And the prisoners heard

Sunday afternoon sunshine lured me outside to sit on my recently-painted decking to read, write and contemplate. There were birds singing in the trees and lambs bleating in the croft beyond, but not a sound other than that to pierce the stillness. I had recently risen from morning worship with my congregation, and was in exactly the right frame of mind for a bit of contemplation.

I was also filled with an enormous sense of wellbeing. These are days filled with uncertainty, trepidation and, for many, grief. None of us knows when it may be our turn to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet, we know that God is with us, and that ,while a shadow may well encroach, it can never devour.

So, while the world’s media is talking in terms of a global crisis, of catastrophe and lockdown, God is enabling me – and many more besides, I think – to experience this as the day of small things which we are warned not to despise.  As I sat in the warmth of this early spring day, I thought about the week just gone by, and the ways in which I have met with Christ in the long hours of solitude.

There is his word, of course, and prayer. These are constants. Normally, though, they are the launchpad for what Lady Bracknell disparagingly referred to as ‘a life crowded with incident’.

I am rediscovering my inner introvert, however. This week, I have  delivered a number of lectures and tutorials, spoken on the radio about my favourite Scottish novels, attended a meeting of the Stornoway Trust, and participated in a whisky tasting – all without budging from my dining table. In between, I walk, cook, clean, read and write. In the evenings, I chat to friends and family, listen to music, and catch up on television programmes, films and podcasts that I’ve missed.

Friday was glorious. I finished classes, and took the dog for a long ramble on the machair. Confusedly dressed in wellies, linen trousers and a cashmere hoody (I like to acknowledge all seasons in one outfit), I got spectacularly rained on. Showered and pyjama-clad, I lit the wood burner and laid out my various samples of Jura whisky and wild water from the Stornoway Trust Estate in time for the Instagram tasting event.

It was not, I am quite certain, the 46.7% ABV 21-year-old malt that gave me the feeling of complete serenity, but the sense that this was a day of privileges, dispensed by the hand of a gracious God. He has enabled me to continue doing my job, and fulfill other obligations while remaining safe and not feeling isolated in the least.

Discussing this with a Christian friend on Sunday evening, she said that she was concerned by the number of people – believing people – who are not doing so well. She hears from folk who say that lockdown is beginning to pall on them, who say they miss the human interaction of church. These are by no means all people who live alone either.

All of which set me wondering what’s wrong with me that, six weekends in, I am still only able to see the positives.

I have come to a number of conclusions. Ultimately, I don’t go to church for the social aspect. In fact, quietly and without anyone else noticing, I ceased attending organised fellowships of any kind more than a year ago. Church has been a place of worship for me, and that continues to be possible by God’s grace through the technology which it is our privilege to access and enjoy. Yes, there are people whose society I miss, and I will be glad to see them when we are once more able to share a pew. Until then, however, I am getting the essential parts of the church experience at home.

Like many others, I am gratified by the way in which being a church quite literally without walls has enabled new people to join us for worship. An open door may theoretically be welcoming, but there is still a threshold to cross which can seem like a journey of a thousand miles to the stranger. Online worship presents no such barrier.

A lot of Christians are invoking the image of Israel’s captivity to describe where we are at. I don’t disparage other people’s feelings or experiences, however, when I say that this is not my view of things at all.

Christ has freed his people, and we do him no justice if we consider ourselves captive still. We ought to be like Paul and Silas who sang and prayed in their cell at midnight. The walls could not contain them because their hearts were fixed upon worshipping God. He was there with them, he is here in my house too; and he is with all his people wherever they are. Ask the suffering and persecuted church if you can’t believe a Wee Free woman.

My favourite part of that account, though, is the following four words: ‘and the prisoners heard’.

Those who are still enslaved, not by government lockdown, but the bonds of sin – what is our witness to them? Perhaps he has brought us out of our comfortable churches into the information super-highway so that they will hear us, not weeping and complaining, but lifting up our voices in praise of the Christ who will never leave nor forsake us.

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.

Time Travel, Grace & The Castle Green

I am thoroughly ashamed of myself. For years, I have been coming to sit front and centre in the gallery of Stornoway Free Church, and it never once occurred to me that the inner workings of the clock sit right under my hand.

