Empty pews & the fellowship of the Spirit

I feel like a child in a fairytale. It feels as though, just by wishing hard enough, I have made the thing happen. ‘Which thing?’ you ask, fearing that I’m going to say I’ve met a handsome prince, and that you’ll have to send someone to show me that really it IS only a frog. No, not that thing. The thing I needed, the thing I secretly longed for has happened.

The world has stopped. And I have been able to stop with it.

For the few (I’ve lost track of how many) weeks of lockdown, I have been harbouring a secret. It has made me feel out of step with everybody else, but at the same time absolutely wonderful. And, if this really is just an enchantment from which we will all soon wake up, it’s safe to tell my secret, however it may shock.

In fact, I know it WILL shock, because right from the beginning of this, the Christian church has been chided for its readiness to embrace online worship. ‘You should be weeping for what you have lost’, we were told, the very first week, ‘you should grieve the loss of fellowship and count electronic services a poor substitute’.

It has been said before, of course. In the book of Numbers:

‘And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat!

We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”’

Am I being harsh? No, I don’t think I am. We are shown repeatedly in Scripture the danger and folly of looking back to halcyon days that were less than the perfection in our minds. God took the Israelites out of Egypt for a good reason: it was not their home, of course, and it was a corrupting influence, teaching the cults of paganism and idolatry. Their longing for the varied diet of the oppressor as opposed to the wholesome manna provided by God needs no interpretation.

It is this which makes us all repeat the mantra, ‘when we get back to normal’. We are human and we want what is easy and familiar. That’s hardly surprising.

Surely, though, the church cannot want to go back to what it was before. I cringe at the repeated requests that we not get too comfortable with live-streaming our worship. Why? What is ‘too comfortable’? It’s the provision God has made and there is no better application for man’s creative ingenuity than tribute to the Creator himself, who made it possible. Of course, I’m being deliberately obtuse; I know very well the point that’s being made.

What about fellowship?

Well, I’m here to tell you that occupying the same physical space does not add up to that. Fellowship is spiritual, not geographical. It is literally ‘of the Spirit’: we are united in him, wherever we are, and have the concern and care of one another, regardless of proximity or distance. How else can we have brotherhood with the global church or a heart for mission?

Is there not a very real danger that, when life is too easy and the pews too – figuratively speaking, obviously- comfortable, we mistake merely being in the same place twice-weekly for the deeper spiritual bonds of Christian fellowship?

Perhaps, then, God has removed that privilege for a season, so that we would understand its illusory effects.

As for the exhortation to weep, I don’t have much time for that either. Grief can paralyse in ways that do nothing to aid spiritual growth. Witness psalm 137:

‘By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” ‘

They sat down. They hung up their lyres. Grief and looking back rooted them to the spot and dried up their praise.

WE are in a strange land and never more so than now. This, though, is all in God’s providence and we must – surely – be called on to be like Paul and to worship him in all circumstances.

Which brings me to my secret. I know it is fated to be misunderstood, but still I think it’s worth airing.

I am glad the churches are closed.

On a personal level, it’s a relief. Life for me was so out of hand busy that, frankly, Sunday had ceased to be a day of rest. It was frequently one more day on which I had to drag myself out of the house and follow a timetable. More often than not in recent months I went to save face and to avoid answering awkward questions.

I was exhausted and verging on burnout.

Please don’t misunderstand me: this was never about coldness towards the Lord, his word, or his people. It was the cumulative effect of too much everything.

Now, I have the joy of worshiping without the tiredness. I can pare it all back to essentials and focus on the word and the praise.

This is not about one person’s convenience, of course, though I do wonder how many others feel as I do right now. It is about what the Lord is saying to his own people. We still have the privilege of corporate worship; he has not taken that from us.

I take two things from the current situation. First, he has demonstrated that fellowship is not a closed shop. We have been forced to go public and it is a real joy to know that the unchurched are finding comfort in acts of online worship. It is, as far as I am concerned, the ‘go’ of the Great Commission being partly fulfilled.

Second, he is chipping away at our complacency. To be together means much more than haphazardly sitting under one roof. It is love, care, gladness to be a people, concern for one another, sharing one another’s joys and woes.

If I survive to see the end of this pandemic, I will be glad to go to church. I pray that I will be doing it – that we will all be doing it – with a new heart and a new vigour. This is not a make-do and mend situation; God is giving us a blessing by keeping us apart, so that we might better learn what it really means to be together.

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.

