Love IS Love

Love is all around us. We encounter the word incessantly, pouring out of our televisions, our radios, splashed across newspaper headlines and peppering social media. There has never been so much love, nor so much talk of it.

Only, I’m beginning to think that our obsession with the word belies the fact that we have lost track of what it means. For many people, the answer to that question would be, ‘love is love’ – inferring that it comes in many forms and that it can be anything we want it to be. It is yet another example of where absolutes have been removed, making it impossible to have any kind of definition at all. That’s what leaves us with the somewhat meaningless, ‘love is love’.

We don’t need to despair, however, because a proper definition does exist; it just happens not to be to everyone’s taste: God is love.

Instantly you bring Him into the conversation, of course, the eye-rolling starts. He’s a known killjoy. Funnily enough, the least Biblically literate of unbelievers know, almost instinctively, what He disapproves of. And, when you know He disapproves of what you want, then the best thing to do is write Him off as irrelevant, or even better, imaginary.

When you do that, though, there are consequences. You are purposely and repeatedly cutting yourself off from truth and choosing a convenient lie. Indeed, you are doing exactly what many Christians are accused of by atheists: you are creating a pretty fiction for yourself, and denying all evidence to the contrary. Spiritually speaking, you are deranged. For the sake of an easy and self-indulgent life now, you are choosing a hideous eternity.

That, however, doesn’t mean that believing ‘God is love’ sorts everything out. It is more than a mere fridge-magnet sentiment to be parroted in every tight spot and awkward situation. A few years ago, I sat in church as our then minister thundered that many people had gone to a lost eternity believing God is love. He was right. There are those who think that, because He is love, He would not let a basically decent person, who has lived a civilised life, suffer eternal death.

Neither He would; He has made provision for us to avoid that eventuality. He is not willing that any should perish – but some of us will it for ourselves by failing to accept His gift. Even in this, we are disobedient, messing about with our eternal souls, gambling them on a nursery belief that, because God is love, He won’t condemn nice people to hell.

No indeed; we condemn ourselves.

Which brings me back to that definition of love: God is. That’s really no help if you don’t know anything about God, though. I often hear from unbelievers that He is a figment of the imagination, a patriarchal construct, designed to supress and control successive generations, and to subjugate women particularly.

Every word they utter tells me that, no, indeed, they do not know Him at all. They have believed the propaganda – the tired, dog-eared mantra that the Bible is filled with contradictions, and that God presides over it all like a power-crazed tyrant. This God, who has been built from straw, is all too easy to knock down. He can be dismissed because He is fake.

See, the definition of love extends to a bit more than three words. And, if it’s too big to distil down to, ‘God is love’, then you certainly can’t get off with simply saying ‘love is love’ either.

So, go to the Bible, to the First Letter of John, and the fourth chapter. Here is a complete definition of love. It tells us that love is from God and that God IS love. This couldn’t be clearer, really, could it? Whether we like it or not, and whether we accept it or not, we cannot understand love apart from Him.

Which is the point where unbelievers start to shake their heads at smug, sanctimonious Christians, believing that they have a monopoly on goodness. The arrogance, honestly, of these God-botherers, claiming that only they know what love is, and that anything contrary to their understanding is not love.

See? We have heard all the arguments before.

I know that what I write here will offend some. Mercifully, being offended doesn’t kill; being lied to very well might, though, so let’s not do that. However much people want us all to agree that love is whatever we make it, and whatever we’re comfortable with, that simply does not make it true.

Love is what you see in the fact that God, while we were all in open rebellion against Him, sent His Son to die in our place. He only asks that we accept it, and permit Christ lordship over our lives.

Easy when you know how, but a colossal challenge if you have lived your life apart from God, believing Him to be a fiction. We live in a country that makes it increasingly hard to talk about Him without being mocked, pilloried, or silenced. In my own mother’s lifetime, Britain has gone from depending on the Lord in warfare, to dismissing Him utterly from our public sphere. It is difficult to witness for Christ when people hate you for it. Or, more accurately, hate Him through you.

Why go out with the Gospel, why intervene in debates where God’s name is trampled underfoot when you know that the chances of being listened to are slim, and the chance of being jeered at and derided very great?

The answer is ‘love’. We love because He first loved us. Having that love in us now, we cannot contain it; it has to flow outwards to others where we once were.

We see you, walking through the storm of life, head bowed against the onslaught. Watching, we remember how it felt to be there in the cold, buffeted this way and that, our peace and happiness subject to every prevailing wind. And we are moved, by the Saviour’s love for us and in us, to catch you and pull you in where we are, beneath the shelter of His wings.

That, my friends, is love, which comes from Christ and through Him, and depends only upon Him. God is love and, therefore, when He is the foundation, love IS love.

 

The Way To Go Home

He didn’t look like a threat of any kind, this visiting minister. Taller than what we’re used to, certainly, but of otherwise benign aspect, I unwittingly settled into my pew and surveyed that Sunday morning’s ‘Bulletin’ – and there it was: undeniable proof that we were actually dealing with a dangerous radical. Psalm 118, right enough, but the Sing Psalms version, to be sung while the elements were laid for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Trying to quell my panic, I looked up at the pulpit, and saw our own minister leaning forward, whispering something to the visitor. Ah, I thought, he’ll be pointing out the mistake; he’ll sort this out. Imagine, then, my feeling of betrayal, of abandonment – which I’m quite sure the rest of the congregation shared – as we rose to sing the modern rendering after all.

