Roll the Stone Away

Last night, someone introducing himself as ‘your friendly, local elder’ telephoned. I was briefly distraught, thinking something had happened to the usual grumpy (but ultimately loveable) fellow. And then, I realised, no, it IS him, he was just trying to confuse me. He was doing a pastoral visit by phone, checking that I was surviving the lockdown, and not going off my head at the full moon.

Slightly shame-facedly, I admitted to him the thing that I have hardly dared admit to myself: this situation has brought me armfuls of blessing. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I don’t for one minute forget the gravity of what we face, or the tragedy it has visited upon our world. Yet, while I am mindful of all that, I have to confess to feeling the lightest and easiest in my mind that I have for years. There is nowhere to go, no one asking this or that of me. I am in my own home for most of every day. I am growing to love that again.

Because of technology, I can speak to my family and friends – and our conversations are more meaningful because they are our only means of contact. Last Wednesday, it was a revelation to Zoom into the prayer meeting. I felt genuine joy at seeing the familiar faces on-screen, faces I used to take for granted, faces I barely noticed when we shared the same space. And on Sundays, I can sit exactly where I usually go to read and pray at home, but also hear God’s word preached by our own minister.

We are scattered, but still able to be together in all the ways that matter.

It has afforded me that too rare commodity: time. I have not rushed my devotions, nor had to skip them in order to dash off somewhere else. My life and my mind are both uncluttered and I see something very clearly now that I was afraid to even look at before.

God truly has healed me.

See, five years ago just now, I was on leave from work, coming to terms with my new and unwanted status as a widow. From there, I hurtled into this commitment and that, afraid to have any unoccupied minutes. I have been utterly unfair to myself, because all that bustle prevented me from truly experiencing God’s care.

Now, it’s true that most of what fills my time I do because of him. That’s how I have been able to tell myself it’s not inconsequential busyness. Nor is it. But it has left me little scope to just breathe, to look around my new landscape and thank God for bringing me up out of the valley. I have been darting from one place, one thought, one commitment to the next, never once taking in the view from where he has brought me to.

It might seem strange that it took a lockdown for me to realise that there is nothing to fear from solitude, nor from having time to contemplate. Then again, not really so odd – because it was actually another lockdown that set me free to begin with.

On that first Good Friday, when they rolled the stone to the mouth of Jesus’ tomb, his followers must have been in despair. His persecutors surely thought there was no more harm he could do them. He was dead, and his body locked in for good measure. They placed a guard on him just to be sure. The risk, they thought, was that the disciples would steal his body and fake the prophesied resurrection.

What is it about lockdowns and conspiracy theories?

Three days passed during which his own people would have felt all kinds of despair and grief, the death of hope leaving a bitter tang. Meanwhile, those who hated Christ revealed something of the nature of their enmity. It was born of fear: fear of his power, fear of his true status – why else surround a dead man with soldiers?

And at last, on the third day of nothing much happening, the angel came and the stone was rolled away.

We know very well what was found there. The grave clothes for which he had no further need, were placed where he had lain. And our Saviour was no longer there.

He had risen.

Sometimes, it’s only when everything seems to be over that real hope springs forth. I know it for myself and I count it as blessing.

No one who stood, guarding over that tomb could have suspected the work being accomplished within. It was the end, it was the ultimate lockdown.

When God brings all to a standstill, he is doing more than reminding us who is in control. He is giving us the gift of time – perhaps more than those three days, perhaps much less – in which to stop, and regard him in all his glory.

After the stone was rolled away, a story was put about by religious leaders that Christ’s body had been stolen during the night by his followers.

But they lied. They lied because they were afraid. Yet, they chose fear and denial over acceptance of one great and simple truth:

He IS risen.

If we are spared to see this stone rolled away, I pray that fear will not have won. I pray that we will all use the lockdown to bow our hearts in submission.

Who would believe an ugly lie in place of the beautiful, wonderful truth – that he rose again, and in him, we are free indeed.

