Fighting Fire With Love

After the morning service last Sunday, I drove past An Lanntair, where a small group of journalists had gathered. The arts centre is opening for three Sundays in the first quarter of the year, in an attempt to establish demand for the particular brand of entertainment it provides. This is newsworthy, I imagine, because people from outwith Lewis lap up news stories about how weird the island is, and how anachronistic. We get the same thing with Gaelic too; we’re used to it.

Sadly, there are local people who all too happily play up to the stereotypes, however, telling the media what they want to hear. They talk broadly of oppression and bullying by the church, of ministers apoplectic with rage because they are losing their death-grip on the local populace. One person even tried to tell me that the opening of leisure facilities on a Sunday would alleviate social exclusion.

Bear in mind that one of the main causes of social exclusion in Scotland is poverty. And bear in mind, also, that a film ticket for An Lanntair costs £7.

But, flawed logic notwithstanding, Sunday was an epiphany for me. I found myself driving home that afternoon, reflecting on the plight of young people in a community which offers them scant opportunities. Leisure facilities are few and far between, and access to these often prohibitively expensive. Political corruption further restricts their chances of personal development and fulfilment. And the church does not want to loosen its hold on them.

The Eastern Orthodox church, that is.

You see, I didn’t go straight home from church but, instead, listened to a presentation from two young Christians to our Sunday School kids, about their trip to Moldova last year. They spoke of a country which is difficult to live in, a society which hardens people because they have to put self-protection ahead of anything else. The teenagers they met at the church camp, funded by donations from Lewis, were getting a week out of a sometimes challenging home life.

The speaker laughed as he recalled seeing the campers arriving. He expected primary school age children, but instead was shocked to see tall, strapping lads with beards disembark from the bus. Later, one of them threw him bodily into the swimming pool, just because he could.

In my head, I knew how the rest of this talk would go. The leaders would tell how they were intimidated by these rough teenagers, but ultimately the week went fine and they themselves returned to Lewis with a renewed sense of thankfulness for having so much, not least a safe place to live and be themselves.
I was wrong.

‘By the end of it we felt quite envious’, the speaker continued. Despite the many challenges in their lives – the poverty, the political corruption, the brutality of society – they were accomplished musicians and sportspeople, each one seemingly full of aptitude in everything they tried. And the people were generous with the little they had. Our speaker mentioned visiting old ladies in the local church congregation and he paid them the highest compliment that anyone can:
‘It was like visiting a cailleach from Lewis, we were plied with so much food’.

Triumphing over adversity; being generous with what little they have; welcoming the stranger. For those of us who are conversant with the Gospel, this is familiar territory, at least in theory. How wonderful to have it illustrated in these teenagers and their wider community; and how wonderful to hear about the tough young man, the ‘trouble’ of the group and the change which was wrought in him through closer acquaintance with Jesus.

These tough exteriors, they are cultivated by the harshness of this world – layer upon layer of resistance builds up over time so that no one can get in.

No one, that is, except the Saviour.

We are all too easily fooled by a façade, but He never is. I see only your outward demeanour, the face you choose to present; and if you try to act tough, or unconcerned about something, I will accept that is who you are.

Jesus, though, He doesn’t even see your exterior. His relationship is directly with your heart. If you are lonely, or afraid; if you are hurt, or angry, He knows.

The folk who went to Moldova were shown something startling while they were there: a fire engine which had once served Stornoway. Emergency services in Lewis and elsewhere in the Gàidhealtachd donated equipment. Works of necessity and mercy, you see, go on wherever we are in the world. Hearts in one place go out to those in another, far away.

There actually is no far away in Christ, though. If we are in Him, then we are brothers and sisters. We do for one another, not because we are good, but because He is. We love because He first loved us.

That love gives the youngsters in Moldova a chance. It is not that their lives are hard, or that they live in dire poverty; though those things are certainly true. The camp is not merely a lovely week of just being young, free from responsibilities and cares, though it is all of that also.

It is actually a chance to see the Saviour’s work in the love of strangers from Scotland. These volunteers go to Moldova, not because they believe in children’s rights to leisure, but because they believe in the children’s need of the Saviour.