He had mentioned in his sermon about our tendency towards ‘Jesus plus’. We’ve all heard this before, this human propensity to complicate the saving truth of the Gospel, and to believe salvation requires some input from ourselves. Of course, it doesn’t; God saw what our efforts were worth back in the Garden of Eden. But this radical visitor elaborated on the theme. Adding to Jesus can take many forms, including – he said – our own preferences.

These words came back to me as I sang 118, not to the old, familiar Coleshill, but another tune entirely. Did it matter? Or was I just taken a little bit outside the comfort zone of tradition? I like what I’m used to, but it’s hardly the end of the world if something happens a little differently.

In my folklore classes, I try to teach students about the notion of motifs in traditional tales. There are many versions of, for example, ‘Cinderella’, from a lot of different cultures. Some aspects of it vary from place to place: the characters’ names, perhaps, or their occupations. These things don’t matter very much to the integrity of the story, however. What remains the same becomes a motif, an essential ingredient that cannot be removed without altering the whole message and nature of the narrative.

Well, so it is with celebrating the Lord’s Supper. If he is the host, and we are his people; if we are there to remember his death and be strengthened in faith by meditating upon who he is and what he has done, does it matter which version of a psalm we sing? He is the author and finisher of our faith, not us.

Why, then, would we think that Christ needs our help? This same Jesus who, our visitor pointed out, had been subject to all the traps of this world, yet evaded them in order to present Himself, blameless and clean to God as a sacrifice in our stead – what could we possibly add to Him? I know that I am still liable to be trapped by sin, and even to willingly permit myself to be when it comes to certain of my pet failings. Contrary to what the world thinks we believe of ourselves, Christians do not esteem themselves perfect; it’s just that we recognise sin but – sadly –still sometimes do it anyway.

I suppose that’s one of the main differences between Christians and the world. Having had that meaningful encounter with Jesus, the absolute of truth, you can see where your life is out of true. After all, a line will only be recognised as squint when it’s compared against one that is perfectly straight. If you have not met and been changed by Him, however, you have absolutely no chance of knowing just how far your life has departed from the right road.

So, when we are witnessing – actively or passively, through our conduct – the first, last and most important thing we can do is show people Christ. Otherwise, we risk repeating the mistakes made by the Kirk Session at Cramond who tried to impose godliness on the people of the parish. I’ve been reading Alison Hanham’s book, ‘Sinners of Cramond’, based on the minutes of the Kirk Session over two centuries, and it offers a black and white account of just how futile this is.

It is why, despite much criticism, I stand by what I have said previously about picketing Pride marches or other worldly gatherings. Unless we are telling people about Christ or – better still – bringing them to Him, we are simply exercising our own vanity. We are, whether we intend this or not, being perceived as saying, ‘I’m better than you; I would never live as you do’.

This is why we have ongoing debate about Sunday opening in Lewis. People like me have unwittingly given the impression that the day is the thing that matters; it isn’t. What matters is that people would know Christ for themselves. Then, neither golf nor swimming, nor coffee, nor films would seem all that important – because life would no longer be all about pleasing themselves.

But we have to get better at communicating that fact. I love Sundays in Lewis because they are, for me, an oasis in a frantic week in which I can spend proper time in prayer, in reading, in worship, and in rest. It isn’t my job – or my right – to prevent others spending their Sunday as they wish. It is, however, my privilege to do everything in my power to change their minds so that they will submit freely to the power of Christ.

Others did as much for me. I was not won over by the suggestion that it was sinful to stay away from church, but I was drawn in by the irresistible message of salvation. Christ is enough. And, after last weekend, I am more persuaded than ever that all He requires of us is to point to Him, to His beauty, and to His sufficiency. Show them the Way, and He will bring them home.

 

 

The Offensive Truth

It’s all getting a little bit boring. I mean, irony is all very well in its place, but I have had it with reading what the so-called ‘progressives’ in our society have to say about the sincerely-held beliefs of Christians. They talk about tolerance, and they talk about everyone being free to do what they want, and believe what they want . . . but they just can’t shut up about it for one minute, can they? For people who don’t believe in God, they sure love talking about him. Any and every chance they get, those so-called unbelievers are tweaking the nose of the Almighty.

Now, if they were here (and I suspect that some of them may be), they would tell you that they find Christian beliefs so laughable that they cannot permit our childish fantasies to inform or influence public life and policy. Or – and I actually saw this from someone on social media last week in response to local decision making in Lewis – they will say that they cannot permit Christians to bully the rest of society into following a lifestyle that society has rejected.

I have a few issues with this. First of all, there is the arrogance inherent in judging my beliefs when you do not share them. Every believer has had the patronising, ‘comfort blanket’ remarks lobbed at them. Indeed, if that were all my faith amounted to, it would be an inadequate covering in times of trouble, and atheists would be justified in mocking. But it is much more. Would that the ‘progressives’ would use their much vaunted reason to consider the possibility that Christians have experienced something that they have not. If I have come to a different conclusion about God, then perhaps it is because I have seen evidence that you have – thus far – not.

