Broccoli and the Secular Delusion

When I was shorter than I am now and even more ignorant, my parents entrusted me to the state for the purpose of obtaining a rudimentary education. It was 1980 and here in Lewis, anyway, it was reasonably safe to assume that the state and my parents were, broadly speaking, pulling on the same oar.

So, when I would go home and bore them with details of the school day, neither of them batted an eyelid at mention of the Lord’s Prayer. Every morning, before a stroke of work was done, our chairs were scraped back and thirty or so little heads bowed to recite the old, familiar and beautiful words.

It’s only now, writing this, that I am struck by the privilege we enjoyed and our parents also, knowing that we were in the care of people who had their priorities straight. Whatever kind of home a child came from, these teachers were helping each and every one to commit their day into God’s hands.

At other junctures in the week, the Psalms would be learned, recited individually, and sung in unison. There were Bible stories – Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, wonderful stories of faith and strength in the Lord. We learned the Ten Commandments, not just by rote, but really, truly learned their relevance and that they were foundational to all other laws. And yes, we learned action songs: Mr Noah Built an Ark, We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder . . . we were children, and we loved these stories in whatever form they came.

I can’t speak for anyone else in Laxdale Primary, but as I grew up, I grew away from the Bible. There were fallow years when I scarcely considered God. As a student, I briefly entertained the childish notion that there was no Creator and that all of this . . . well, it just sort of happened.

My formative education did not prevent me from asking questions, but rather, it gave me a starting point for my questions. Without even a rudimentary understanding of God’s covenant with mankind, how could I possibly question it?

Nor, indeed, did it make me ignorant of other faiths. In secondary school, we were given an overview of the major world religions. Having first had a grounding in Christianity both at home and in primary school, our teenage years seemed the appropriate juncture to introduce us to what others believe.

So-called secularists don’t want this sensible pattern, however. They want children to be taught about ALL the major world religions from the beginning of their school career. This is – supposedly – going to equip the little ones to select their own faith, or dismiss them all out of hand as their parents have.

A child can no more select his own faith than he can select his own gender, or his own ethnicity. Their faith is an inherent part of who they are, and should surely come from within the home and the wider community. It is not a teacher’s place to lay the kinds of foundations that responsible parents used to provide, making the state responsible for their son or daughter’s very identity.

Of course, it is the parents’ prerogative to not believe in a deity of any description. If that is the case, however, surely there should be consistency. Children who are opted out of religious observance cannot then complain if they are excluded from marking religious festivals – Easter, Christmas, Diwali. Parents object to this on the grounds that their child will ‘stick out’ socially. Sorry, I don’t get this. You say that Christians are trying to brainwash your child with harmful doctrine, but you might be prepared to put your little one in harm’s way if it makes him popular with others?

Besides religious observance, there is religious education. Most of the right-on brigade seem to be of the view that it’s alright to teach about Christianity here, as long as other religions are given equal place. If that is the way our education system is headed, I think I would prefer that Christianity was not taught at all.

It is not an alternative to Islam or Sikhism in the same way that the Lib-Dems are an alternative to the Tories. I am offended by the infantile suggestion that people should be offered a smorgasbord of religions, choosing the one that most appeals to their worldview.

Faith informs your worldview. Not long ago, I was asked how important my faith is in my life, a question which is very difficult to answer adequately. It is my life. It pervades and inhabits: it is the eyes through which you see, the heart with which you feel and the force which drives you on. My instinct recoils at the notion of faith as a decision, a garment coldly chosen from an array of others.

If people think that Christianity is just a philosophy which you may reject because the gods of another belief system seem more attractive, or the mode of worship is more poetic, then they still don’t know what Christianity is. Only this week, an atheist told me that he would ‘consider it if you show me the evidence’. He has the evidence already, of course. The point is that he will not consider it.

When I was a child in Laxdale School, I didn’t like broccoli. Oh, I hadn’t tried it, but I knew by the look of the thing, and by what other children said about it, that it wasn’t for me.

 

False gods and Free Church outings

I hadn’t been on a Sunday School outing in quite some years, what with me being forty one. On a Saturday, a few weeks ago, however, I found myself boarding the bus for Ardroil in Uig, with thirty or so excited children from the Laxdale Sunday School, where I’ve been a teacher since last August. It was pouring with rain and, as I stuffed the luggage rack with wee fishing nets and plastic spades, I worried that there were going to be a lot of disappointed people heading home that afternoon.

