Sunday Is Not About Religion At All

There have been one or two articles in the last week, written in defence of the Lewis Sabbath from a non-church perspective. At their heart, they say basically the same thing – Sunday is not just for religion.  While I welcome their input to the debate which has hitherto consisted mainly of secularist blackening of the church through the medium of stereotype and ignorance, I cannot entirely subscribe to the sentiment. As far as I am concerned, Sunday is not about religion at all.

Of course, centuries of tradition have created this situation where Lewis continues to observe a commercial shutdown on Sundays. It does indeed date back to times gone by when the norm throughout Scotland would have been that the population rested and worshipped on the Lord’s Day. While other influences have reshaped and changed other parts of the country, Lewis continued to plough its own furrow as far as Sabbath observance was concerned, partly because churchgoing continued here at much the same level as it always had. Elsewhere it has been dwindling at an alarming rate, though 44% of islanders still maintain the practice of regular worship.

That is roughly the same percentage of regular worshippers as there are Gaelic-speakers in Stornoway, and it would take a very ignorant person indeed to suggest that the language is culturally irrelevant.

It is part of that tendency among those of an unbelieving bent to wish to rubbish and revise anything which interferes with their agenda. They do not wish it to be the case that the Christian church has had an influence on shaping the local heritage here in Lewis, and so they simply deny that it is so.

Worse, they imply that the people have been too stupid to resist the wiles of sinister ministers and elders who, on some non-specific power trip, have had things all their own way these three centuries or so.

But I’m tired of that argument. It isn’t up for debate anyway – the facts speak for themselves. Much of what we can all regard as precious about life in Lewis has been shaped, one way or the other, by the influence of the Presbyterian church.

I’m more concerned by the turn that this whole tired issue is taking, that we ought to preserve the Lord’s Day because ‘it isn’t just about religion’. This is a standpoint that should shock Christians into speaking up for their Lord’s Day.

Or are we honestly going to remain silent, and leave it to our non-Christian friends and neighbours to argue for the preservation of the Lewis Sabbath based only on tradition?

Well, shame on us.

The importance of keeping the Lord’s Day is not, for me, a matter of tradition, ritual, or even religion. I would imagine I also speak for my brothers and sisters in Christ when I say that it is about my relationship with Him. He it was who said that Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.  Of course, like many more of His words, these have often been used by people to suit their own ends. However, I think that He meant the day as a gift to His believing people, when they could expect to put aside work for one day, and have the time for spiritual rest and refreshing.

Last Sunday, I slept a little later than I can during the week. I walked the dog a little further. My coffee was finished at home, instead of being decanted into a travel mug. The time I had for devotional reading and prayer was more relaxed. I drove for twenty minutes to get to church, through some of His best work – turbulent seas to my left and the green sward of machair to my right. It was a leisurely preparation for the hour of worship.

At the door of the church, there was a mixture of warm welcome and downright cheek from the two elders on duty. I approve of that Lewis brand of cheek – the gentle mockery that is very much a family thing.

And inside, contentment. Catching up with news. The silent subtle passing of the mint imperials. Psalms in Gaelic. Prayer. Preaching.

The sermon was about a man I can identify very much with. We both started out the same way, Nicodemus and I: secret disciples, the pair of us. He hid his interest in Christ, but eventually came out on His side.

We, both of us, finally came out for Him because of His death. For Nicodemus, it was right there and then, after the Lord had been crucified by the very people that he himself had feared. He had feared them and hidden his allegiance from them; and then he had faced their derision when he identified publicly with Christ.
For me, it was at a time of commemorating His death that I too finally felt the last shred of resistance falling away.

I have faced what all Christians in this part of the world do – being mocked and derided for my beliefs, sometimes from people who should certainly know better. It is not violence, of course – not yet – but it can be very trying just the same.

Sunday is a day of rest for me. I do not go ‘ religiously’ to church, nor do I read my Bible ‘religiously’. Sadly, I am monumentally selfish, and could never keep up such a religion.

Christians need this day. It offers the peace that St Augustine summed up so well – ‘ our heart is unquiet until it rests in you’. It is a different kind of rest because it is in Him.

He gave and gives and will give. Sunday was His precious gift to us. If we have identified with Him once, I would say now is the time to show that forth once again.

And again.

Sunday is not precious in Lewis because of religion, that much is true. It is precious because of Christ. And because of Him, we surely have the courage to say so.