Secondly, and I apologise for repeating this yet again, my holding of a different worldview does not make me a demagogue. Last year, while pretending to be reasonable, the local branch of Secularists Anonymous repeatedly invited me for coffee via Facebook, so that they could ‘explain why secularism is no threat to your faith’. I didn’t accept their disingenuous offer because, amongst other things, I already knew that their secularism was no threat to anything I believe. My hope is pinned upon something immovable and unchanging. Only the most arrogant person could think a Christian would feel threatened by their puny doctrine.

By the same token, however, should unbelievers not realise that my having different views to them is no threat – particularly if they are right and I have the intellectual capability of a small child, believing in a non-existent God? Yet, here in Lewis and further afield too, Christians get accused of bullying for . . ? Well, for adhering to the principles of their faith.

We skirt around this sometimes because it’s difficult, and because I’m afraid there are some branches of Christianity which have allowed the world, and even its own followers to exist on a mistaken interpretation of the phrase, ‘God is love’.

Yes, he is: God IS love. That means that he is the very definition of it, the template for it, and the yardstick by which all other manifestations of love are measured. While he is love, God is also truth. God is the blueprint for all that is right. And he is the ultimate in grace, in holiness, in perfection.

That’s who I am – inadequately – trying to follow. If you haven’t seen him for who he is yet, you cannot know what I know, or see him as I do. He showed me who I was and where I was headed and you know, Christ did me the greatest favour of all by being the very opposite to what the world asks.

If he had been the kind of Saviour our society has tried to build for itself, he would have showed me myself, and he would have said, ‘that’s you, with all your flaws and the blackness of sin – but I accept you that way, because it’s part of your identity, and it’s fine’.  Christ would have told me that if I was happy in the way I was living my life (and I was), and as long as I didn’t purposely hurt others, he’d take me at face value.

That’s not what he does, though. He couldn’t. Society is a mirror that has taught us to say that we can be whatever we want as long as our intentions are good. But it has taken away the gauge by which we measure what ‘good’ means. No wonder we’re adrift, seeking answers in our own flawed wisdom.

Christ, on the other hand, shows us what we are in comparison to him, in light of what he is and what he has achieved for us. I have seen myself time and again, measured against his perfection and found badly wanting. Yet, I have also seen his free offer of the grace that will mould me in his image in the fullness, not of time, but of eternity.

This Christ doesn’t want me to be a bully. It was not how he persuaded people to follow him, and it is not how he would have his church behave. You cannot impose salvation or the freedom of identity in Jesus upon people who are wilfully blind. I cannot make those who have not seen themselves in his light understand that I am not brainwashed, nor enslaved – but committed to following him as faithfully as I can.

That means I will believe things that seem hurtful to them, because they don’t yet realise that, while a lie comes in many editions, the truth only ever had one. We can reinterpret the facts to suit our own narrative, we can deny them a voice, and pretend that they do not exist – but in the heart of every believer, the truth burns as an everlasting and immutable flame.

I’m sorrier than I can say if shortcomings in me, or the church to which I belong have caused people to believe that there is a softer version of Christianity that permits people to live just as they please, to exercise the power of life or death based on convenience, or to write large tranches of the Bible off as irrelevant.

There is no such Christianity. One Christ and one truth – these are all we have. Once we have them, though, we come to realise that they are all we need.

 

 

Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

This weekend is one that many have been looking forward to. It will be, for them, a time of joy, of colour, and of togetherness. They will come out of their homes, and they will gather together to celebrate that greatest and most unifying of all human experiences: love.

It is all about love, and about life. All they ask is the right to live abundantly, and to love wholeheartedly and unashamedly.

They were persecuted from the earliest times; forced to pursue their chosen lifestyle in secret. Many the world over have been disowned by their families, tortured and even killed. And yet, through it all, that great love persists and drives them on.

Love. A love so strong that though they are spat at, though they are ridiculed, ostracised and called for every name under the sun, they will come out and they will proclaim that love unashamedly before their detractors.

I hope to be among them. Last time, I didn’t make it, and I have regretted it ever since. It’s important, you see, to shout it out with . . . not pride, exactly, but with a complete absence of apology or shame.

It isn’t just one day either: it is a weekend of celebration. On Saturday, we will congregate to prepare our hearts and minds for the sacrament on Sunday. Because this is a small ‘in-house’ communion, the process of readying ourselves is shorter. There is a bit less outward preparation, but the same inward joy.

What joy, though, unbelievers ask, do you derive from being part of a death cult? You are gathering to commemorate the Lord’s death – where is there joy in that?

Well, no, indeed. If this were a mere memorial service for a loved one gone before, it would bring precious little comfort. But there is rather more to it than that. This is not the empty celebration of self; this is not a futile attempt to glorify human frailty and make it immortal. 

In the sacrament, we commemorate the Lord’s death – until he comes again. Think on that: we remember his death until such time as he returns for us. 

That, my friends, is love. He tasted death so that we would not have to. And now, in the Lord’s Supper, we taste life in remembering what he accomplished for our sakes. 

