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.

Wee Free Feminism & Other Legends

Helping out a colleague this week, I agreed to speak to his sociology class about feminism, coloured by my experiences in those twin male bastions: the Free Church and the Stornoway Trust.

Having already denied being a feminist to no less a person than our church Missions Director, I feel this is ground I had better approach carefully.

It’s not a label I’m particularly interested in claiming because I know, for one thing, that radical feminists like Germaine Greer would laugh their socks off at the notion of people like me aligning themselves with the cause. I belong to a church where the leadership is all-male. The image is very much of men leading and women meekly following in their wake, heads bowed and carrying pans of soup and trays of baking. We appear, in the world’s eyes, to be a Stepfordesque nightmare of gender stereotyping.

Addressing this with the students, I tried to introduce the notion of complementarianism. I probably did a bad job and, even though they were bright and articulate, I’m not sure I explained myself well enough. The problem is that, in such a forum, you are not encouraged to talk too much about Scripture and yet, to properly explain my stance on this, I would have to refer to God’s instruction, and his ordaining of two genders, each with its own distinct role.

Even then, people will say that this is all very well, but don’t men just abuse that belief and use it as a way to keep women out of leadership roles?

The Bible is quite clear about spiritual leadership; it is set aside for men. In my view, therefore – despite my allusions to having pulpit ambitions, or an eye on the suidheachan mòr – that is that. God has decreed, and if I were to start reinterpreting it, then I am doing nothing less than replicating the serpent’s, ‘did God really say . . ?’

Other roles, however – including deaconship – I am not so persuaded about. The early church had deaconesses and, given that the diaconate role is one of managing and dispensing funds and other organisational duties, I see no reason why it should be restricted to men. Ditto the doorkeepers: why must we be welcomed to worship services by men? Shy, awkward men are forced to take that responsibility on, when many women with the requisite people skills are available and undeployed.

And then, there are the committees. In local congregations, women are included amongst the membership of various groups. I am on our congregation’s Communication Committee. Others are on the Catering Committee and the Strategy Group. Is this replicated at national level, though?

It’s not entirely clear. There are six standing committees, according to the Free Church website, and the blurb says that these are made up of ‘ministers, elders and advisers’. I’m dimly aware of there being some female input, but couldn’t say how much, or to what extent their influence extends.

And here is where I have to bring in my other experience – that of being one woman on an otherwise all-male board. I don’t claim to be ‘better’ than my colleagues, nor to be wiser. It may well be that my presence has made no overall difference to the operation of Trust concerns at all. Nonetheless, mine is a different perspective and a different approach because I’m a woman. Not superior, nor inferior; just other.

Now, of course there’s a sense in which every individual brings something unique to the table – all men are not exactly the same, nor all women. However, there is a broadly male approach to things (and people) which I have observed, and a corresponding female one also. Men and women, having both been created in God’s own image, NEED to work together in order to reflect that perfection.

If I had my way, therefore, yes, all committees – in and out of the church – would have mixed memberships.

Before this has any of my more conservative friends reaching for the smelling salts, however, I’d add a rider to this.

When I’m on a roundabout, and I have right of way, it sometimes happens that the person on my left will decide just to go for it first. What is the proper response? Do I enforce my privilege and move, knowing I will probably crash into his side? Of course not – as a driver, you also have a duty to prevent accidents as well as not causing any.

Ideally, then, the church would see the wisdom and – I believe – beauty,

of men and women sharing responsibility more. Not, as I said, in spiritual leadership, but in everything else. However, I would not advocate this if it was liable to damage the peace and fellowship of the church. Internal politics should never be allowed to eclipse the cause of Christ. A woman’s equal ability to contribute in certain roles is neither here nor there in comparison to the greater work. Part of our walk is, after all, subduing self. And even if I know women could, and possibly even should, play a greater role . . . well, the church is not the place to play out gender-based games of thrones.

Ultimately, though God created us male and female, each gender with its own attributes, our relationship with him is personal, individual. He doesn’t deal with me as part of a homogeneous mass of women – he deals with me as myself, as Catriona Murray, nee Maclean. Like everyone else, I have been imbued with certain gifts which are meant to be used in his service. It doesn’t require a badge, or a title to serve the Lord, and wasting time, and causing strife in pursuit of recognition from the brethren . . . well, that’s not something that interests me.