They believe because they have seen it in themselves. Charity like this truly means love; how good would it be if that kind of charity really could begin at home.

 

May I Speak to Whoever is in Charge?

When I was a teenager, I used to ask my father questions about God, many of which were greeted with, ‘Ist, a Shàtain’. After one such conversation, I overheard him telling my mother that my ‘atheistic streak’ worried him.

But I remember it differently. I was actually trying to better understand this God who, whatever my parents may have thought, was always real to me. So, when people question and criticise Him publicly now, I flinch and fear for them, but it also causes me to hope.

For myself, I was never further away from Him than when He was totally absent from my thoughts.

So, it doesn’t do to dismiss their challenges out of hand. If we disregard people’s concerns as foolish or wicked, there is a risk that we detract from the seriousness of the argument, or fuel the notion tha He is just a fiction and not worth defending . We may say that it is wrong to challenge God – which it is – but it is equally careless of us not to take the opportunity to increase another’s understanding of Him.

Last Sunday, in passing, I heard the familiar verse from 1 Peter ‘always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you’. Those were the same words ringing in my ears when I professed faith for the first time. In the final analysis, it all comes down to confession. I knew in my heart and soul what the Lord had done for me, and I could no longer deny it before others.

Equally, then, when someone takes it upon themselves to accuse God, am I not required to gently say, ‘no, you have that wrong’? If they are maligning Him, should I not interpret that as an opportunity to defend the reason for the hope that is in me?

When a person walks into a church (or a school, or a park) armed to the teeth and bent on murder, I do not believe that God is behind him, spurring him on. This is sin, and our Lord has nothing to do with, can have nothing to do with, sin. We are in possession of free will. If, every time I was about to commit a sin, God reached down from Heaven to stay my hand, I would no longer be free, would I?

Yet, if my fellow human being commits such an atrocity, does that not mean that I also have the same capacity for sin? What has stopped me from doing what this man did in Texas? Why do I choose to take a seat among the worshippers instead of turning the full force of anger and murderous intent upon them?

Is it my innate goodness? My kind-heartedness? My immunity from wickedness?

Of course it isn’t. It is nothing in me. Remember that old-fashioned saying, ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’? That is the reason: His grace. You have it too, even if you don’t believe in Him, you have benefitted from His grace, just as surely as you bear His thumbprint.

After all, if this God is really a despot, why has He not already struck you down for your unbelief?

And if He really is God of all, why would you not speak to Him about what troubles you in the world?

There is a reason why the Christian response to the events of last Sunday was, ‘pray for Sutherland County’, and it isn’t anything to do with ducking the arguments about gun control. These same Christians are, in fact, praying all the time. They pray for themselves, for their families, for their friends, their colleagues, their communities – they pray for this broken, tragic world.

Even if you don’t pray yourself, there’s a good chance that someone else is doing it on your behalf. Someone who cares about you is holding you up to God’s attention and saying, ‘have mercy on them, and open their eyes’.

I could try to tell you who God is and what He is, but you wouldn’t believe me. He isn’t a cold, careless egomaniacal deity, randomly pushing people off cliffs, or sweeping them to destruction. God loves this world, and He sorrows over what we have made of it. Our purpose is, and always has been, to worship and enjoy Him. Sin, however, has so warped that relationship that we commit evil against Him daily and have the temerity then to blame our actions on Him.

If He exists, that is.

So, please, if you don’t already know, find out for yourself who He is. Talk to Him. I promise you this: He’s waiting for you to speak His name. Ask Him to reveal more of Himself to you. Pick up the Bible and read it prayerfully.

You won’t ever get to know Him by alternately denying He exists and calling Him names. And, if you’re a reasonable person, you won’t denounce Him as a fiction whilst trying to hold Him and His people responsible for all the ills of the world.

His grace has given you every chance to see Him as He really is: take it, please. We are praying that you will.

Who Stands at the Door and Knocks?

As I ascended into the pulpit, I wondered nervously whether anyone would come through the door today. Turning, I looked across the expanse of empty pews. Not one solitary soul. And no bodies either. Still, it was early.