He vanquished death. In Jesus we see the death of death. Life in him is forever. There is nothing bigger or greater than that.

And so, when I walk along the street on Sunday morning, I am making a declaration of love. I carry the props that tell the world of this: the Bible, the Psalter, the monetary offering .

Yes, outward trappings, some will scoff; Pharisaic declarations of your own piety.

Not so.

They are all acknowledgement of his absolute sovereignty and sufficiency. And they are a message to the onlooking world, to tell of what we have in our God. We have a Bible full of his promises to us; a psalter by which we might praise his worthy name; the money to demonstrate that we continue his work until he returns. 

Oh, I missed one, didn’t I?

The communion token: a wee oblong of metal, inscribed with a Bible verse (usually ‘Do this in remembrance of me’). 

Surely, you say, the ultimate badge of exclusivity – the smug wee membership card that says ‘I’m perfect and you’re not’. Insufferable pride? 

No. This wee token tells more than you can imagine. 

It says: ‘you are not enough on your own’. Press it against your palm, and imprint its message upon your heart. You cannot live – you cannot even love – apart from God.

But, it does not leave you there.

It also says: ‘I have made a way. You don’t have to be on your own. Lean on Christ; give yourself up to him.’

Clasp that little piece of metal tightly, taking its meaning to yourself. When you hold it in your grasp, know that you have taken hold of love, and love holds you safe in its arms forever.

Walk unashamedly to join with those who have that truth in their hearts. And let us pray for anyone who has not yet found that love.

It is a love which has been mocked and derided, and crucified to death. Today, it is barely tolerated, and pushed aside to make way for impostor loves.

But it will return in the risen Christ, victorious over death, over lies and over darkness. 

So, this weekend, let us look upon the love of Christ, and the joy we find in him. Let us take to the streets, God’s promises in our hands and on our hearts. And let his pure love be the only one of which we speak.

Journalism, Satan and Sunday Opening

When the nice journalist from BBC Scotland rang, I thought she might be wanting to talk about wind farms. People do, you know. They’re quite the hot topic here in Lewis – like NATO or Arnish in their own day. People didn’t want these developments either, to begin with . . .
She wasn’t phoning about turbines, though. Do you remember those schlocky old horror films, when you think the Thing is finally vanquished, but it comes back and grabs you by the throat?
Exactly: she was phoning about Sunday opening of the sports centre.
I could have sunk to the floor in despair. My colleagues wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. This sort of stuff happens all the time. Mind you, it’s been a while. Not since I marked an essay which confidently proclaimed that the Picts saw the Vikings coming and ‘went into oblivion’ have I so felt the need to rock in a corner. Instead, I arranged to be plonked in front of a microphone and offer my opinion on why Sunday opening of public services is a non-starter (again).Also, it came in the middle of a slightly hectic week – a period Lady Bracknell would have disapprovingly described as ‘crowded with incident’. I was caught ever so slightly on the hop: halfway between the surreal spectacle of a Scottish Land Court sitting in our church hall, and a Christmas night out with the gents of Stornoway Trust. In case you were wondering, I won all the cracker pulls – and no, they weren’t just letting me in case I cried . . .

Yet, despite the distractions, part of me had been waiting for this call. Not two weeks before, I had been discussing how dangerous complacency is. Just because all is quiet, don’t make the mistake of reading that as lasting peace. Don’t take your eye off the wall because the enemy is likely just waiting to surge over it.

(For the sake of clarity, when I say ‘enemy’, I mean Satan. And, when I say ‘Satan’, yes, I really do mean him and nobody else).

That’s why the Lord said to Isaiah, ‘Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he sees’. We need to be ready and watchful – like the soldiers of Gideon who took the water with their hands, so that their eyes might freely scan for danger.

This latest attempt is neither here nor there. But the whole debate opening up again has reinforced for me the image problem that Christians have. Now, while it doesn’t actually matter what people think of us per se, if it’s damaging to our witness, then that certainly is an issue, and one that needs addressing.

For this reason, I found myself at pains in the interview to deny that I am a Sabbatarian in the sense that the word is usually applied. That would elevate the day itself to an importance greater than the purpose for which it was granted – and that would be very wrong. We have – somehow – to dispel the notion that we want to keep Sunday special out of a desire to impose a draconian will upon the community.

Parliament has recently acknowledged the Christian image problem by running a survey into the discrimination that they face in daily life. Although the necessity of such a thing is a little depressing, it is nonetheless a step forward that the presence of anti-Christian prejudice exists in the UK. Frequently, you will find that it is casual, it is thoughtless. And it goes unrecognised as the bigotry that it is.

Last week, for example, I saw someone on social media had written: ‘We don’t mind Jesus, it’s his friends we have the problem with’. Oh, really? Try separating them from Him, then, and see how far you get with that.

Or, if you’re feeling brave, why not take out the name of Jesus altogether, and replace it with Allah? Does it look a bit more like bigotry now?

There is a lot of anti-Christian prejudice out there. In completing the survey, I was able to truthfully say that I have been met by it repeatedly, right here in my own community in most cases. However, I feel it really is time to start addressing it, and calling it out every time we witness instances of such bigotry. We live in a country that, not so long ago, made racist jokes our staple form of humour. However, within a generation, people have managed to accept that this is wrong.