It rained quite hard for the first hour. The kids ate their barbecued food on the bus, while we hardier oldies huddled near the flames and drank cup after cup of tea to keep warm. And then, quite miraculously, the sun came out and we had a magical afternoon down on the sand. Once everyone had eaten a second round of burgers, psalms were sung and the annual event that is the boys versus girls tug of war got underway. Things looked good for the ladies at first, until one of the elders on the boys’ team sat down, which goes to show that Free Church men really will do anything to keep the women subordinate!

When I was first asked to teach in Sunday school, it was by an elder who had run after me into the Seminary on a Wednesday evening. As he rushed up the aisle towards me, my first thought was, ‘what have I done?’ I imagined wildly that he had spotted the Matt Redman CD on the dashboard of my car, or found out about me laughing in the stairwell of the church. But, as he stood, anxiously twisting his hands, it occurred to me that perhaps he only wished to borrow money.

After accepting his suggestion that I might wish to teach in the Sunday school, I panicked. Quietly, obviously – it would be unseemly for a repressed Free Church lady to make a fuss. Ever since Rev.Macrae had made it his avowed intention to ‘give the swooners no latitude’ in the 1930s, fainting has been banned within the environs of Stornoway Free Church. So, I sat silently in my pew and worried. Surely it was too soon? What right had I to presume to teach anyone about Christ when I still had so much to learn myself? Might I inadvertently teach them heresy? And what would I do with all their questions? Despairing, I remembered my own teachers in the same Sunday school, many years before; they seemed so wise, so knowledgeable, so . . . holy.

But then the mists began to clear. People send their children to Sunday school and it is our privilege to share with them the message of salvation, as others shared it with us. What seemed like humility and lack of self-assurance on my part was actually a disgraceful want of faith. Of course I wasn’t going to be adequate to the task; not on my own. Which of us can claim that we are? That’s why Christ promised us a helper in the Holy Spirit. However, if you are called upon to do something for His cause, you do it, asking His aid. In my experience, I can truthfully say that He never fails me.

I cannot, however, say with any certainty whether the children benefit from my classes. Sometimes it’s a struggle to keep their attention. And, oh my word, the questions! ‘Will there be bingo halls in Heaven?’ probably qualifies as the most left-field. The truly challenging moment came, however, when we were discussing the Ten Commandments.

It was, unsurprisingly, idolatry which caused the problem. They struggled with the idea that Jesus must come first in our hearts, before any of their loved ones, or hobbies, or prized possessions. Yes, I had to say repeatedly, before mum and dad, before your kitten, before your mobile phone, before your signed football, or your iPad. I struggle with it too; don’t we all? But then, we got onto talking about other gods, and the worship of false gods. ‘Some people DO worship other gods, though’, one girl said, ‘and they have to be allowed to do that’.

Tolerance. They are taught this in school. All religions are equally valid. Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam – these are just different stories, and you choose which one you believe. Meanwhile, the same people in our community who howled with derision at the plans for a new church in Stornoway, rushed to publicly welcome the news that an Islamic place of worship was in the pipeline for the town. They were falling over one another in the rush to prove their tolerance of some – though not all – Abrahamic religions. It’s not tolerance, though, is it – it’s tokenism. After all, you cannot accept one faith as valid while defaming another, and say that you are accepting: that would be hypocrisy.

When a petition was launched against the planned building of a High Free Church in Stornoway, no one was terribly surprised. Those opposing it made all manner of justification, including that clearing the chosen site might make some rats homeless. However, one of the comments has stayed in my mind ever since because, for me, it represents that other great misunderstanding at the heart of so much anti-Christian prejudice: ‘they think they’re so perfect’.

So, the people driving the ‘tolerance’ agenda actually understand nothing about the Christianity they deride. If they think that Christianity is a choice, like which political creed to follow, or which shirt to wear today, they have a lot to learn; if they believe that Christians think themselves perfect, then they don’t even know the basics. Following Christ makes such demands on us that our sinful hearts would never opt for it of their own volition. We are drawn, irresistibly, towards Him because we are so very far from perfect.

