Singing my Sorrow in a Strange Land

The night before my public ordeal by presbytery last Tuesday, I got a message from a friend saying they were praying for me. They didn’t know that I was nervously facing my first gig as a male impersonator (well, you know, sort of), but that only makes it lovelier in my eyes, that these Lochies would pray for me, while I was miles away, sitting by my stove in Tolsta.

On Thursday, after a moving and thought-provoking service of thanksgiving, I went off to Isles FM – our local community radio station- to do a live show, called Glow. It’s a mix of Christian conversation, music and readings. The host is an easygoing Siarach with a pleasant, laid-back style. He manfully endured my ramblings about the Reformation for the entire show, and we parted company late on a very wintry night.

The midnight drive home over freezing white roads was unpleasant. I registered with surprise the unfamiliar sensation of being glad to see Tolsta: I was home. Back within wi-fi range, my phone pinged out messages. Laid-back Siarach doing his ‘mum thing’ and checking I’d arrived safely. A very dear friend reminding me of something so lovely from that evening’s sermon. And a new friend joking that I seemed to be everywhere, but that he’d enjoyed the show.

The road home had been a challenge, but there was light and warmth and kindness at the end of my journey.

It caused me to reflect on other things that had happened this week. Someone who is researching for a documentary about loneliness called on Monday to discuss it with me. And, just yesterday, a friend very perceptively said that she realised how difficult it must be to have no one to talk to about my day when evening falls.

Yes, that silence has got a particular quality to it. There is no one asking about how work went, or telling me I look tired. Donnie was a generous man and gave of his love and concern liberally. He cared in a very practical way because his heart and his conscience were both larger than was sometimes good for him. And, just when I was most tired, or at my lowest ebb, he would do something unexpected. Our life together was one of small kindnesses – and great ones – which I miss very much.

But, even this is something from which I can learn. I know that this life I find myself living is part of something intentional in God’s scheme. So, with His help, I am trying not to follow it as though it’s some kind of plan B.

By extension, then, the inherent loneliness that accompanies my widowhood is something of which God is aware and which He knows will be the lot of anyone in my situation. He supplies much which alleviates it. I am blessed in having a supportive and loving family, good friends and no shortage of activity to keep me distracted.

Which is fine if all I’m supposed to do is survive. One of my initial thoughts after he died was to wonder how many years I might have to ‘get through’ alone on this earth. But that was transient, something borne of the acute despair I felt at the thought of living without him.

Until I remembered that my strength had never come from Donnie. That was a mistake I had made many times before. When it really mattered, though, God gently showed me who it was that had taken me through.

Three things occur to me, then, inspired by what I have heard and where I have been this week. First of all, I believe that being distracted from grief and loneliness is not what God wants for me, nor is it why He has placed so many incredible people along my path. I think he wants me to see my widowhood, and yes, even the loneliness, as a gift through which I can experience more of His love. That was one message in last Sunday evening’s sermon.

And on Tuesday, discussing the Reformation solas, we were reminded that soli deo gloria, or ‘to God’s glory alone’ may sometimes be overlooked. It is a personal challenge to remember in everything I do and, though I try, of course my efforts frequently fall far short. After all He has done for me, how can I even think of keeping the smallest bit of credit for myself?

Reflecting on all He has done was the theme on Thursday as we gathered for a service of thanksgiving on an icy cold evening. Even in sorrow – perhaps especially in times like these – the minister said, God wants His people to sing their sadness to Him. In singing to Him, they remember His name; His name is wedded to salvation; and so in the midst of their sorrow, they remember all that His grace has accomplished for them.

That song of desolation becomes a song of praise and thanksgiving because they are no longer looking backwards at the night, but forward to the eternal daybreak.

It has been a busy week, one in which I have rarely been alone. Now that I am, my mind does not dwell on the silence, but on all the love He has shown me in these last few days. How can I sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? When I think of all He has done – His steadfastness, His forbearance, His mercy, His love towards me – how can I be dumb?

 

In unity to dwell . . .