Surely it’s our duty as Christians, then, to take that same stand for our faith. If someone has grown up using the Lord’s name as a swear word, for example, don’t you think it’s our job to raise an objection so they will see how offensive they’re being?

The journalist who questioned me about opening the sports centre on Sundays also said that she had spoken to parents who were for the status quo, but feared going on the record to that effect. That is a statement that should shame us all. Have public debate in general, and issues relating to the Sabbath in particular, become so controversial that we cannot talk them over openly without fear of reprisal?

Every time this kind of question arises, perhaps we ought to look on it as an opportunity to re-educate people about what Christianity is. Instead of meeting their attacks with slings and arrows ourselves, we could take the moment to demonstrate love.

And, no, Christian love does not mean stepping aside, and letting people do what they want; it means pointing them towards the light by which they might see for themselves how wrong they’ve been. And prejudice IS wrong, however normalised it has become in our midst.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire and Remembrance

Once, when I was about seven or eight years old, I awoke to hear my father telephoning for the fire brigade. A few minutes later, my mother appeared in the bedroom and told me to get up and put my clothes on over my pyjamas. The house opposite was ablaze, it seemed, and people were nervous of flying debris which might set other homes alight. 

For a few minutes it was a great adventure, to be getting out of bed late at night to go and stand in the street. But when I actually saw the house in question, blackened timbers against a terrifying orange blaze, I didn’t feel so secure. 

In fact, it sparked off (pun intended) a lifelong nervousness about fire. Even now, I hesitate to light the wood burner on a windy night. I remember only too well what fire can do when it overpowers.

November begins, of course, with fires to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot. My enjoyment of these as a child was always marred by the recollection of that other inferno I had witnessed. Standing further from the flames than my peers, I winced at every crackle and spit. I could not get far enough away from fireworks when they were being lit, though I still enjoyed their colours against the night sky.

Strange that a tradition which unsettles people and their pets alike, and which has seen its fair share of tragedy, is actually about celebrating safety. We do not light our bonfires in tribute to the traitor, Guy Fawkes, after all, but in thankfulness that the King’s life was not forfeit. 

November is a month associated with remembrance, then, and with fire. Around the coast of Britain, beacons were lit to celebrate the Armistice; many will be lit again this weekend to mark its centenary. These practices echo the customs of our long-dead ancestors, who marked the end of the agrarian year by lighting up the darkness in this way. Knowing that months of winter would follow, they celebrated the harvest’s safe in-gathering by creating warmth and colour. 

For them, fire symbolised much that was good – warmth, light and safety. They used it to encircle their newborn children, and their livestock, and they traced the boundaries of their settlement with fiery torches too, to protect everything that lay within.

Over the years, we have lost this sense of fire as a protective force. It is something which the old adage reminds us is ‘a good servant, but a bad master’, and we have become nervous of its destructive power. Even Christians are inclined to think of it in terms of the everlasting torment of hell awaiting the lost.

In the Bible, however, fire is often indicative of God’s presence. When the children of Israel stepped out into the unknown, He lit up the darkness as a pillar of fire. Moses, of course, had already encountered God in the burning bush, when he had to avert his eyes. This suggests that what he was experiencing was God’s glory, as opposed to a His presence – though the two are hard for this novice to separate.

And then, there are all the instances of God’s wrath being likened to fire – when it burns hot against His enemies, and consumes the faithless. Psalm 89 speaks of this. In other passages fire tests and refined but does not destroy . . . surely all of this testifies to the fact that the Bible DOES contradict itself?

No, it testifies to God’s unchanging nature. He meets those who are His as a loving, glorious God; and He meets His enemies as a judge. In all circumstances, He is a fire – but that fire acts upon Christian and unbeliever very differently.

Britain was tested in the fire of war, and always came through with its faith intact. Services of remembrance have, traditionally, had a strong Christian element – with songs of praise and prayers of thanksgiving forming the central core. Just this weekend, however, I see the usual suspects on social media, trying to make God the culprit for war.

God is not the warmonger; Satan is. He stirs up hatred so that nations think nothing of wilfully taking lives in their hundreds. And he picks his way through the ruins of our lives, blithely walking away from the destruction he has wrought.

Some cling, wisely, to God. They give thanks that He has dealt mercifully with us. Prayers of gratitude and songs of praise go upwards to Him. Even in grief, they see His hand at work.

Still others make the war dead their focus, and berate a God whose existence they deny. They wear the poppy, and bow their heads in silence . . . but it’s an empty sort of remembrance.

We light bonfires on our shorelines to commemorate that our warfare is ended. But if these don’t also kindle an awareness of God’s presence in all our tribulations, what have we learned that’s worth remembering?

 

 

 

 

Carried Away by Passion

If you leave the windows on the west side of your house open, there is a risk that the sluagh – fairy host – will come and carry you off to their own country, a land of enchantment and confusion. It was a little like that for me on Friday evening when some folk from the west (well, Barvas) persuaded me to a place where nothing much was as I expected.