I don’t mind what they say about me. Christians except to be mocked and criticised for their faith. But I do mind that, in their ignorance, they are depriving children of a proper understanding of what Christ’s message is. We surely cannot allow people who don’t even know what the central message of Christianity is, to dictate how it is taught to the next generation.

That is one reason why Sunday schools are important. Children deserve the truth. Plant the seed and someone else may water it, but God will make it grow. And no one, however tolerant, can stand in His way.

 

Collars, Cappuccinos and Change for Change’s Sake

The light above the pulpit in Stornoway Free Church has hung there so long that it’s in danger of becoming fashionable again. I know that it’s been there a while because my granny (who died some time ago) disparaged the new fitting as resembling an old tin can. She, being from Carloway, was used to the finer things, you will understand. It is said that their tobar boasted a Dresden china cover. Nevertheless, the old tin hangs there still, shedding its light unchangingly. Where I sit, on the balcony, it is right in my field of vision, the same metal shade at which my granny used to frown.

I like that. Oh, not the light fitting – retro urban chic has never really been my kind of thing. No, but I like the sense of continuity with the past. Somewhere along the way, though, ‘traditional’ has become an insulting term, even within the church. This is now, and we have to assert our modernity and break with the things of yesteryear. Just because.

Well, my name is Catriona Murray, and I’m a traditionalist. It’s been eight minutes since my last Stroudwater . . . I like pews, pulpits, handshakes, clerical collars, unaccompanied psalm singing, and the sustentation fund. I like these things because I’m used to them, and for a host of other reasons besides.

Don’t get me wrong, if modernity took over and ripped out all the pews, to replace them with bleacher seats, I’d continue coming to church. If the pulpit gives way to a perspex lectern with integrated cappuccino machine, I would still listen to the sermon. Even if the minister opted for full Highland regalia, topped off with the headgear of a Bamangwato tribesman, I might remark on it to my neighbour, but I’m fairly sure his preaching would be unaffected, so I’d stay for that too.

Tradition does not rule me and I am not wedded to it, though I confess to a fondness for it. Besides, the justification I hear from modernisers is always a little inadequate. We need to be more accessible, more approachable, more flexible, more adaptable. Why? So that people will come. This isn’t Field of Dreams, so building it isn’t enough, apparently. Folk won’t come to church just to sit on hard pews, to listen to a man in a collar who stands in a tall wooden box.

Indeed, they will not. But is that why any of us ever went to church, and will it suddenly be different if we give way to gimmickry? We can dress the elders as Morris men and put disco lights in the vestibule for all the difference it will make.

People outside are not actually repelled by the sight of a minister’s collar, or the wooden pews – they are repelled by the gospel.

So, if the priority is boosting attendance at services, let’s by all means have men in surf shorts greeting people at the church door. Frothy coffees can be handed out as they arrive and the pulpit be replaced with a revolving stage. Each minister could, like a boxer entering the ring, have his own theme tune; each already has his own signature ‘move’, a la Mo Farah or Usain Bolt, anyway. Instead of the Mo-bot, or the lightning bolt, we could have the . . . but no, I mustn’t say.

Boosting attendance is not, however, the priority. It’s all wrong to think of the church of Christ – whatever denomination – as a business which needs marketing. Musical pews and scruffy preachers will not bring people in because old, varnished pews and ministers in clerical garb are not, in fact, what keep people out. The message does; and we definitely cannot change the message.

So, what next? Do we just sit where we are and wait for people to come to us, then? Obviously not. We carry on. The preaching, the worship, the outreach, the witness all must go on. Prayer – both corporate and private – must go on.  The great challenge in this, like in every other area of life, is to carry on doing what is asked of us, while trusting that the Spirit will accomplish the rest.

Putting all our efforts into pulling out pews and restyling the minister, therefore, would be an awful lot like fiddling while Rome burns (with apologies to any fellow Wee Frees still offended by the mention of fiddles and/or Rome). After all, we can’t really believe that this is something we could, or should, manage for ourselves.