Many years ago, my granny used to tell a story about an indignant woman from her own neck of the mòinteach who once nailed a list of her grievances to the door of the manse. While I would in no way suggest this as the best means of communicating with your minister, it certainly would be a non-confrontational means to tell him . . . oh, I don’t know, say, how much he hurt your feelings by implying you wouldn’t get a singing voice till Heaven. If that had happened. Hypothetically-speaking.

Generally, though, nailing stuff to doors is not the way to get taken seriously. Particularly, I would imagine if, like the woman in the story, your missive culminates with a threat to ‘cud of’ the hands of anyone removing your notice. Such dark ravings will only ensure that people avoid you in the street, while also keeping your exploits alive in folk memory long after you have passed away, hopefully to that place where – apparently – everyone will have the voice of an angel. She added, bitterly.

There’s one fellow, though, we remember for the door-nailing carry-on, not because his behaviour was eccentric, but because his influence was so far-reaching and long-lasting. Martin Luther did not like what the church had become and so he took very direct action, according to tradition, hammering his 95 complaints into the door of Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517.

This set in motion the chain of events which history recognises as the Protestant Reformation. It was not a time for subtlety, or gentle implication. Objections had to be nailed to doors, not whispered in corners, or written into politely phrased letters.

These days, though, perhaps we need to hammer our concerns to the inside of the door. It really takes someone exceptional to effect change from outside and, in the case of the church, isn’t it always better that we work together for the greater good, rather than react to external forces?

Luther, and the other Reformers are not remembered and revered because they created the ultimate schism. Surely, we celebrate their legacy because their eyes were opened to the truth, and they were used by God to relentlessly spread that message, whatever the personal cost.

One very important facet of their message was that Christ is head of the church, no one else. As such, then, it is His church – not ours. Logically, therefore , the outworking of that is for us to treat the church as we would wish to treat our Saviour. Of course, I hardly need add that by ‘church’ here, I mean the people, not the building.

Who has not been moved by descriptions of His plight at Gethsemane, and at Calvary? Which Christian has not shed tears over this perfect man being made sin for our sake? And yet, which of us has not harboured ill-feeling towards one of His sheep? Haven’t we had partings of the way which were unedifying and unnecessary? Most would agree that there are few things sadder than a family divided. How much more true is that of God’s family?

Besides, if we are of the reformed faith, then surely we must remember that the Bible is our guidebook. Too often, we act on our own instinct, which is never a good idea.

I don’t know about you, but my instinct is governed and guided by ego, by self-interest, and by pride. I may even be the guiltiest of the sinners in my church; I wouldn’t be surprised.

Nonetheless, I cannot be the only one whose judgement is constantly clouded by self. Yet, if we allow ourselves to react to every perceived slight and wrong and hurt inflicted upon us, and if we think our own behaviour beyond reproach, then we will always be at odds with a church which is full of imperfect people.

Sinners saved by grace are still sinners. I had heard about conviction of sin before, but really only felt the guilt of it once my prison door was opened. This, I imagine, is a truth which applies to all Christians – that we struggle daily with sin.

And as such, ought we not be moved to help one another, rather than to judge? If sin is our common enemy (which it is), we have more to gain by sticking together, and by helping one another with our burdens. The thief, that is Satan, comes to steal, and kill, and destroy. He knows better than any of us that a divided household cannot stand.

That love which we are exhorted by Peter to have for one another, is the same love which he later tells us covers a multitude of sins. When a Christian stumbles, the world purses its lips, and gleefully crows that he is no better than anyone else. It takes pleasure in his misfortune, and holds up his sin as proof that Christianity is a sham.

This is no more than we have come to expect from the enemies of Christ.

If his brothers and sisters in Christ do likewise, however, or stand aloof in his misfortune, how are they different from the world? And how are they showing obedience to the Lord that forgave them so much?

As Christians, we are the body of Christ. One body, of which no part can be afflicted without it causing suffering to the rest. That is why we are to love one another, to help one another, and to bear each other’s burdens.

Armour was always easiest to put on with help from a friend. If the breastplate of righteousness should work loose, who will help me tighten it, if not my brothers and sisters? And if I see theirs slipping, my hand should be first to help, and my lips silent of all reproach.

