The Loneliness of the Socially-distanced Worshipper

We are now in that post-lockdown wilderness I dreaded, where no one seems very sure of what is safe, or what is lawful, to do. As so often happens with we humans, it has caused discussion of our plight to degenerate to levels rarely witnessed outside of the playground: ‘but they’re doing it, why can’t we?’ or ‘it’s not fair’, and, of course, ‘because I want to’.

Pubs, shops, hairdressing salons, and even restaurants are beginning to open up – just not places of worship. Children are scheduled to return to the classroom here in mid-August, but there will be no Stornoway communion at the month’s end. You may visit the zoo to stare at rare breeds, but the Leòdhasach èildear cannot be seen in his natural habitat (the suidheachan mòr) until late phase four, whenever that will be.

And, you know, I’m fine with that.

I will undoubtedly be called ‘selfish’ for saying so, but this is a personal blog, so it’s only to be expected that what you get is MY opinion. Here’s  my thinking.

The government did not wait until the virus had been eradicated, nor till effective treatment or vaccine was found; they opened up shops and businesses because this country, this world, is driven by money. It isn’t a Tory thing, or an SNP thing: it’s a people thing. Sadly, it’s all we know. Money is our security blanket. Without it, we are at the mercy of charity, and the mercy of our fellow men. Ask the 29,000 Scottish homeless how that’s working out for them, and you can begin to understand why we were all afraid for ‘the economy’.

So afraid were we that, suddenly, it was safe for businesses to reopen. And then it became okay for folk to stand one metre apart instead of two. Ask yourself why it is now we’re being told we must wear masks while shopping – could it possibly be that the government knows it has done something unsafe in permitting us to mix in such numbers?

So, yes, it’s the economy, stupid. That’s why pubs are open, but not places of worship. It’s why kids are going back to school in August, but I’ll probably be teaching my classes from home. The students I teach don’t need their mammies to stay at home with them, like the school kids would.

Churches are not businesses. Furthermore, they can do their thing perfectly well at a distance. We have been able to be out both ends on a Sunday whilst staying in, we have had our midweek prayer meetings and – I believe, ged nach e mo ghnòthach e – the Session meetings have also carried on. There has been Sunday school and youth groups. I don’t know about others, but my elder has conducted virtual visits, ensuring that his charges receive the usual high standard of pastoral care.

Besides all that, or, indeed, above all that, we have been open in ways that we have never been before. People are coming under the word who previously felt unable to attend church. That has to be a challenge for us, and the uncomfortable part surely is to ask ourselves why. What does online church have that physical church lacks? Or is it the other way around? Maybe it’s us, the visible church, that puts people off. And perhaps God is keeping us in this holding-pattern for that reason. Amidst all the cries of ‘I miss church’ and ‘I just want to get back’, could it be that God is reminding us that it isn’t all about the comfort of the saved. Is it just possible that he wants us in the wilderness, drawing others to him, instead of back in our time-honoured malaise of Sunday best and ‘fellowship’?

Besides, what would the benefits be to opening up? People like to cite the importance of gathering together. We are doing that. Online church is a gathering together in the spirit. It is possible to see and hear one another, using certain platforms. No, we cannot hug, kiss, or shake hands, but we won’t be allowed to do that anyway. And, I have a massive, personal objection to returning now. This, I guarantee you, will be a reservation shared by many.

Social distancing dictates that family groups and couples may sit together. Individuals – single, divorced, widowed – will have to sit alone in church. It can be a lonely enough experience going to church by yourself, but to have your singleness, your aloneness underlined in this way strikes me not only as uncomfortable, but unnecessarily cruel. I won’t be subjecting myself to it because it will not add a single thing to my relationship with the Lord. He is with me, here in my home, every minute of every day.

He has been in many homes these last three months. I cannot see online church as inferior because, in many ways, it has accomplished part of the great commission in which we were failing. The Gospel has been taken to the people where they are. God’s servants have stepped up to the plate and learned new ways of transmitting his message of hope.

Let’s not lose sight of that in the clamour to get back to ‘normal’. Normal is overrated.

Getting married?

Now admit it: you read the title and you thought, ‘once was unbelievable, but if Catriona has duped a second poor man, I’ll eat my hat’. Well, no, it’s not about me. I am hosting a guest blogger – the one, the only (thank goodness!) Ali Moley. However, I reckon Helena deserves a mention as being at least part of the inspiration for this too.