It took no less a person than . . . well, I won’t name names, but let’s just say that a visitor not unconnected with the manse pointed out the possibilities of manipulation and mayhem which had lain unexploited before me all this time.

How I might have played mindgames
with the occupants of the pulpit, if I had only shown sufficient imagination . . .

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had a while ago with another friend, also about manipulating time. He asked me which Biblical event I would choose to witness if I had the ability to travel back there.

To be honest, I had little trouble deciding. For me, it would simply have to be that road to Damascus with Paul.

Aside from the fact that his teaching has become so precious – yes, even that bit about women keeping quiet in church – Paul has become something of a touchstone for me in the midst of all my dealings with unbelievers.

He is a symbol of real hope that the most outspoken and outrageous enemies of Christ can be turned. God acted decisively and changed that zealous heart into one that would act unstintingly for the cause of Christianity.

This is something that I have tried to keep in mind while engaged in what feels like battle with people who reject Christ. I have prayed – at times through gritted teeth – for those who wound me simply because they no longer have Him before them to revile.

Paul was once like them; worse, even. And there, on the road to Damascus, the Lord remonstrated with him: ‘why do you persecute me?’

Imagine the effect of those words on Paul. That moment was the beginning of his transformation from persecutor to persecuted – and he counted it all gain. He grew in understanding, as every Christian does and, because his was a life of conflict and confrontation for the Lord, the Apostle also grew in grace.

Grace, I am learning, is what you need in order to act in ways the world does not expect. It is God’s gift to His people. I have seen it in them so often – the curbed tongue when every instinct says ‘bite
back’; the polite acceptance of undeserved criticism, or unwanted advice; the uncomplaining demeanour of someone who is suffering . . .
Grace. It is an attribute of the Lord, and it is imputed to us. We grow in it by knowing Him better, and relying on Him more.

Only grace can explain how Saul, the slayer of Christians became Paul,
singing in his prison cell and rejoicing in the thorn that God would not remove.

Grace alone allows the Christian to maintain deep peace in their soul, regardless of how they suffer in their body or their mind.

I live in a community that has seen the effects of grace over and over. We are beneficiaries of this God-given, unearned gift. And yes, that includes those of you who think this is all just crazy talk from
a woman who believes in fairies. You, with every breath you take, are enjoying His common grace. Which is badly named: because it is anything but common.

Speaking to people about the shameful way that our heritage- and especially the Christian aspects of it – have been sidelined and denigrated, I got to wondering why we were letting that be. An Lanntair takes public money from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, amongst
others, but feels no loyalty to the local culture. In fact, it celebrates absolutely everything but one of the most influential
factors that has shaped our community.

Everything we have by God’s grace – even grace itself – we are so apt to take for granted. And this year, maybe more than any other, as we mark the centenary of the ‘Iolaire’ tragedy, I feel we ought to be reflecting on His amazing dealings with our island.

And then, just like Him, just like He always does, God holds up a silencing hand, and whispers, ‘grace’.

He is speaking very clearly indeed to the Christians in this community. Just like He told the Apostles of the New Testament Church to get out there and claim the world for Christ, I believe He is saying to us, ‘take it back’. We need to reclaim our heritage, because our heritage in Him is something we want to pass on. And no one else will do it for us.

An Lanntair won’t do it because, for all its pretension to pushing the envelope, it’s actually just another mirror for the prevailing view. If it was truly edgy – and it’s not; it’s disappointingly conventional – it might do something really radical, like reflect the culture in which it used to be anchored.

So, let’s quit waiting and celebrate our Christian heritage ourselves, our way. After all these years of hitting the high road to Keswick, let’s hold our hands up to God in thanks for what He has done for THIS community. Yes, this very one.

In the spirit of reclaiming our Christian heritage and proclaiming its beauty aloud, come and be part of ‘Grace on the Green’. On the Castle lawn in Stornoway, we will have a July night filled with praise, going up to God from His people, in thanks for the providence that is our
inheritance.

And let it be our prayer that on the road to the green, many will see that He has been active in their lives also, and will join us in lifting up their voices in joy for His amazing and unparalleled grace to us all.

 

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?