 

 

 

A Chain that Makes Us Free

I inadvertently insulted our entire Kirk Session last Sunday evening, by referring to them as thirty odd men in suits. Of course, I intended to say thirty-odd men in suits, but these distinctions only really work on the page. One of them was even in the room as a witness, but he was busily trying to prise the tambourine from his wife’s hand, so he probably didn’t hear. He needn’t have bothered, anyway, it was a youth group meeting, so I think percussion would have been acceptable.

It was my first time at a Christian youth group, and I’m forty-two. I am glad that such gatherings still take place, and more than a little regretful that I left it so late to attend one. The feeling that I had on Sunday, the feeling that I am increasingly aware of every day now, is that we really need each other. We need to be supporting each other, and loving each other, and simply being community.

We are God’s portion in this world. Already, we are a peculiar people, set apart by Him, and redeemed by Christ. The Christian knows what it is to be a guest in this world; more and more, the Christian feels an unwelcome guest. His liberties are being eroded, his right to speak from the heart, his right even to think freely – all these are being infringed. This temporary home of ours is in a self-proclaimed ‘tolerant’ society where everything is permissible. That is, everything that chimes with a Godless, liberal agenda. Oppose it and, well . . .

Lot lived in a place like that too. He made his home in a city so depraved that its very name has become synonymous with immorality: Sodom. Earlier on Sunday evening, I had heard this text preached on.

There is an element in our society – and yes, it’s here in Lewis too – which despises Christ. It wants Him, His Word and His followers eradicated. Oh, they would protest that, I know they would. In fact, I can tell you what they would say: ‘We don’t mind what you do, just stay out of our schools, our government, our public spaces. Let us do as we want, and don’t interfere’.

But that is not possible. That wouldn’t be Christianity; that would be Pharisaic, walking by on the other side. Christ did not come into this world for His followers to be silenced by political correctness.

We will not be silenced at all.

I realised something afresh this very day. Speaking to our Scripture Union at work about the woman with the issue of blood healed by Jesus, it struck me that everything He does for us and in us is for ourselves, but for someone else too. That was at least part of the reason why He arranged things so that she would have to talk of her healing.

He used the woman’s story to compel me to talk of mine.

And I remembered something else the minister said on Sunday – Christians are a chain, each one linked to the rest. When one receives a blessing, they share it with the others; when one receives a burden, the others help carry it. We are to be mutually encouraging and supportive. By this, the world will know that we are His, that we love one another.

It is difficult to be a Christian in Lewis right now, because there are such attacks directed at the Lord. Everything that bears His mark is despised by the world.

And it was a real challenge for Lot to be the only righteous man in Sodom.

Before God removed him to safety, He allowed Lot’s sojourn amongst those sinners to continue. I had never thought of this before until I heard it preached on Sunday night; my focus had always been on Lot himself.

God was giving the inhabitants of Sodom a chance, by placing Lot in their midst as an example of a better life. They didn’t take it, of course, but the opportunity was there.

And this is, therefore, a solemn thought. The God that atheists want excised from our world, He has His people. They are precious to Him, and He will not harm them. As long as they are present in the world, the Lord stays His hand from striking against His enemies.

Atheists, don’t despise your Christian neighbours. Their presence in this world might be helping keep you safe.

And, do you know what else? These Christians are praying for you so very earnestly. While you try to pull down the edifice of God’s teaching built so faithfully by your ancestors, the Christian community in Lewis is buttressing it by bringing you before the throne of grace. It is not a prayer for vengeance, nor even rebuke: it is a prayer for your hearts to change.

It is a prayer that, even now, God is forging you to be the next link in His chain.

 

Welcome to Lewis: God’s providence is our inheritance

Last Sunday began, somewhat unusually, with me having my feet filmed as they walked up Francis Street to our Gaelic church, the Seminary. It is, of course, possible that the tv folk were trying to be arty and symbolic – you know, walking away from one of the town’s three Church of Scotland buildings, before cresting the hill towards the Free. Or, they wanted to show that Wee Free women can actually be frivolous (I was wearing pink shoes).