“It’ll never happen,” they said. “You aren’t being realistic,” they said. “It’s very naive of you,” . . . “Maybe you’re mistaken?” they said

We began to have doubts.

Our wedding date was booked for Friday 26th June 2020 and all the arrangements had been made.

Many couples find the process of organising a wedding stressful, but we were actually, really enjoying it. It felt very satisfying to look for and find the best deals, to arrange the smallest detail to make our day as perfect as it could be, to be working as a team, sharing the duties and helping each other according to our strengths and weaknesses. It is something we both very much enjoyed.

And then Covid-19 hit us square in the face like a manky, coughing bat from the blue, turning the world as we knew it upside down.

The tears filled our eyes, and our hands clasped in prayer as the shocking media coverage began of China,and then Italy – over crowded wards, doctors crying, patients on beds, ventilated and dying, unreal because of the distance but gradually all too real with the insistence that the Coronavirus was spreading from nation to nation, getting ever closer to our own.

Day after day, images of poor souls gasping on ventilators were repeatedly shown while the TV Presenter read the rising death toll figures………..and unsurprisingly, the terror took hold.

No-one could have guessed how restrictions would impact our lives in the UK. Before lockdown, we hoped it might have a small impact for a short period of time. ‘Ach, it won’t last long!’ we said to console ourselves.

But then lockdown came.

At first the restrictions were novel, and we faced the virus with Churchillian fortitude and steely eyed determination. But then after a few weeks it became unsettling, disorientating, mood-alteringly normal. The unknown played havoc with people’s minds: the myriad questions and doubts and the growing incredulity of a society that had for so long tried to sanitise or even erase the thought of death from their everyday lives but was now forced to hear the wailing siren of their own predicted impending doom!

Helena, my darling fiancé, caught the virus and began self-isolating in Airdrie, but thankfully after two weeks and a very persistent dry cough she was fine. Her brother Stephen also became infected and after some worrying tightness in his chest, he thankfully recovered too.

By the grace of God, miraculously even, our little island of Lewis was relatively untouched by the Virus – Covid-19 left the Coves alone – but we were on standby, vigilant, “It could come at any time!”

It was getting closer to our planned wedding date and I prayed, “Lord, what about the wedding? Will we need to reschedule it? Will it go ahead as we planned?”

And the Lord spoke – the next day, Sunday 22nd of March.

Both sermons we listened to that day had the following verses from Jeremiah 33:10-11 read –

“Thus says the LORD: In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste without man or beast,’ in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD:

‘Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’

For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the LORD.”

God had spoken and we rejoiced!

We took it to mean that the wedding would be going ahead at some point just as God had planned it – a day of thanksgiving, rejoicing and praise in the house of God with our family and friends, when the streets were full again and the lockdown had eased.

And God repeated either these verses from Jeremiah 33:10&11 or the lone verse ‘Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’, (which is the verse on our wedding invites) every Sunday in a sermon we listened to for the next three weeks in a row!

What an assurance from our beloved Father in Heaven!

We decided to reschedule the wedding to Thursday 27 August 2020, but after receiving those verses from the Lord we were assured that God is in control and that our wedding would go ahead according to His perfect plan, hopefully, possibly on that date.

We told others about the verses and some rejoiced and Praised the Lord and some out of politeness said, ‘I hope so.’

But many others said, ‘Maybe you’re reading into it?’, ‘no way is your wedding going ahead this year!’, ‘You are being naive’, ‘you are probably mistaken.’

Some days we listened to the doubting voices, lookingworryingly at the world around us, and we began to doubt.

Other days we looked upwards to heaven and clung to the promise of our God.

As our marriage date draws ever nearer, and restrictions begin to be eased, our hopes of everything going ahead as planned grow daily…….and you know what?

It makes us think of the OTHER marriage we are going to.

You know the one.

It has been arranged and ALL the Lord’s people are invited and will be going soon.

We are so excited that we tell others about the weddingand about the promises that God has made, in the hope that they might come too –

‘In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.’ John 14:2-3

or maybe we say to them,

‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride had made herself ready;….’ Revelation 19:6-7

or maybe we tell them,

‘….Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ Revelation 19:9

And some by God’s grace hear and rejoice and believe. And we rejoice and believe anew.

