Erase your Ebenezer?

If you are ever tempted to believe that the Free Church in Lewis has become less hardline of late, consider this: one of our ministers waved a bayonet at the children during a recent Sunday morning service.

Context is everything, however. He was using an ancient (and very blunt, health and safety fans) family relic to illustrate a spiritual truth. This wasn’t learn your catechism with menaces. He wasn’t threatening, or intimidating – and he was safely on the far-end of a camera anyway.

But, if I merely told you that he had wielded a bayonet at the children of the congregation, and left it there, might you not get the wrong impression? We human beings are terrifically adept at picking the erroneous end of any given stick, anyway. Sometimes, of course, we do it wilfully. It suits us to think the worst of those we don’t like, or those of whom we are envious. In such situations, it is all too easy to cherry-pick our facts and dwell on those that paint the blackest picture of all.

When I stood for the Stornoway Trust, I was accused of being ‘ashamed of my Saviour’ because I had not mentioned in my election address that I was a Christian. Now, my reason for omitting this information was simple: while I don’t deny that many people voted for me because of my profession of faith, I would never ask for anyone’s vote on that basis. Being a Christian doesn’t automatically qualify you for (or disqualify you from) public service.

What my accuser failed to take into account was the fact that I patently was not hiding my allegiance; far from it. However, he looked narrowly at my conduct in this one area and judged me – harshly, I feel – based upon it. For him, because I had not explicitly declared myself a church member, I was ashamed and guilty of denying Christ.

We are, all of us, guilty of something. Not one living person can claim perfection in this world. I freely hold my hands up and admit that I do not always speak up for Christ when and as I should. Worse still, my conduct is often far from what it ought to be, so that I am not even a silent witness for him. People can rightly point to Catriona Murray and accuse her of saying and doing plenty that is at odds with her profession of faith. And how much more evidence they would have against me if they could read my black and venomous thoughts. Let me be frank: I am cynical, sardonic, frequently lax in my prayer life, slow to forgive, self-righteous and narrow-minded. If I witnessed in proportion to what I owe, I would be a paragon; but I am not. What I am is a sinner, saved by God’s grace, and a work in progress.

Mercifully, other people’s opinions of me are none of my business. I have no control over them or interest in them. People will try to remind you of what you are at your worst – how many converted Christians are still spoken of in terms of their youthful excesses. ‘There was a day and he was in the pub every weekend, not the church’, and that sort of thing. The world doesn’t permit us to be changing and improving. It freezes us at our very lowest point.

That is why memorialising the past has become such a vexed question. Do we retain the statue of a man who made his money on the back of slavery? Are we right to permit the Duke of Sutherland’s image – ‘erected by a grateful tenantry’ – to remain, looking down upon the broad lands decimated by his plans of improvement?  The boardroom of the Stornoway Trust, too, is dominated by a portrait of our benefactor, Lord Leverhulme, a man whose exploitation of forced labour in the Belgian Congo does not cover him with glory.

So, what do we say about such people? Can we use the rather odd defence someone made of Knox recently when they accused me of judging him by modern standards: he was of his time? Being ‘of your time’, though, is surely a euphemism for just following the herd, being of the world. Knox was not falling short of my standard by being a misogynist; he was falling short of Christ’s. If we let Knox off the hook so easily, then we must make a similar defence for the Duke of Sutherland and Lord Leverhulme.

And that just will not do. Otherwise, we have to look around us, at modern slavery, at child labour, at homelessness, at abortion, at eugenics, at sexual exploitation, at the wilful warping of the education system, at the censorship of free speech . . . and we must wink at it, saying, ‘ah, it’s just the modern way’.

That’s the world’s defence of sin.

I would not remove the memorials. Leave the mannie on top of Ben Bhraggie, and keep the portrait of Leverhulme above the boardroom table. Remember them, though, not as stainless paragons, but as people in whom there was the capacity for both darkness and light. Make sure generations to come see them as three-dimensional.

And, more importantly, let’s think about what this controversy teaches us regarding image. Not the stone, marble or canvas variety, but our own fractured selves – made in the likeness of God, and marred by sin. We too, even if we are being restored, bear the hallmarks of fallenness. Somewhere about our person is the Maker’s thumbprint; it is this, and this alone, which preserves us from destruction.