Even although it was our communion weekend in Stornoway, I had agreed to go with these enchantresses to view a production of Bach’s St John Passion at An Lanntair. We were intrigued by the idea that a venue which has cultivated such a reputation for hostility to the Christian faith should be hosting an evening of sacred music. Of course, I do not yet begin to hope that this is any kind of a softening of their position: evidently, many people consider this work by Bach to be great music and nothing more.

How very wrong they are.

It struck me quite powerfully, as I sat in church the following night, listening to the visiting minister preach about the two thieves on the cross. Both were in the presence of God, both heard and experienced the same thing; but one went, blaspheming, to a lost eternity, and the other to glory with his Saviour. And in every place where the gospel is preached, that is potentially true. Some will hear and believe; some will go on rejecting the salvation message.

I would imagine that there were some listening to, and perhaps also performing in, the St John Passion who would fall into the unbelieving category. They may have the highest appreciation for Bach’s undeniable talent as a composer, and they may very well think the libretto attractive, but that will be as far as it goes.

Except, of course, that is never as far as it goes. In fact, their decision to utter, or even just listen to the words of John’s gospel places them in a position of responsibility. Every time you have the truth placed before you, there are only two possible responses: acceptance or rejection. There is no third box marked ‘appreciation’.

This glorious – and beautifully performed – work is still, at heart, a proclamation of the gospel message. It carries the audience through the harrowing final hours of Christ’s life on earth. Each time I read that account, I feel a potent mixture of things: guilt, shame, empathy, gratitude. But, of course, when I read the Bible for myself, I do so in faith; and when I hear the gospel message preached, it is from men who have been called to proclaim it.

If you do not believe John’s account, then it cannot touch your conscience, nor move your heart. But neither does it leave you as you were before you heard it. Every instance of the good news being broadcast provokes a reaction.

Many years ago, I said to my parents, ‘I’m off to Martin’s Memorial to see the Messiah’. Ignoring my father’s wry rejoinder – ‘I doubt it’ – I set off in the company of some equally unbelieving friends to enjoy an evening of sublime music. Despite the fact that it draws significantly on Isaiah, some of the minor prophets, the Psalms and the Gospels, it didn’t bring me, there and then, to Christ.

I was, however, sufficiently impressed to buy a CD of ‘The Messiah’, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, which I listened to many, many times. Even when I wasn’t reading my Bible, I listened, and even when I didn’t see any beauty in the feet that brought good tidings, I thought this the most glorious noise I’d ever heard.

Music of this kind, though, is more than just sound: it’s ministry. Closing our eyes so that we can appreciate the beauty is fine; closing our ears so that we do not hear the still, small voice is not.

Although I was not converted the evening I first heard Handel’s beautiful composition, its message resonated with me throughout the years. Sometimes, in church, a verse would leap out at me and I would recognise it from his oratorio – crooked paths being made straight; comfort ye, my people; by his stripes we are healed.

The reason for that is to be found, not in me, not in the beautiful music, but in the book of Isaiah.

God’s word will not return to Him void, but will accomplish what He has sent it out to do. I need have no anxiety for those hearing the gospel message in whatever form it reveals itself to them, because He has a plan – for every note, every recitative, every rest in the great and glorious composition of which He is the author and conductor.

Whether An Lanntair knows it or not, last Friday, it was beaming out the word of God into its own auditorium. And from there, none of us knows where it might go. Pilate asked ‘what is truth?’ while standing before its living embodiment; but God opens eyes and hearts where He will.

Yes, even in an arts centre in Stornoway.

 

Your Gender-fluid Granny

There was some difficulty in ascertaining what species I was, the day my parents brought me home from the hospital. My brother – a mere 20 months old at the time – was held up to peer into the carrycot and hazarded three guesses. I was, he mused, either a bird, a kitten or a hen. In my defence, I must say that he had a limited vocabulary and life experience, and it was that, more than any weird fur or feather arrangement on display which led to this misapplication of ‘isean’ ‘piseag’ or ‘gog-gàg’.

And then, when I was a little older, my father seemed to be labouring under some misapprehension that I was a collie. He worked myself and my brother like a brace of sheepdogs, every time he wanted some of the woolly halfwits moved from one part of the croft to another. We always had an actual dog, but never one that was helpful in the usual ways one might expect. Seonaidh Mòr was adept at wearing hats and escaping; Tim was the king of intimidation and burying things, but neither canine cv had ‘working with sheep’ as a life-skill.

Finally, however, I settled on just being a girl or, as modern parlance would have it, ‘the gender I was assigned at birth’. It’s the use of ‘assigned’ that amuses here. Whose decision is it? I imagine the midwife approaching my mother and saying, ‘Well, Mrs MacLean, regardless of what biology seems to be suggesting, we’re making this one a boy, because we’re out of pink blankets for the moment’. To think the future course of my life may have depended upon the laundry efficiency at the Lewis Hospital . . .

Thankfully, however, there must have been a good supply of the apropriate colour of blankets, and I was, according to the hospital wristband, ‘Baby MacLean – Girl’. Born the day before my granny’s birthday, but arriving early, as is my wont, there was really nothing for it but to name me after her.