But others say, “It’ll never happen,” “You aren’t being realistic.” “It’s very naive of you,”….“Maybe your mistaken?”

And occasionally we listen to their doubting voices, and look around at this sinful, fallen world, and we begin to doubt as the virus of unbelief infects our hearts and minds.

But Jesus comes to us with His word of truth anew, the solid gold verses of assurance that we can rely on………and He whispers to us,

‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.’ John 14:1

and He calls to our Father in heaven so that we can hear,

‘Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you have loved me before the foundation of the world.’ John 17:24

And together we shout with joy,

‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Romans 8:38-39

And as the time draws nearer to that great and glorious day, we by faith rejoice, that the Marriage Supper of the Lamb will take place just as we have been told………..and not one of us will be missing

Will I see you there? I really, really hope so.

 

And the prisoners heard

Sunday afternoon sunshine lured me outside to sit on my recently-painted decking to read, write and contemplate. There were birds singing in the trees and lambs bleating in the croft beyond, but not a sound other than that to pierce the stillness. I had recently risen from morning worship with my congregation, and was in exactly the right frame of mind for a bit of contemplation.

I was also filled with an enormous sense of wellbeing. These are days filled with uncertainty, trepidation and, for many, grief. None of us knows when it may be our turn to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet, we know that God is with us, and that ,while a shadow may well encroach, it can never devour.

So, while the world’s media is talking in terms of a global crisis, of catastrophe and lockdown, God is enabling me – and many more besides, I think – to experience this as the day of small things which we are warned not to despise.  As I sat in the warmth of this early spring day, I thought about the week just gone by, and the ways in which I have met with Christ in the long hours of solitude.

There is his word, of course, and prayer. These are constants. Normally, though, they are the launchpad for what Lady Bracknell disparagingly referred to as ‘a life crowded with incident’.

I am rediscovering my inner introvert, however. This week, I have  delivered a number of lectures and tutorials, spoken on the radio about my favourite Scottish novels, attended a meeting of the Stornoway Trust, and participated in a whisky tasting – all without budging from my dining table. In between, I walk, cook, clean, read and write. In the evenings, I chat to friends and family, listen to music, and catch up on television programmes, films and podcasts that I’ve missed.

Friday was glorious. I finished classes, and took the dog for a long ramble on the machair. Confusedly dressed in wellies, linen trousers and a cashmere hoody (I like to acknowledge all seasons in one outfit), I got spectacularly rained on. Showered and pyjama-clad, I lit the wood burner and laid out my various samples of Jura whisky and wild water from the Stornoway Trust Estate in time for the Instagram tasting event.

It was not, I am quite certain, the 46.7% ABV 21-year-old malt that gave me the feeling of complete serenity, but the sense that this was a day of privileges, dispensed by the hand of a gracious God. He has enabled me to continue doing my job, and fulfill other obligations while remaining safe and not feeling isolated in the least.

Discussing this with a Christian friend on Sunday evening, she said that she was concerned by the number of people – believing people – who are not doing so well. She hears from folk who say that lockdown is beginning to pall on them, who say they miss the human interaction of church. These are by no means all people who live alone either.

All of which set me wondering what’s wrong with me that, six weekends in, I am still only able to see the positives.

I have come to a number of conclusions. Ultimately, I don’t go to church for the social aspect. In fact, quietly and without anyone else noticing, I ceased attending organised fellowships of any kind more than a year ago. Church has been a place of worship for me, and that continues to be possible by God’s grace through the technology which it is our privilege to access and enjoy. Yes, there are people whose society I miss, and I will be glad to see them when we are once more able to share a pew. Until then, however, I am getting the essential parts of the church experience at home.

Like many others, I am gratified by the way in which being a church quite literally without walls has enabled new people to join us for worship. An open door may theoretically be welcoming, but there is still a threshold to cross which can seem like a journey of a thousand miles to the stranger. Online worship presents no such barrier.

A lot of Christians are invoking the image of Israel’s captivity to describe where we are at. I don’t disparage other people’s feelings or experiences, however, when I say that this is not my view of things at all.