Of course we mustn’t put up unnecessary barriers, but I think that these kinds of obstacles are more likely to exist in our hearts and in our attitude to others than in any superficial traits we may have as an institution. If you are greeted with a smile and a warm handshake at the church door on Sunday morning, does it matter if the person greeting you is a man in a suit? When you are welcomed, does it signify that it is into a 19th century building with old-fashioned seating arrangements? And, when your heart is moved by the message of salvation in Christ, does it matter what clothes the messenger is wearing? Or are we focusing on these things because WE can change them ourselves?

The light that is shed by Biblical teaching and by the faithful, steadfast witness of God’s people, does not waver. If we wait on it and follow it closely, I firmly believe that it too will come back into style. If we truly commit ourselves into the hands of our Lord, trusting not in what we do, but in what the Holy Spirit is doing, then we must let it be. While the world sees prayer and waiting on the Spirit as doing nothing, the church of Christ surely knows that it is everything.

Silence does not equal inertia in the work of the Spirit; in fact, it often means that He is drawing breath, just about to speak.

 

 

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?

 

Did We Lose Our Sins in Translation?

Working in a Gaelic environment, I frequently hear obscure words being used. At least once a year, for example, a student will attempt to revive ‘fa-dheòidh’. I quite like it, but it creates much the same linguistic effect as if I were to pepper this blog with ‘forsooth’.

Recently, the minister, in throwing me a clan-based insult (yes, it still goes on, even all these years after Culloden), introduced me to the word, ‘eanraich’, which is apparently some kind of soup. It was – presumably – in regular use at one time along with ‘fa-dheòidh’ and other linguistic curiosities. When the social and cultural context for vocabulary goes, however, the words themselves swiftly disappear too. People no longer use horses for agricultural work, and so all the Gaelic terminology for a horse’s tack is redundant; likewise crofting, fishing and many other traditional practices besides.

Although you rarely hear it included in that category, churchgoing falls into the realm of traditional Gaelic culture. It had – and has – practices of its own, influences of its own and certainly vocabulary of its own. I know many Gaelic speakers who say that they can’t ‘follow’ a sermon in their own tongue because ‘the language is too obscure’. There certainly IS an ecclesiastical Gaelic, which employs words not in everyday use: ìobairt, ceusadh, aiseirigh, peacadh. I must confess a certain weakness, as it were, for ‘teachdan-geàrr’ And that is a play on words for my bilingual readers which would lose much in translation.

‘Sin’ loses quite a lot in translation too. The word, ‘peacadh’ in Gaelic is used virtually exclusively for the theological concept recognised by every dutiful Wee Free as ‘a want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God’. In English, however, ‘sin’ came to be used in two ways – in ecclesiastical circles of course; but also in a superficial manner. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear non-Christians say, ‘it’s a sin to throw all that food away’, or ‘it’s a sin that Mrs MacLeod’s daughter doesn’t visit her’. The things being described as ‘sin’ frequently are, but the people who label them as . such don’t really mean it in the catechism, ‘want of conformity unto the law of God’ sense. They might just as soon have said, ‘it’s a pity’, or ‘it’s a disgrace’.

Recently, sin has been in the news. Oh, it’s there all the time, of course, but like its master, usually goes under a variety of pseudonyms. On this occasion, however, someone asked a politician whether he thought that homosexuality is a sin. When the journalist sensed prevarication, the politician was harangued and badgered. This happened repeatedly. If you are unfamiliar with the ways of the British media, let me tell you that politicians are not usually asked about sin – it is not one of the top ten issues in any election campaign.

So, Christians should be delighted that, at last, sin has made its way onto the political agenda, right? Wrong. It hasn’t. Tim Farron was only asked about sin because he’s a Christian, in the same way that a multi-millionaire might be asked about tax loopholes. The mainstream media sees Christianity as a weakness, something to humiliate believers with. After all, Farron was not asked about sin as such – he was asked whether he thought that something was one.

Christians are not actually required to have an opinion on sin, other than that held by a famously fiery preacher in the USA in the early 20th century. Calvin Coolidge, the notoriously monosyllabic president had been to hear the man preach. Attempting to draw Coolidge out, a friend asked what the subject of the sermon had been. ‘Sin’, replied Coolidge. Exasperated and wishing for more detail, the friend asked, ‘and what did he say about sin?’ To which Coolidge responded, ‘he said he was against it’.