Naming children for their relatives is a practice that seems to have fallen into disuse, unless I have misread the situation and there actually are a whole lot of bodaich on the Taobh Siar called Dylan. There was a time, however, when it was de rigeur, and when a family dispute could well be sparked by parents’ failure to honour a sensitive relative in the naming of their child. Regardless, that is, of whether said child was of the same gender as the relative who expected this honour.

Yes, those of you who think we islanders so narrow in our outlook, and so unsophisticated in our response to contemporary issues, read this and consider: gender fluidity started in the Hebrides.

Amongst our older generation, it is not difficult to find legions of women named Angusina, Murdina, Duncanina, Kenina, Hughina, Willina . . . Each one of these is testament to two things: their parents’ commitment to family honour; and a complete lack of chauvinism. Some people will jokingly say that it’s tantamount to saying to your daughter, ‘we really wanted a boy’ but I think you have to look at it in its social and historical context.

The really important social custom being observed here was the preservation of traditional names, and the giving of due place to senior members of the family. It is not about gender at all really, and it is certainly not about the superiority of male over female.

There is something else as well. The number of firstborn girls who were named for male relatives testify to the fact that parents were well aware that this might be their only such blessing. My sister was named for our great-grandfather – my father’s seanair, and the only father figure he ever knew – because, I imagine, my parents sensibly accepted that there might be no siblings and, even if there were, there might be no boys. As it happened, two boys followed, but neither of them had the name ‘Donald’ bestowed upon him. That distinction belongs to my sister, Donna.

I used to think that it was only we islanders that had this obsession with genealogy, and with naming. But many other civilisations have the same interest. God, in His wisdom, placed our Saviour within a human lineage, so that even prophets like Isaiah knew that the Messiah would come through the house of David. The name of David remains linked inextricably with that of the Lord, giving Him that identity which was so necessary for our understanding of Him, and for Him to experience fully what it means to be human.

I think that there is a lesson for all of us in the fact that our Lord’s identity was not something that could be neatly summed up in one word. There were many facets to the only perfect man who ever lived, but that did not diminish Him one bit. And even we, who are made in His image – albeit now like a shattered looking-glass – are greater than the sum of our parts.

In my case, I am happy to be the gender I was assigned by my Creator. And I am happy to be nighean Mhurdanaidh Catrìona Dhòmhnaill Iain Ruaidh. Or banntrach Dhòmhnaill Chaluim Sheonaidh. Some people know me as Post Tenebras Lux, or the woman who taught their kids in Sunday School, or their Gaelic tutor, or that blone on the Trust. Catriona Murray, nee Maclean is a daughter, sister, auntie, friend, lecturer and widow.

But, in any and all of those things, I am who I am, what I am and where I am because God ordained it so. It is, like everything else He does, fixed and secure. And, contrary to what modern wisdom will tell you, this does not box you in – it liberates you in ways that doing as you please, and being who you think you are, never will.

Wee Frees & Defective Hunks

’This hunk is defective’, the minister said, gesturing to one of the elders. Not wanting to agree too readily, I pretended not to have heard, and mumbled, ‘pardon?’ He sighed deeply, and repeated, ‘In hunc effectum – the meeting is in hunc effectum’. Really none the wiser, I nodded my acquiescence, but I’m sure he wasn’t fooled. After all, how would  a daft wee airhead like myself be as versed in Latin as those fellows who presumably use nothing else at their Session meetings? The point is, I am a mere woman and impossibilium nulla obligatio est.

We use language – jargon, even – according to the situation we are in at the time. My Stornoway Trust life involves talk of wayleaves and resumption, of decrofting and apportionment. And we never, ever approve anything; we just homologate.

I don’t mind admitting I had no idea what on Earth that meant the first time I saw it written.

In my job as a lecturer, I occupy a world of blended learning, of internal and external verification, of validation, of curriculum offer.

There was a day, I suppose, when I didn’t know what any of that was about either. I had come to it fresh and green from a world of grant monitoring reports, of capacity building, and of exit strategies.

Yet, none of this rich and varied vocabulary made much practical sense until I started to use it for myself.

Which brings me back to Wednesday night and the single-item meeting. Or, really, just before it.

Prior to convening our church communication committee, that ‘defective hunk’ of an elder had been part of my Bible study group. We were looking at the wisdom of James (the Biblical one, that is). And we were using a whole lot of words that I feel I’ve always been hearing: salvation, works, faith, justification. When Wee Frees like me were wee, we learned our Catechism, which was brim-full of vocabulary we didn’t understand.

Rote-learning filled our heads with words that were longer than ourselves. And, somewhere along the way I learned the TULIP acronym for five-point Calvinism. Oh, the hours of torture my wee brain has suffered over the years in trying to grasp unconditional election, and averting my eyes from my total depravity.

And then, when I grew older, I thought I could book-learn my way around these words. The Bible is God’s instruction manual for us, I reasoned, so I’d better try to figure out what He’s saying. I thought I could do it with a concordance and a few text books. When that didn’t work, I tried a course of study, hoping to unlock the mystery in the code wrapped around salvation. Surely a course accredited by no less an institution than the Free Church College would set me straight.

