. Real, heart-felt, expecting prayer.

Recently, in a study on the life of Elijah, our congregation heard of his earnest petitions to God for rain in the midst of drought, with his head bowed between his knees. Though he entreated desperately, he did so in faith. And when his servant reported the appearance in the sky of a tiny cloud, Elijah knew this was the emerging fulfilment of God’s promise.

We are – right now – in the midst of what can sometimes feels like spiritual drought. It would be easy to forget that God does not wish us to sit back in despair, but expects us to pray in earnest. Notice, Elijah was so serious about prayer that he employed someone else to check the sky while he got on with the real business in hand.

Our problem might be that we just keep on checking the sky, shaking our heads sadly before once again fixing our eyes on the parched ground. We need to pray, and we need to be ready to spot the little cloud when it appears – because if we pray in faith, it IS coming. First the cloud, then the deluge and then, up from the barren earth, fruit.

God isn’t silent – He’s simply waiting for our prayers. These have to include the wilfully blind in our midst – for who is to say that one of them is not that very cloud?

The Widow and the Devil

In folklore, the widow was often a witch. I’m unsure whether the assumption was that, without a husband’s restraining influence, a woman was bound to fall into bad ways, or whether there is just something unsettling about a woman who is isolated from the mainstream. Despite living in the reputed witchcraft capital of Lewis, and being a youngish widow, however, I have somehow managed to resist the lure of the darkness thus far.

Gaelic tradition records an unspeakable ritual for summoning the Devil, used by such wicked people – in the taghairm, an unspecified, though considerable, quantity of cats would be roasted alive over a fire. Eventually, their howls would cause the great cat himself to appear to the one foolish enough to have requested his presence in the first place.

And we’ve all seen the Hammer Horror films, dancing women, chalk circles, blood and candles. Awkward, in a good Calvinist community, I’d have thought, buying tapers in bulk. However, the truth is more mundane and, simultaneously, a lot more terrifying. You need not draw a circle, strike a match, nor yet kidnap next-door’s tom. It suits Satan’s ego and his guile for you to believe that bringing him out is such a complex affair. It’s not, though, because he’s already here.

He is interested in everyone and prowls about, seeking whom he may devour. When I, not quite a year into my widowhood, professed faith publicly, I was told, ‘it’s now he’ll really be interested in you’. And this was true, though I already had experience of his torments. The Devil hates Christ and he hates His followers, and tries his utmost to do the impossible – pluck them back out of their Saviour’s grasp. Stealing their peace is his aim. His methods are varied, and sometimes quite surprising in their ingenuity.

One of the ways in which I sought comfort for my loss was in reading CS Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed‘, adapted from the journal he had kept following the death of his own wife, Joy Gresham. It went well at first and Lewis’ description of grief as being ‘so much like fear’ spoke to me. The death of a spouse leaves you feeling exposed and vulnerable. Just the way the Devil likes it. And then, I read this:

‘How do I know that all her anguish is past? I never believed before – I thought it immensely improbable – that the faithfulest soul could leap straight into perfection and peace the moment death has rattled in the throat.It would be wishful thinking with a vengeance to take up that belief now. H. was a splendid thing . . . But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients, not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured.’

I was horrified. Donnie had gone through so much pain and suffering – was Lewis right to suggest that somehow there was more refining and scouring to be done after death? Instead of thinking that he was out of pain, at rest, his cancer finally gone, I was now imagining him still being tested and tried. It tormented me, this idea that he still had no peace. Somehow, all these months of needles and blood tests, of tubes and scans, of endless waiting in rooms packed with white-faced patients and their terrified families, of bleak diagnoses and grim-voiced doctors, had not ended.

Grief IS like fear, Lewis was right about that. The same horrible ideas now took me over once again, just as they had with his illness. What processes, what tests would he be subjected to? How would these ‘stains’ be scoured? Would he be treated gently? Would he be frightened? And would he come through it?

Fortunately, this anguish didn’t last, and all because of one simple, wonderful fact: Christ’s promise to the thief on the cross, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise‘. I remembered that God, who cannot behold sin, would admit no one who was unsanctified; and Christ would not make a promise that He did not keep.

When you lose someone close to you, people are wary about mentioning death. In church particularly, people were very solicitous if a sermon even touched on the subject. I love them for it, but I want them to know that it’s not necessary. CS Lewis’ idea about death made me sick with fear. Every human being who has loved another human being knows that emotion. What we hear about in church, though, that’s different: that’s the death of death; death defeated by a death – THE death. So defeated that after THE death came life again.

And that thing which CS Lewis could not believe: the leap straight into perfection and peace? Oh yes, that too. Only the Devil will tell you any different.