Lantern Beams & the Hebridean Cringe

‘Our distinctiveness lies in being ‘of the place’, rooted in who we are’. Does anyone want to guess who I’m quoting? The Free Church? Harris Tweed Hebrides? Comunn Eachdraidh Nis?

No, it’s ‘An Lanntair’ in Stornoway, the arts centre which serves the community hereabouts.

Even although I’m a Calvinist and, therefore, have to avert my eyes from anything remotely resembling an artistic representation, I am an occasional patron of the said Lanntair. I have watched films, seen plays, listened to talks, and drunk coffee there. Being a bit of a weirdo, I enjoyed their Faclan book festival a few years back, on the theme of the supernatural. Respectfully, I refrained from commenting on the fact that in amongst all the second sight and ghost stories, they had crowbarred Alistair Darling’s book-launch into the program too. Bernera connections and those eyebrows probably do qualify him for a space in the netherworld, after all.

So, because I have been a frequenter of the arts centre, I believe I’m allowed to comment on their latest foray into distinctiveness.

They have already this year devoted an entire calendar month to a celebration of LGBT culture (whatever that is). Apparently it’s important to celebrate diversity, and many of our resident secularists rushed to virtue-signal their support for the Lanntair, and their intention to attend at least one film, while also very carefully declaring their own heterosexuality, just in case. The same people also nearly got stuck in the door marked ‘Yes please’ when the plans for a small Islamic meeting place for Stornoway were unveiled.

They are for diversity. This doesn’t just mean simple respect – which I hope that all decent human beings are capable of – but actually celebrating difference. From what I can work out by observing their behaviour, it means that they are in favour of the LGBT community, and the Muslim community having a voice, and are swift to set down anyone who takes an opposing stance. Especially Christians.

And now, they are delighted that An Lanntair – which is ‘of the place’, remember – is going to trial Sunday film screenings. It is tediously posited by the usual suspects as the long-awaited provision of ‘something for families’.

When did family life consist of spending as much time as possible out of the home, and surrounded by other people? I remember Sundays which involved walks, reading, board games, talking to my parents . . . does that not happen any more? Am I being obtuse? If children are in school all week, and shepherded around various organised activities all weekend, where does the much talked-about ‘quality time’ come in?

This is all very well. People of a HASP+ (that’s Humanist , Atheist, Secular, Pagan and whatever else) tendency will say that they’re quite delighted. It is time that diversity had its moment in the Lewis sun. Anything that’s a bit new, a bit different is absolutely welcome. Everyone is just tired of those Christians, trying to spoil everything with their hackneyed old beliefs and their inconvenient lifestyle.

Do you know what this is? It’s a great, big, ugly extension of the Hebridean cringe.

Novelty wins every time over heritage. Tradition is an embarrassing affront to innovation. People are plastering the label ‘Hebridean’ on everything, while all the time disdaining what makes us distinctive.

When did this happen to the island? Why are we delighted to show tourists sites like Callanish, or Eaglais na h-Aoidh, or St Clement’s, but not the living, functioning reality of Christian worship? What makes us so proud of our Celtic music, but not our Celtic church?

What kind of revisionism is taking place when Lewis can be portrayed as some sort of microcosm of any of our larger cities, and no one bats an eyelid?

Well, I’m batting one now. This island in which I live, has far more cultural distinctiveness than to need to emulate London, or Glasgow. It is physically shaped by geology and by climatic forces, and by hundreds of years of crofting life. My ancestors scraped a living from the soil, and from the sea around our shores; they trooped off to war and some even trooped back again. They spoke Gaelic, and they worked their land in line with the seasons.

And on Sunday, they both rested and worshipped God.

Keeping Sunday as a day of rest is good for the body and for the mind. I’m not even going to mention the soul, because that’s a given. Our European neighbours know this to be true, and they’re not trying to scrap it in order to desperately ape what they do elsewhere.

That would be culturally insecure behaviour – and no one does that quite the way we do in Lewis. We’ve been embarrassed by our language, our accent, our faith, and now our very way of life.

I am of the place, and I am rooted in who I am. Gaelic-speaker, Calvinist member of the Free Church, reader of my people’s history. And I am not ashamed of any of these.

If An Lanntair wanted to live up to its name, to its mission statement and to the notion of art being a bit subversive, it could shine a light on what it is about Lewis culture that is so very precious.

‘Lantern’ actually, refers only to the outer casing, which encircles and protects the source of light.

It plays no part in trying to snuff it out.

 

Lost Causes & Bringing Cutlery to Ness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.