But no. All I was amassing for myself was so much head knowledge. I could read every single book ever written on salvation, and every treatise on grace, and never really understand their meaning. Oh, yes, I could have written you an essay. In fact, I recall one such, on the emotional life of Jesus. The brief was to demonstrate that He was indeed a human being with the full range of feelings that implies.

The fact that I wrote enough to pass actually shames me now. How could I calmly write of His joy and His pain, of the depths of His anguish on my behalf – and not be broken-hearted?

Simply, because I had not really learned these two words: atonement and salvation. I knew what they meant, yes; but not yet what they meant to me. And I thank the Lord every day that He, and only He, opened my eyes.

Powerfully, though, as we read what James has to say, I thought of those who have not yet accepted His definition of salvation. The letter runs:

’Even the demons believe – and shudder’.

I know what it is to have a cerebral knowledge of God, to be acquainted with His vocabulary, but not to have Him. Satan knows more of the divine attributes than many who profess to love God. He could, I’m sure, deliver a powerful lecture on justification, and not mean a word of it.

In the lexicon of faith, there is only one word that Christ Himself would place before us,exactly as He did to Jairus: ‘believe’.

He came into the world, taking our humanity – out emotional range – to Himself, in order that He might suffer in our place, wholly and substitutionally.

But we don’t have to define substitution; we merely have to accept it. And the reason for that?

It’s because Christ’s appointment at Calvary was most assuredly in hunc effectum.

 

Life Goes On (and On)

A good friend told me a story about a lady who, some years ago now, was renowned for her tour of the communion circuit. She was something of a legend in her own lifetime and, when she passed away, a neighbour asked her husband what he was going to do now. He replied, ‘keep her in the house for a few days – something I never ever managed before’!

Women who are rarely at home are the stuff of Lewis humour. ‘Falbh nan sìtigean’, ‘rèibheireachd’ and ‘sràbhaicearachd’  have all been used as slightly judgemental ways of  referring to these shameless hussies who will not settle to the domestic life.

I have become one such. In a short space of time, I have been transformed from a  woman who rarely left her own fireside, to one who hardly gets to see it at all. Before I was widowed, I spent a lot of time in my own company, which I didn’t dislike. Donnie, before falling ill, worked all week at Dounreay. He would phone at the back of seven in the morning, and at teatime, and again at bedtime. It took me many, many months not to feel anxious away from a phone at ten in the evening; and I have only now stopped taking my morning shower with the bathroom door open, so that I could hear if he rang.

Life revolved around him, around us and around our home. I was content to ‘potter’.

So, when he had gone, I suppose I worried that time would sit heavy on my hands. At first, it didn’t matter, because other people filled the hours, or I walked the dog, or watched television, or worked in the garden. During that initial raw stage, I kept myself safe, and didn’t stray too far from home. I did a little redecorating, planted flowers, and slept soundly at night.

Through those months, I was sustained by my new-found assurance. Nothing was too big, or too terrible to bear because all my trust was not in a fragile human being who could leave me at any moment, but in Christ, who never will.

It was, of course, a sad time. All my routines, all my touchstones, all my plans . . . these made little sense any more in this strange, new world. But, when I look back on it now, I also see that it was a precious time.

I am reminded of the life of Elijah. In case any elders/ministers/outraged cailleachs are reading this, I am not comparing myself to the prophet. Well, alright, maybe just a little.

When this tower of strength and obedient zeal for the Lord was frightened, he took to his heels. And an angel of God ministered to him, persuading him to rest. This lovely interlude in the account of Elijah’s life reminds us of the need to conserve energy, and to draw back from the fray when it becomes too much.

My life has changed radically since those first months when I was ministered to tenderly by God. He gave me that time, I believe, as a gift, to prepare me for everything that would follow. I don’t suppose it ever entered my head as the first gaping wound slowly healed, that I would eventually regard that time in my life as an oasis. But it was.

Now, three years on, I have what Lady Bracknell would disparagingly call ‘a life crowded with incident’. I am rarely to be found in the house at a sensible hour, and hardly a day goes by without some sort of extra commitment – or even two or three. I have had to start operating a ‘system’ to keep abreast of where I am meant to be.

None of this is helped by the fact that home is a twenty-minute drive away from work, church and the various other places I now spend my time. Last week, I had a post-work meeting every single day. The previous week was about the same.

And, I hit a wall of tiredness and discouragement. So, I did exactly as Elijah did. Oh, you’re thinking, how very wise Catriona is. Follow the prophet’s example and you can’t go wrong.

How did he end up being ministered to by the angel, though? He took to his heels in fear and he ran – not to the Lord, but to find shelter for himself. That’s the behaviour I replicated: Elijah ran for the shelter of a broom tree; I took myself away from church and the fellowship of God’s people. I skipped a Sunday evening service because I was tired, and then a midweek prayer meeting. And, while I’m in confessional mode, I may as well say that my private worship was not all it should be either.

Thankfully, this weekend was an ‘in-house’ communion. There is a quietness and a peace about it, which encourages a spirit of restfulness. We heard about the strength and power in the Lord’s hands, but also the tenderness – and the knowledge that before His hands were extended towards me, they were first outstretched on the cross.

How did I ever allow myself to forget, in the midst of all the bustle of life, that my best shelter is there, under their protection?