So early, surely – you’re thinking – that I was still asleep and dreaming. What was a woman doing in the pulpit of Stornoway Free Church, if she didn’t have a can of polish and a duster in hand? Well, the truth is that I was taking a photo from the finest vantage-point in the building. It was the first of many times throughout the day when I would stand there. We have opened our doors to visitors this weekend again, inviting them to come and see the building and learn about the history of the congregation and its mode of worship.

Even the visitors were a little taken aback when offered the opportunity to stand in the pulpit. One lovely Danish lady gasped, putting her hand to her chest, and asked, ‘Really?’ Mo chreach, I thought, maybe she misunderstood and thinks I’ve offered her some sort of permanent post. But no, it’s just that she was making the same mistake that we are all inclined to – thinking of the bricks, mortar, wood and glass as sacrosanct; thinking of them as the church.

Culturally, we have been long attuned to the idea that worship can take place anywhere. One does not need to be in a church to pray. Church buildings are wonderful for corporate worship, but private devotions are just that. When the Lord was instructing His disciples how to pray, after all, He said they were to go into their room ‘and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who is in secret will reward you.’ Yet, throughout our programme of open days, I have witnessed the way in which people interact with our building, and it has been very revealing.

So many comment on the simplicity and the absence of distraction. This being the work of dour Wee Frees, there is no gilding, no ornamentation, lest we lose our heads and give our lives over to the worship of idols.

Others have remarked on the cleanliness, which shows how well cared for the space is. And now that we have interpretive boards, the questions about our history have become more challenging. My favourite so far this summer was, ‘So you guys believe that salvation is by faith, it says here, not by works – but you’ve got a cafe raising money for charity next door, so how come?’

It was a better question than ‘when was the church built?’ because it allowed me to talk about not only the Christian hope of salvation, but about the transforming power of the Spirit, who motivates good works.

Many of those who come, though, simply want to sit in a pew and listen to the recording of Gaelic psalm singing, which we have on a loop. Some stay only a few moments, others a bit longer. Perhaps they pray, or contemplate God; it is hard not to when the place is so . . . expectant.

On Friday morning, I entered through the side door and into the church. There in the loveliness of a July morning, this was a place of tranquility. It made me want to linger, to be in God’s presence, just myself and Himself, for a wee while.

Good Calvinists have not traditionally venerated buildings. But that isn’t what I mean, anyway. Think of the generations of worship which these walls have witnessed, the souls moved for Christ in that place. Sit there in the beautiful stillness of the morning, and the very air seems to whisper His name.

I did stop to contemplate. How many prayers had been uttered here, how many verses of psalm? The very grain of the wood must have been nourished with tears: tears of sorrow at times, but so many tears of joy too as the Saviour’s incomparable love became real to one soul after another down through the decades.

The Lord brought people to us this weekend who had need of kindness. This is not an advert for Stornoway Free Church, nor a boast of any kind. It was His work that they came, His provision which supplied their needs – it is all of Him. But He wasn’t, I believe, just speaking to them.

Even as we hold our broken world up to God in prayer, I think He sometimes confronts us with it too. Today, I met some people who have nothing much to their names. I was glad that our church was not covered in gold and draped in velvet; and I was glad it was open.

The same man who asked me about the relationship between faith and works also asked me about Sunday Christians. You know, the kind who ‘put in the time’ once a week, attending services faithfully, but forgetting all about it in between. As I reflect upon that now, I wonder whether the starting point might be having our doors open a little more often.

We have a lovely, clean building, of which we’re very fond; and we use it to worship God for something over two hours a week. Yet, as soon as we opened up on each of these two days, He sent us strangers in need.

How long might others stand at our door and knock, only to find it firmly shut? And aren’t we worshipping Him by helping the least of these?

This afternoon, an Australian visitor said something quite simple and yet so profound that they might have been Jesus’ own words: ‘I have gone to many churches, hoping to find them open, but I am always disappointed by a locked door.’

Our hearts were locked against the Lord for so long; will we grieve Him more by barring the door to His church on those who need it most?