Sin isn’t a matter of opinion. God has decreed what is an affront to Him, and Christians try to conform in obedience. If you want to know whether something is a sin, should your first port of call really be a sinner, albeit one saved by grace? Why ask fallible Farron, when the word of God is readily available to answer all such questions unambiguously?

Our tolerant, liberal, progressive society does not want the truth about sin. It could not handle the truth about sin. If the doubters opened their Bibles to Romans 3, they would read that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. Set within the wider scriptural context, this tells them everything they need to know about what sin is and, more importantly, what sin does.

It is uncompromising. We can’t debate, barter, bargain or otherwise spin our way out of sin. Something which is sinful cannot be made acceptable in God’s sight just because the world has winked at it. Tolerance, liberalism, progress – these three recognise no sin except one: calling something ‘a sin’. Christians have to be ridiculed, derided, silenced – they are the enemies of a progressive society. Yes, that’s what we have: progress. Who needs the Bible with its backward notions of sin? Humanity knows best, humanity will rule by its own lights. What could possibly go wrong?

Remember, humanity progressed itself right out of Eden.

Free Church Android

I have a friend who does not come from a Free Church background. Actually, I have many such friends. In fact, a lot of the people I grew up with have little or no church experience and absolutely no truck with Christianity. Many of them fall into what I think of as the Iain Crichton Smith category – having a pretty tired and hackneyed view of Hebridean Calvinism which is largely based on stereotypes that are no longer true (if they ever were). These stereotypes wear black hats and sombre faces; they shake their heads at mirth and sigh in response to vain worldliness. And they live in the imagination of people who ought to know better.

However, this friend has no such prejudices. She wandered into my life in a haphazard, vaguely work-related way. We hit it off over coffee (me – after all, I’m a neurosis-ridden Wee Free) and herbal tea (her – a bit fancy like that, what with being ‘from away’). One Sunday, I took her to a Gaelic service in the Seminary in Stornoway, which is nothing to do with training priests, despite the name.

And then she came along to some English services too. I was impressed at her tenacity because, the previous summer, on a reconnaissance visit to Lewis, she had been to such a service. The children’s address, about the irrepressible manse dog, had appealed to her, but the content of the sermon had not. She was discomfited, I gather. Now I can’t remember if I explained to her that this would usually be viewed as a good sign in the Free Church. Wallowing in comfort and self-satisfied complacency is not how a spiritually healthy clientele should be. The hard pews, the hard truth, the hard stare from the pulpit: they are all part of the strategy.

Some weeks ago, she and I met up with another friend of mine for dinner on a Wednesday evening. Yorkshire Lass asked Island Girl (yes, I’m aware that they sound like runners in the 3:15 at Aintree) whether she would be coming with us afterwards to the prayer meeting. Island Girl laughed in a mildly hysterical way, ‘On a Wednesday!? No way!’ And so I had to explain why Wednesday was a ‘thing’, whilst simultaneously reprimanding Island Girl for allowing her daft Leodhasach hang-ups to emerge in front of a visitor from the Real World.

Yorkshire Lass has experienced much of what Free Church life has to offer. She has heard fine preaching, beautiful psalm singing, shared in prayer meetings and witnessed the Lord’s Supper being dispensed. This month, she was astounded by the groaning food table at our congregational fellowship. We have experienced the Harris conference together, and the WFM annual dinner. I know she has made lasting friendships besides my own.

Just before our recent ‘off-peak’ communion, she asked whether it would be ok if she attended the Saturday preparatory meeting. When I answered in the affirmative, she said, ‘what do people do who don’t have a you to ask these things?’, as if I’m some kind of Wee Free Siri. A faulty one, at any rate, but perhaps more reliable than Wikipedia.

The fact of the matter is that most people here in Lewis do have plenty people they can ask. They won’t, though, because they’ve already had their heads filled with daft rules. Wednesday night meetings are for communicants only, preparatory services are likewise for the converted . . . the list goes on. Worse, though, is the idea that you may not be welcome, or that people might judge you if you haven’t been to church for a while. They picture it being like the saloon bar in a John Wayne film where the stranger enters and many hostile eyes turn to stare. Wee Frees are gloom merchants and their churches oppressive places. Probably the minister will thump the pulpit, shout a lot about hell and maybe even castigate the newcomer for their sinful lifestyle and lax conduct.