Image is Everything

Returning to work after the summer break, I was intrigued to see that one of the in-service sessions on offer was ‘Initiating Difficult Conversations’. Life can be full of those, I have found. Just last week, I felt the need to explain to everyone I met on my way in and out of the prayer-meeting how I came to be dressed like a female Johnnie Cash, instead of the usual picture of demure Calvinist womanhood I like to present. No one actually cared what I was wearing, however, so all the awkwardness there was in my own head.

But, then, awkwardness often is.

I have often agonised over broaching certain topics of conversation, composing emails, or even – believe it or not – writing blogs. When my blog led to an invitation from the Free Church’s monthly magazine, ‘The Record’, to submit a regular column, I was delighted. It quickly became apparent, however, that I couldn’t approach this with the same freedom that I allow myself in the blog. Don’t misunderstand me, this was not because of the editor imposing some draconian rules on me, but because of some psychology within myself. When you are perceived as speaking on behalf of an organisation, or a cause, then you do need to be more circumspect.

What I am appalled by is that my own concern for the public image of the Free Church probably exceeds my care about misrepresenting the cause of Christ. At a recent Bible study session, where we discussed James’s assertion that faith without works is dead, I was misunderstood by another group member, when I mused upon whether people would be able to tell we were Christians, if they didn’t know it. ‘I don’t think we’re supposed to shout about it’, she chided, regarding me as though I were a suspect package (which I probably am). This was not even remotely what I meant, which I tried (unsuccessfully) to explain.

Do I ever think about how I am coming across to people who know I’m a Christian? Am I sufficiently attentive to avoiding being that person who provokes others to say, ‘some Christian – if that’s what they’re like, they can keep it.

There are instances in the Bible of the unrighteous behaving in a more moral manner than their righteous counterparts. And, if they are there in Scripture, we are certainly here in life. I have said and done some quite unlovely things in my time. There are many moments in my everyday life that, were they captured for posterity, would provide an unbelieving world with every excuse to shun my company.

Listening to our midweek sermon on the sixth commandment, quite a number of the difficult things the minister had to communicate resonated with me. I have never slain anyone nor, I hope, caused them injury. But Christians can’t cop out on ‘do not kill’, ticking the box and smugly assuming it’s one we’ll keep in perpetuity. For, if you’re anything like me, you will have breached it many times.

In Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, a collection of the hymns, blessings and incantations of the Gaels, there is a fascinating account of how the bean-glùine, or village midwife, would baptise a newborn infant prior to the rite being carried out by clergy. She begins her description of what she would do, with these words: ‘When the image of the God of life is born into the world . . .’

The essence of the sixth commandment is in her words – that we should regard one another in this manner throughout our lifetime: each one of us, as James said (3: 9) ‘made in the likeness of God’. When we look at our fellow human beings, we ought, as we would with a valuable piece of jewellery or porcelain, to seek the Maker’s mark because it is certainly there. His thumbprint is on each one of us, including those that you and I find it difficult to love. Our prisons are filled to the brim with God’s creatures, just as are our churches.

And our schools are where we send these images of God to be educated. Yet, nowadays, there is no certainty that your child will hear the name of his Maker spoken in that place, except possibly as an oath. Parents who have sought to eradicate Him from their own lives, are busily turning God out of schools, so that no one dare mention His name there. We take away moral authority, and then we throw our hands up in the air in wonder when it all goes wrong.

The commandments are linked to one another. You cannot begin to dilute one without it affecting how another is observed. As a society, we have all but dispensed with the first, foundational requirement: honouring God as God, and placing His wisdom far above our own.

Secularising forces tell us that religious belief is on the decline. Research bears out the truth of what they say. Most people don’t believe in God, so they must be right. That’s a majority of people who think this world is better run by humans, with no reference, and certainly no deference to supernatural agency.

We don’t believe in God, so we don’t defer to His supremacy. And we don’t respect His Creation – the world, or the people in it. Our own wisdom is king. When we die, we die, so we may live as we please ‘as long as it hurts no one else’. But who will decide what hurts others, when all anyone cares about is pleasing themselves?

It’s just not working our way –please, can’t we go back to His?