My main concern was that, given how infrequently I visit the Seminary, people there might assume I only ever travel with a full camera crew in tow. Fortunately, the visiting minister had been forewarned, so he didn’t think it was some elaborate, attention-seeking ploy on my part.

What is special about Sunday in Lewis, the journalist, Christina, asked me. Indeed – what?

The peace, the quiet, the fact that people who don’t offer services of necessity or mercy are guaranteed a day with their family. It has always been this way, as far back as any of us remember. Children were allowed to play outside quietly, not because they were being repressed, but because they were learning respect for other people. My late husband, whose father was an elder in their local church, was allowed to play football on Traigh Mhor with other boys, and remembered almost bursting his lungs running home to be in time for the evening service.

Balance, you see, is something we’ve always been good at here. The writer, James Shaw Grant wrote movingly of the scene on the Stornoway quayside on a Thursday evening towards the end of August in 1939. It was the Stornoway communion, and after the evening service, worshippers thronged the pier to wave the first draft of men off to the Royal Naval Reserve. Despite the great crowd, there was silence at first, and then, a lone voice on the quay took up Psalm 46 in Gaelic:

‘ ‘S e Dia as tearmann dhuinn gu beachd,
Ar spionnadh e ‘s ar treis’

Gradually, the men on board the ship, and the crowd of onlookers joined in, their voices linking across the widening strip of water. Wherever in the world these reservists would be sent, and whatever their fate, they and the loved ones at home were in the hollow of God’s hand. The world was teetering on the brink of a violent and protracted war. In what looked like an act of supreme faith, all concerned put their trust in the Lord to protect them and to strengthen them.

But a few days later, the second draft left to the sound of bagpipes, Gaelic song, and laughter. Balance, you see.

This island has always had a great sense of timing. It has responded to what comes its way appropriately and proportionately. Sometimes, this has been mistaken for fatalism, for cowardice, and even for laziness.

Not so. The burgh coat of arms, designed by the old Stornoway Town Council bore the text, ‘God’s providence is our inheritance’. There was a strong relationship between the people of the island and their God. It served them well in times of trouble, to remember that it is all in His providence, entirely dependent upon Him.

I think that if it was possible to go back in time and ask the people what was difficult and repressive about their life, they might say that it was the relentless hard work for little reward; they might mention the harshness of the weather; they might mention poor housing and unequal access to healthcare. Perhaps those from the outlying districts of Lewis would tell you that they missed their children, who had to stay in hostels all week.

Not everything about Lewis was perfect in the past, any more than it is now. But I believe that those Leodhasaich of times gone by would be puzzled by any suggestion that God was the problem.

Through the devastation of the Great War, compounded by the unspeakable tragedy of the Iolaire in the first few hours of 1919, to the decade of emigration that followed, and the heart-rending fear of the Second World War, the people turned to God.

The night that initial draft left, He was worshipped first. And then it was His strength that the departing sailors and their anxious community called upon. Amongst those who watched their sons board the ‘Lochness’ must have been men who had come through the horror of the trenches, and perhaps survived the breaking of the ‘Iolaire’ on the Beasts of Holm.

They had seen all the agonies of war, and come through it to stand, in Stornoway on the cusp of another conflict, and sing a psalm to God. He had taken them safely through, and He would watch over their sons in the heat of battle also.

Everyone who knows the history of this island will be aware that little Lewis contributed a disproportionate amount of its lifeblood in the last war. We remember that sacrifice each November.

There is always a time for remembrance. We remember the fallen of both World Wars; we remember loved ones that have gone; we remember the Lord’s death until He comes, by drinking wine and eating bread.

That communion in 1939 must have been remarkable. On a day of preparation, these islanders had a vivid reminder of why they needed God’s strength and protection.

Timing is everything. And as I look at the world around me, I think this is far from being the right moment to cast off our Christian heritage. We need to gather on that pier once more, and sing across the darkening water:

Be still, and know that I am God;
among the heathen I
Will be exalted; I on earth
will be exalted high.

Our God, who is the Lord of hosts,
is still upon our side;
The God of Jacob our refuge
for ever will abide.