Sin: Catch It, Bin It, Kill It

There is usually a man standing by the roundabout as I drive to church on Sunday mornings. He wears a t-shirt that proclaims, ‘God Hates Divorce’. I fell to wondering recently whether we’d run out of denominations before we ran out of things God abhors, were we to dress every churchgoer in Stornoway similarly, listing a different object of divine wrath on each garment.

‘God hates gossip’ and ‘God hates lies’, or ‘God hates cheating’. Maybe even ‘God hates schism’ for someone edgy in the Church of Scotland.

Or, how about, in the interest of brevity, ‘God hates sin’?

I have been wrestling with sin myself lately. Sin is very much like . . . now, wait while I spend a convincing amount of time pretending to think of a suitable analogy. Hmmmm . . . erm . . . Oh, I know, just plucking one out of thin air: sin is like rubbish. We generate it; we have to be the ones to deal with it. And if we all took care of our own, there would be a lot less of it about for other poor souls to have to mop up.

When I fell victim to someone else’s badness recently, I was reminded of an old neighbour we had when I was growing up. Plagued by crows, plundering his garden and stalking his newborn lambs, he took matters into his own hands. Catching one, he killed it, singed it and nailed it to a fence post as an eloquent warning to other feathery felons.

It was in light of his display of native ingenuity that I finally agreed to report my foul-mouthed online stalker to the police. Make an example of just one loose cannon and the others will get the hint.

I made an error of judgement, though. Crows have the intelligence to recognise their own likeness, even when it is charred and nailed up and quite dead. Not so much with the keyboard warriors, though. They failed to see why, having reported one bona fide weirdo to the police I should not still go on submitting myself to their barbs and jibes as well. Oh, that person had gone over the score, some of them admitted – but not them.

They are, if you will permit me just one more Castle Grounds-related analogy, a little bit like the rhododendron ponticum. A great show is made, a display of concern, but every single one contributes to the toxicity of the environment. Each person who forcefully and repeatedly hammers home their opinion, and does so by naming names and making accusations that have no basis in fact, poisons the online atmosphere and makes it just that little bit harder for the fragrance of truth to break through.

You see, other people’s sin is much easier to spot than our own. I can see in the flamers and trolls that twisted humanity which enjoys humiliating and victimising their fellow man. If I could, I would make them t-shirts that read, ‘God hates bullying’.

But the point of bullying, like any other sin, is that we have to diagnose ourselves. Before we can don any garment emblazoned with our guilt, we have to own that sin, admit to it and meet it head on. I cannot do that for the many people – strangers mostly, but some who are not – who think that it’s acceptable to use a public forum to pillory and threaten me for having a different opinion to them.

That is actually their burden to bear; not mine. Besides, I think that someone who loses their dignity and their decency, ostensibly over the question of litter bins in a public garden, has bigger problems than poor online etiquette.

Episodes like this are distasteful. They upset the people who care about me and they persuade onlookers that public life in Lewis is a harsh and lawless thing. No one is encouraged into any kind of community service by witnessing my experience. Who would want to have their good name trodden upon for being . . . well, what? What am I that attracts such hatred?

I am a sinner – saved by grace, yes, but still a sinner. My wardrobe could be filled with t-shirts enumerating my guilt for the world to see. And that is for ME to deal with; it is between myself and God. It’s a daily struggle, and never more so than when I’m denigrated by strangers and have to remember one important truth. While that behaviour is theirs, and I have no control over it, or guilt for it, I DO have agency in how I respond. That’s the real test.

Do not, the Bible tells us, repay reviling with reviling. The world hated Christ to death and it shouldn’t surprise me to be loathed for his sake. I have looked on him, nailed to a cross, his human countenance marred by violence and hatred, made sin for our sake – and I have recognised myself.

It is simultaneously the lowest and the most exalted point in his story, and in that of any repentant sinner. You see what you are and what you have done, but at the same moment you realise that this is also the route to redemption.

From then on, the path is not smooth, as I have found out. Once you have seen yourself as you truly are, every day is a battle against that – but it’s a beautiful battle because of the template to which he is conforming us, little by aching little. What do I care, really, for lies told about me by strangers?

If there is any Christian looking on and questioning why I would expose myself to this kind of life – and I know there is – I can answer that very simply. He has called me to witness. I don’t serve an ungrateful community that hates me; I serve an incomparable Saviour that loves me. Christ loved me, as he loves them, before I ever knew his face. When they finally lift their eyes to him, as I pray they will, that understanding will become theirs too.