So, the world would call me weak and deny me admittance to the throne-room of feminism. I am not prepared to assert myself, because I know what they do not: my ‘rights’ are as nothing compared to his righteousness.

Christ did not subjugate women. Witness how he spoke to the woman at the well. See his love for Mary and Martha. His coming was heralded to a woman, and it was to women the risen Saviour first appeared.

But, in all these accounts, no matter how you read them, he is the main character, the central figure. The Christian walk follows in his footsteps and offers the only equality that matters: salvation in Christ, freely available to both genders. In light of that, nothing else matters much.

Spiritual Journey to a Destination Unknown

In a couple of weeks, I plan to visit Ness, to speak to the ladies of the WFM there. Believe it or not, I rarely address any group without having put some thought into what I will be saying. I have a technique which works reasonably well for me in this respect and I started to put it into practice this week, while driving my car.

Actually, a lot of my spiritual journey centres on the car and it was only while sitting in it, thinking about Ness, that I realised just how long this has been true for me.

Life became frantically busy last year, and each day I spend at least 50 minutes just driving to and from work. On the mornings when I am pushed for time, I wait until I am underway before speaking to God as I drive. At first, I felt guilty about doing this, as though I was being disrespectful. But then it dawned on me that I had always spoken to Him on car journeys . . . just that I was now doing it out loud, and calling it ‘prayer’.

And, this year, I have taken things a step further. I am following a plan which allows me to listen to the Bible being read over the course of a year. As soon as I start the engine each morning, therefore, David Suchet’s calm voice reads to me a portion from the New Testament, followed by a reading from the Old.

When I worked in Ness, I drove back and forth across the moor every day. I was single and living with my parents, and enjoying life. There was nothing to trouble my mind. To while away the miles, I began to listen to recordings of sermons our own minister had preached. This being well before the digital revolution, I was limited to the cassettes that were available to me and so I listened to some of these sermons repeatedly, and two in particular.

One spoke of God as a refiner of silver, retrieving the object from the fire only when it was finished, and the Maker could see in it His own image. The other favourite was on Paul’s famous utterance about God’s strength being made perfect in weakness. I loved these – yet if anyone had asked me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell why.

But I know now. Reflecting on it as I prayed over what to say to the ladies of Ness, I realised that all those years ago, God was preparing me. I was not in the midst of troubled waters yet, but I stored up the precious truths in my heart against a time when I would be. This was not because of my far-sightedness, but because of His.

When the man I had not yet met was taken from me, I would fall back on these precious words and the reassurance that they convey: God is not punishing you; He is drawing you closer to Himself.

That our eternal God plays the long game should not surprise us, but it should certainly give us comfort. We often speak about the difficult providences which we encounter, and the fact that we often cannot comprehend their meaning. I think it’s important to remember something else, though: God equips us for the journey He has set before us; not the one we think lies ahead.

I didn’t know why I was listening to those sermons repeatedly back then, but God was working in me the faith that would hold me to Himself when that was all I had.

It was sitting in my office in Ness that I enrolled on the very first Free Church Saturday course in theology. This was an uncharacteristically bold move on my part, because I was terrified that I would be the only non-Christian (I was) and possibly the only non-elder (I wasn’t) in the class.

By the time the Ness chapter of my life had closed, I found myself no closer to being a Christian. Although I had found happiness with my husband, and a new job, everything else seemed to have been a waste of time. The theology books I had bought sat in the bookcase, mocking me – reminding me of that other sermon message which replayed in my memory: do not begin building the tower, unless you are sure you have the tools to finish the job.

But that was just spiritual myopia, and a failure of faith on my part. I didn’t start the job – God did, and when He begins a good work in us, He will see it through.

Perhaps you are reading this, feeling discouraged, thinking you are no nearer to Him than you were many years ago. It’s just possible you feel that way because you don’t see what He sees: this is a journey, and He knows what you will need along the way. God is making sure that you are trained and equipped as you need to be for all that providence has in store.

It was because of this period in my life that I knew there was Someone there to catch me when I fell. There is no wasted time with God: He knows the plans He has for us, and every breath we take builds towards the moment when He calls us by name.

 

 

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.