 

 

 

Out on a Wednesday

Being out on a Wednesday night in the Free Church in Lewis does not mean that you have become gay part-time. It means that you have started going to the midweek meeting and that you have started following.

Following doesn’t mean that you are stalking someone obsessively. It refers to your lively interest in the message of the Gospel and the possibility that you may well be converted and even contemplating going forward.

Going forward doesn’t mean that you’ve suddenly become very bold and begun addressing the minister as ‘thu’, or pulling the elders up on their grasp of theology. No, it simply means that you are ready to make your public profession of faith.

Funnily enough, that public profession is usually made in a room with just yourself and the Session present.

The Session isn’t a band which does covers of Bob Seger and Neil Diamond. They are the elders, charged with the spiritual leadership of your church. When they aren’t checking your Sky subscription to make sure you only tune in to wholesome entertainment, they do other stuff, like hearing the testimony of newly-professing Christians.

These events have followed a well-trodden path here in the island for many years. Everyone knows the order in which your spiritual journey is supposed to happen.

I knew it. And yet, somehow, I ended up doing it all in completely the wrong order.

Not long ago, I was relating my misdemeanour to another Christian. ‘I didn’t set foot in the prayer meeting until after I took communion for the first time’ I said.

But that’s not strictly true.

Many years ago, a friend’s granny died. I went to the funeral and, afterwards, felt an overwhelming compulsion to be with the Lord’s people. It was a Wednesday. The thought made me sick with apprehension, but I simply had to go. To the prayer meeting. Ignoring my parents’ surprised faces, I headed out, hardly able to believe what I was about to do.

I didn’t do it again for fifteen years.

It has such significance attached to it in our culture that anyone going to the prayer meeting in the past would be marking themselves out as ‘one to watch’. And, when I look back over my own journey – which I understand better now that I have attained a small measure of spiritual maturity – I wish with all my heart that I had kept on going to that Wednesday meeting. Then, I might have been noticed by someone, and the right questions might have been asked of me. If nothing else, I might have asked them of myself.
But no. I allowed the weasel words of Satan to drop into my all too willing heart: you don’t belong here with them; you’re not good enough. And that absolute closer – you’re not ready.

When I was asked, the night I went forward, how I had come to follow the Lord, I could give no very clear answer. I didn’t know, exactly, and I was afraid to tell the complete truth. The complete truth being that I could not remember a time when He was not in my life, or when I did not feel destined to follow Him.

I had no idea how to go about making that a practical reality. And, while I may indeed be as mad as a box of frogs, or the irregular product of a Carloway-Achmore-Ardhasaig mash-up of genes, I would be prepared to bet that I am not unique in my spiritual confusion.

Tradition is great, as long as it isn’t harming people. And, when I reflect upon my own long and perplexing walk, and my failure to recognize exactly where I was at with God, tradition annoys me.

Shy and confused, I was drawn to the Lord and His people, but with no idea what I was doing at a midweek meeting. The whole experience was so uncomfortable that I came home, and stumbled on in lonely ignorance, certain that my discomfort was born of my own unreadiness for being out on a Wednesday.

I was not unready. Seventeen or so years on from then, I can say with absolute conviction that I should have persisted. Who planted in me the desire to be there in the first place? Myself? Absolutely not. Satan? Never. But we were both complicit in deciding that I should never go back.

There is a reason why meetings like these are included in the term ‘means of grace’. These are the outward, and apparently mundane ways in which Christ imparts His grace to His own. They are intended as a benefit to us, but they can only be beneficial to those who actually attend. We cannot understand everything within God’s mysterious dealings with us, but there is one thing I can say with conviction now: if He has implanted a desire in you to be with His people, you should obey.

The Bible counsels us repeatedly not to look back with regret, and so I do not count the prayer meetings that I have missed because I listened to the wrong voice. But I do look back with thanksgiving, that God did not allow me to continue depriving myself.

If you are contemplating coming to a midweek meeting, and you think you are not ready because you are not yet a Christian, or not yet a church member, please view me as a cautionary tale. Wednesday is the wellspring that waters the whole week, and if He has put it in your mind to come to the well, it’s because He knows that you thirst.