For, if we were dependent on one another’s mercy, or on our own perfection, who would raise a memorial to any of us?

One man and his God

Whereas other cultures used to put children up chimneys, the norm for people of my age and background was to be put to work part-time as sheepdogs, in the absence of a suitably qualified collie. My father was hopeless at training his animals, and so he had four children instead who, if not as intelligent as collies, were certainly more responsive to his shouted commands.

As if this degradation was not enough, we would find ourselves subjected to ‘One Man and His Dog’ on television of an evening. I suspect my father hoped that we might pick up a few pointers if we watched enough episodes. He would comment on the shepherds’ control of their dogs, and of the responsiveness and obedience of said dogs. I, however, was always more interested in watching the sheep.

They are not the smartest of creatures, and they have a flair for the unpredictable. Nonetheless, I like their placid faces, and still maintain that the ear of a sheep is the cutest ear of any mammal you are likely to meet. And, having worked with so many of them, so to speak, I had gained an insight into some of their ways.

The outrun and the shedding was all good entertainment, but the moment I found most anxiety-inducing was the penning. Holding the gate open with his left hand, the shepherd would try corralling the flock in, often waving a crook with his right. You would almost be on the point of breathing a sigh of relief when – disaster – one woolly maverick would make a bid for freedom. Sometimes, this would be the end of someone’s dream. Frankly, if your only dream was to win ‘One Man and His Dog’, you probably deserved a reality check, but each to his own.

We too, like sheep, have gone astray. The Lord views us as his flock and it is the work of his church to help bring them safely into the fold. It is towards this end that the work of evangelism and outreach tends – get them on the outrun, win them for the cause. But I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that our eye should be on the ones we are just about to usher into the pen. There is a real flight risk there, and we all know why.

Satan is an awful lot more interested in people who are responding to the Lord than he is to the ones who are lukewarm, or even cold. They are nowhere near God’s pen; they are fully exposed to the ravening wolf, and easily picked off to be devoured.

Surely, then, a master strategist like the devil is going to turn his attention more fully on the ones who are almost – but not quite – safe. They are teetering on the brink of salvation, but the gate to the sheep-fold is not yet safely closed behind them. Something might yet catch them, out the corner of their eye, and they could easily turn and rush towards it.

I have been that sheep, so I know it’s true. It is while you are a churchgoer, a Bible reader, an utterer of prayer . . . but not yet safe in his grasp, that you are most vulnerable to the wiles of Satan. He will tempt you with the world in all its tinsel show; and he will contrast this with the dull rigidity of a life lived for God. Adept as he is at warping truth, he will remind you of all the things you want to do, all the things you have a right to do – and he will tell you that God can wait.

And I know others, now, who are in that position. The pen is open before them, they are almost within the circle of that gate . . . but Satan is up to his tricks again. He shows them the world, yes, but he does something else even more insidious. Coming right up to them, he whispers into their ears: ‘Look. Look at the ones who are already in. Apart from the fact that they are trapped, and can’t go anywhere, how different are they to you?’

He tells those who come to church, who hear the Word, and who are beginning to love the Lord, that they can have all of that – but why hang around with a people who are no better than those who live in the world? How are you, he asks them, meant to have fellowship with ‘these people’; and he lists them. I know he speaks to adherents, and I know he plays on the fact that they have seen bad behaviour from Christians. The church has in it liars, the self-righteous, the unjust, the vain . . . people, in fact, in all their brokenness.

Satan says to them, ‘why should you sit down in fellowship with these hypocrites?’ And they look again at the person in the pew next to them, and they realise that he is right. That upstanding Christian is a fibber. Or self-righteous, or egotistical.

Jesus, on the other hand, says to them, ‘take your place among these people – they are just like you; and yet I have claimed them all as my own’. He loved us while we were still defiled by original sin

We need to be mindful of his portion, to have care of one another. That includes especially those on the brink of life. Satan is watching them, hovering like a bird of prey over defenceless lambs. I have to examine my own life, therefore, and guard against being the stumbling-block that excuses them from coming in.

It gives an added impetus to our witness when we consider that those looking most closely at our example are nearer than we think. They are not necessarily the unbelievers on the outrun, but the almost-theres within the shelter of his gate.