Sin is like rubbish. It is we who produce it, and it is we who must dispose of it. No one is asked to manage other people’s sin; only their own. Ignoring it is not a solution, nor is dumping it on others.

God hates sin, and he’s asking us all to deal with our own, leaving the rest up to him.

The Savour of Life . . . Or Death?

Coming up to the anniversary of Donnie’s death this week, I worried. You see, I’ve learned that you never quite know how you’re going to be. It is almost as though you are watching another person, because you have zero control over your own feelings in this regard.

Nonetheless, you gather yourself inwards, tentatively approaching the dread day on metaphorical tiptoes. I suppose, three years on, I am afraid of waking the sleeping beast of grief.

Sunday was wonderful. I had missed the midweek service because of another meeting. And I felt its absence, limping towards the weekend. So, Sunday and my church family received me into their warm embrace. Preaching, praise, prayer and fellowship somewhere you can just be yourself is not to be beaten. It poured strength into me, reminding me who He is.

And, when Tuesday came, I awoke, feeling . . . fine. Better than fine. Time with Himself, a stroll with the dog, and I was chilled out. There were messages of care and love and prayer – many from people who had never known Donnie but who have become important in my life since then.

Just as He has done three years ago, God surrounded me with His peace. For that day, I could read the barrage of nastiness about me online and not be troubled. Not be troubled for myself, at any rate. The people making snide remarks struck me as rather sad, forlorn figures. What kind of person hates someone they’ve never met to that degree? I felt sorry for them.

But I’m ashamed to admit that the feeling of pity did not last. You can only hold yourself taut for so long and, by the time I went to bed, my heart felt so full of resentment I thought it might splinter.

‘Even today’, I complained to God, ‘they couldn’t leave me alone’.

I have learned to live with the fact that I am despised for being a Christian; I have learned not to be bothered by the casual lies they tell about me. This is not actually about me anyway – I could be their darling tomorrow if I denied Christ. He is the unpopular one, not me. These days, I am reviled for His sake, just as He was reviled for mine.

And there the comparison ends.

He bore His infinitely greater suffering with perfect fortitude. I simply ended up feeling sorry for myself.

On Wednesday morning, I stomped about the house, and went to work in the worst of humours. It was a culmination of things: too much coffee, too little sleep, too much holding it together on my own inadequate strength, and not enough time pouring out my heart to God. At one point, I told my sister that the day was bound to end with me hitting someone – anyone – or bursting into tears.

The day, in fact, ended in laughter and in gratitude.

What effected this miraculous transformation? Not ‘what’ – who? And I think you already know the answer.

First of all, there are friends. The friends God puts in your path are not necessarily those you would expect. Sometimes, the world might look askance at these relationships, and even wonder what you could possibly have in common. But I found the value of those God-honouring friendships right then. While I was seething through my day, these friends were, it transpired, worrying for me.

And, if you’re not a Christian, you may be thinking, ‘that’s nice – but hardly remarkable’.

Wrong. It is extraordinary in the truest sense of the word. Christian concern goes heavenwards. These friends, in their anxiety for me, were bringing me before God. In being on their hearts, I was also on His.

That is not nothing.

In their safe company, I unwound. The venom of poor, misguided people lost its sting. I remembered who I was because these friends showed me what I should be.

And we laughed. Mainly at each other. Together, as well, we reflected on the meaning of integrity, which is really  about being straight before God.

It doesn’t matter what those who are wise in their own sight think of me. They have started off from the false premise that there is no God, and so all the working out from then on is bound to be erroneous.

This is not about them, though. They have taken enough of this week from me.

Actually, this blog is not a blog at all, but a love song – to the Lord, and to His people. It is a thanksgiving.

God moves the hearts of His people to small acts of love. It was they, through Him, who soothed my brittleness this week. In the unexpected heat of this election campaign, a little  band of us have supported one another. Each day, we begin by sharing a reading; and each night, we smooth the cares of the day with a song of praise.

And, there are the messages. One person sent me assurance of their prayers, accompanied by the loveliest sound clip of psalm singing from our church. Ladies I haven’t seen in years, but who knew my parents, sending me word of their solidarity. It is worth so much more than I can ever express.

Then there are the strangers. Not the hate-filled people who abuse my good name for what I believe; not the faux-reasonable secuularists who wish I would just disappear and shut my face about who Christ is.

No, the other kind of stranger. People I have never met, but who are my brothers and sisters because they too have known God’s grace. So, so many of them have reached out and blessed me by doing so.

How can the same words cause some to bitterly hate, and others to brim with love? That, I think, is a question for the unbelievers. God, help them.