Christ has freed his people, and we do him no justice if we consider ourselves captive still. We ought to be like Paul and Silas who sang and prayed in their cell at midnight. The walls could not contain them because their hearts were fixed upon worshipping God. He was there with them, he is here in my house too; and he is with all his people wherever they are. Ask the suffering and persecuted church if you can’t believe a Wee Free woman.

My favourite part of that account, though, is the following four words: ‘and the prisoners heard’.

Those who are still enslaved, not by government lockdown, but the bonds of sin – what is our witness to them? Perhaps he has brought us out of our comfortable churches into the information super-highway so that they will hear us, not weeping and complaining, but lifting up our voices in praise of the Christ who will never leave nor forsake us.

Love hearts, captivity and freedom

I’m a bit concerned for our minister’s ego since this live-streaming business started. He stands, uninterrupted, and preaches with nary a cough nor an infant howl to hamper his flow. At intervals of two or three seconds, the screen in front of him is filled with floating hearts, bestowed by his remote audience. The worry is that he may expect us to replicate this experience when ‘normality’ is restored. Will I have to stand on the balcony and shower confetti and balloons down? Will ushers be placed at strategic points throughout the church, ready to silence any sound from the congregation?

It is only one of many questions we have about ‘afterwards’. We are trying, I think, in that very human way, to be stalwart and optimistic, yet not think too much about that great, unnamed date when we can breathe easily and move freely once more. Indeed, the truth is that we have only just begun to experience restrictions designed to preserve life, and it is too sad to think how far off freedom might be.

We are – all of us – trying to make sense of this situation. What is God speaking to us in the midst of lockdown? To me, anyway, he is reinforcing one of the great truths of the Christian life: you are captive if you do not have Christ.

In the privileged West, we have an illusion of freedom. Until this happened, we could go anywhere on a UK passport. We could move freely within our own country, shopping for unlimited food and supplies; twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week in many cases. No one would challenge you, as long as you kept the laws of the land. Parks were teeming with people, roads and retail outlets chock-a-block.

Sundays ceased to be a day of rest quite some time ago for most of the unfortunate populace of Britain. One wee pocket remained, and everything possible has been done to bring us into line with the frenetic activity of the exalted ‘everywhere else’. People here in Lewis – the Western Isles ‘Secular’ Society, FiSH, certain elements in the Golf Club, for example – have repeatedly demanded the same ‘freedom’ as Everywhere Else.

Well, we all have the same freedoms now. The entire UK is under one blanket regime. I don’t say this out of any kind of schadenfreude, but in hope that it finally reveals the illusion we were under.

Freedom of movement, freedom to work and travel and live and love and purchase . . . these are not the real freedoms we should be seeking after. Look how easily they are taken from us; watch how readily we sacrifice them when life is at stake.

When life is at stake. Think about what that means to you. Are we really just intent on keeping well so that we can return to a life of work and travel and retail, and going out with our friends for coffee? Or are we interested now in having life more abundantly? Christ promises us a rich life in him – not, as the atheists would tell you, a vague promise of something better when you die, but a full life beginning the moment you accept him as Lord.

What does that mean in this situation? I can’t speak for other Christians, but I can tell you what it means for me. This pandemic doesn’t remove my freedom in the least because what I value most is my life in Jesus.

I live completely alone, but I can truthfully say that I am not lonely. He is my constant companion, and the channel between us is always open. Unlike our other loved ones, he will never be too busy, too weary or too preoccupied with himself to hear our concerns.

This is an unprecedented time that he has already blessed to me. All those many things and people which normally fill my hours, they have been laid aside. It reminds me powerfully of that time, exactly five years ago, after Donnie died. I was signed off work and had a lot of time alone in the house then too. My relationship with the Lord grew in strength, because nothing else could intrude: not work, not worry, not wrong priorities.

Once again, he has imposed complete rest upon me so that I might rest in him.

And he has taken away our false freedom, so that we might all see the chains that hold us, as well as the glorious means to break them forever.

What a wonderful outcome, then, if this time of exile from the world would be the means to open our eyes. Already, I know that online church services are attracting the unchurched, that many whose Sunday habit does not include God, are coming to worship. No one constrains them to do this; they attend of their own free will.

What if, even as our bodies are imprisoned, countless souls are set at liberty to float freely like those love hearts for the Word of God? Truly then we could say that our bondage was worth it, for the preservation of life.