Yorkshire Lass had no such preconceived notions. She came with an open mind and an open heart, but with no very positive formative experience of Christianity. Here in Lewis, she has met Christians whose faith is not about a series of formal steps, but is a living reality. They are far from perfect, but they are authentic. Christ is the centre of their lives. I see my brothers and sisters now through her eyes, as well as my own.

For me, meeting her has been a gift. She may do funny things with nettles, but she has given me the ability to see the Christian heritage of Lewis as something precious. We so often have to defend it against prejudice from within our own community. People get hung-up on the ouward badges and rituals of church life. In her, coming with the heart of a child, to ask questions in good faith, I see Him. I always believed that He had brought her to Lewis so that she might be among some of His believing people. In my blindness, I failed to realise just how much of a blessing her presence might be to us. To me, anyway, because in answering some of her questions, I am answering my own.

When you remove all the inside track stuff that needs explaining – who is allowed to go where, when do we stand and when do we sit – there is only one truth anyway. Christ reigns over all, and His people have been released from bondage.

There is also only one church after all: His, and it is most entirely free.

Your Father’s Side & The Family Name

It is hard to believe that we Hebrideans have any Viking DNA. I imagine that if a young Lewisman had ever said to his parents that he was off on a summer adventure to sack and loot, to raid and pillage, their reaction would almost certainly have been, ‘ach dè bhios daoine ag ràdh?’ What will people say? Surely marauding on this scale would reflect badly on them and therefore would have to be nipped in the bud.

‘What will people say?’ used to be the refrain of parents and grandparents in the island. Nowadays, people think of this attitude as narrow-minded, judgemental and stifling, but I think it helps to reflect a little on how it developed in the first place.

Your village was your world. The neighbours were as familiar to you as those who occupied the same home and shared the same surname as you. Besides, you didn’t go by your surname – you went by a patronymic, a chain of names stretching back into the distant past, connecting you to people you had never known. Perhaps you had some of their characteristics without knowing it. If you did, some cailleach in the neighbourhood would notice. ‘Iain Dhòmhnaill Sheumais used to walk like that’, or if she was feeling acerbic, ‘It’s a shame you took after your father’s side. Your mother’s people were good-looking.’

People knew one another inside-out, which meant knowing their history. Not just their personal history, either, but being able to place them in the context of their lineage. Forget Burke’s Peerage, your average cailleach had an encyclopaedic knowledge of her own people and those of her neighbours. It meant that they could see where your good points and your bad had emanated from. And so, your personal conduct would be added to that. The responsibility not to tarnish a good family name rested equally with each member, and each successive generation. Any deviant behaviour was likely to be dismissed as ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’ – a weakness in your people.

Now, of course, we don’t have villages; we have ‘communities’. Some are more community-minded than others and it’s not always the ones you think. I live in a rural village where there is quite a lot of Gaelic spoken and some crofting still taking place. You will even see the odd peat-stack. Nonetheless, when I was widowed, my immediate next-door neighbours visited, but no one else.

Had I lived fifty years ago, I would have been Banntrach Dhòmhnaill Chaluim and the neighbours might have rallied round; nowadays, I don’t have that comfort, or that status. I am not on their radar. People probably don’t even talk about me, no matter what outrageous – hypothetical – thing I do. It doesn’t matter to them because I am a stranger. Community in that sense has gone and many of us now seek that feeling of belonging and identity elsewhere.

For me, it has come from my church. I have been blessed with a close and supportive family, and my church family has been likewise.

My church family has at least as many quirks as my actual relatives. There are those who make you laugh, who laugh at you, who are always ready to help, who always want you to help, those who encourage and those who gently put you in your place. It has its father figures and mother hens, its bossy big sisters and cheeky wee brothers. This family has get-togethers and minor disagreements, outings and heart to hearts.

And this family knows its own heritage. When we are together, no one has to ask, ‘who do you belong to?’ We have the same father. He knows us all more completely than we know ourselves; and yet He loves us nonetheless. Each of us carries the unfortunate burden passed down from our first parents, and each of us has added some particular sins of our own. It is in our DNA to rebel.

Keeping together, though, returning often to our Father’s house, I think, is the only way we can refrain from bringing shame on the family. Reputation is very important when you are responsible for more than just your own. In God’s family, we need to reflect on our conduct more frequently, and ask the question again: ‘what will people say’? We have to fight against ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’.

Surely this is one setting where the ultimate goal is for everyone to see that we take after our Father, and that the family have care of each other. I hope that’s what people will say.

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.

Cracking Pots & Wee Free Code

Those who are out both ends, and follow this up by coming out on a Wednesday night, are often expected to go forward. In the Free Church in Lewis at least, this has been the time-honoured course of things. It is code for regular attendance at Sunday services, leading to appearances at weekly prayer meetings, culminating in a profession of faith.

The fact that we have our own terminology surely suggests that it’s of some cultural significance. A social anthropologist would call it ‘ritual’, which word on its own used to be enough to make any respectable Wee Free faint. ‘Ritual’ evokes images of candles and altars, and . . . I’ll stop there out of respect for any of my denomination who might be reading this in possession of a pacemaker.

It is, however, a cultural norm. Not one set in tablets of stone, though. Contemplating going forward, I used to think of all the things I’d be more comfortable doing. Having a chemical peel, bathing the cat, parachuting out of a plane . . . and I settled it with myself that I wouldn’t – couldn’t – do it. You see, I had an image of what it was going to be like. Let me paint you a picture . . .

I knock on the door of the session room. The hubbub of voices from within ceases immediately. There is a long pause. Heavy, Calvinist footsteps. With a creak, the door opens a fraction.
‘Yes?’ the elder says. He doesn’t smile. Their smiles have been left on the pegs outside, along with the black coats and hats.
In a tiny voice, I mumble my desire to profess faith. A moment of silence, then a long, drawn-out sigh. The door is opened wider. Behind him, I see a scene exactly like David Octavius Hill’s famous Disruption painting. My eye falls on the minister, who is looking at me in disbelief.
‘You? Really? I mean, really – you?’ he asks incredulously, as the whispers of, ‘who is she?’ rise to a crescendo behind him . . .

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My horrified imagination would go no further and I nursed the label, ‘secret disciple’ to myself. Our cultural norms give you plenty opportunity to justify secrecy. There was, historically, a strange sort of almost-pride in not going forward. It was suggested that such and such a person ‘could’, or even ‘should’. No one ever said it explicitly, but it was always implied that what kept them back was a kind of superior humility – oxymoron, if ever there was one. Nevertheless, secret disciples were a thing and I could be one.

The Lord was having no more of my nonsense, though, and smacked me between the eyes with two truths. First, if He has healed you, you have to tell. Second, if He is everything to you, you must be ready to defend that hope to those who do not yet possess it. And he smoothed my path to obedience. Going forward was not a grim ordeal. There was no one there from the 19th century, but instead a group of Christian men wishing to welcome another person into the visible family of God.

Last Sunday, our church commemorated the Lord’s Supper again. Many outside of this situation misinterpret it. They think those who sit at the Lord’s table see themselves as beyond reproach, perfect and holy. In reality, those who partake of the sacrament do so because of their imperfection, their awareness of the sin that is woven into every fibre of their being. God, we are told, is of purer eye than to bear looking at our sinfulness. We, on the other hand, are of such a sinful heart that we cannot fully appreciate His purity.

Yet, in this sacrament, we are given the chance to contemplate it more deeply.

What a privilege you deny yourself by hanging back. The Kirk Session is not a Heavenly court; it is a group of sinners saved by grace. If you have submitted to your Father in Heaven, what is stopping you from telling them? We allow cultural norms to over-complicate what is actually very simple.

And if the Free Church gets anything right, it is simplicity.

Christ did not ask His church to have lavish festivals in order to commemorate Him; He doesn’t need candles, or gilding, or acres of flowers: His beauty is in His love for us; His love for us is manifest in His sacrifice. That, He asks us to remember.

And how? We are told to remember Him in the two simple elements of bread and wine. These are broken and spilt, as His flesh was broken and His blood spilt for us. His people share these things in communion with one another and their Saviour. To sit at His table is to say that you belong to Him, that you wish to come apart from the world, to die to self, and to identify your life with His.

A perfect man or woman would not need Christ. There is real beauty, therefore, in imperfection – He is the golden weld that mends the pot of clay.