Downcast, but not Outcast

Usually I look at the mirror only out the corner of my eye. I figure that’s the kind of glance most others will give me throughout the course of the day and anything that doesn’t scream at me out of the reflection – giant spot, cow’s lick etc – is unlikely to be noticed by a passing stranger either.

Sometimes, though, I’m brought up short. Lately, the circles under my eyes are darkening, and bags are starting to form. Altogether, I look uncannily like my Carloway granny. This will mean nothing to most of you, but suffice it to say that my late husband, when he wished to pay me a compliment, would remark on how lucky I was to have taken after the other side of the family. Let me tell you, things are bad when you’re hankering after the days people thought you might be from Achmore.

Eye bags and blemishes notwithstanding, this is still not the most disturbing reflection I have encountered this week. I have to confess to something of a struggle; one of those challenges to my faith that cannot simply be brushed aside. It is something I have heard often from others, and always tried to talk them out of – but lately I find myself tested by the same question: what are we supposed to do when the church behaves worse than the world?

There is no sense in pretending that this is not sometimes so. The Bible provides us with plenty examples of it – righteous men, like Jacob, for example, using deceit to achieve their own ends.

So, if it’s there in God’s word that a cheat can still enter the kingdom, who are we to doubt it?

This week, I have been disappointed by the behaviour of some fellow Christians. It is not something that needs to be discussed here, but it has caused me much reflection. And, as always, God provides direction. I shared a favourite Bible verse on Facebook – Peter’s exhortation that we should always be ready to give a defence of the reason for the hope that is in us – and I expressed sadness that no one ever asks for a reason; they merely mock my faith.

Might that not, however, someone pointed out, be my own fault? I should clarify, he wasn’t being unkind, and he didn’t single me out – he actually said ‘the fault of believers’. However, I am singling myself out, because he was absolutely right. If I don’t show forth the hope that is in me, who is going to ask about it? The very same day, in the course of searching for something else, I discovered an old tweet in which I was described as representing Christians the same way that Richard Dawkins represented atheists.

Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place. Unbelievers have consistently described me as ‘bitter’ and ‘hate-filled’ – because that is how I come across to them. I have failed to go where they are, to get alongside them, and to represent Jesus as what He is to me, and what He could be to them. Hung up on protecting our Christian heritage, I have somehow managed not to show love, but judgement.

This was never my intention. It just shows you, though, there’s a wide gulf between the person we see in the mirror and the face we present to the world.

We have to be careful of that. I am not suggesting that we compromise on the message, but that we have to be careful of its presentation. Of course, I know that a certain amount of whatever we might say will always be met with derision, regardless. At the weekend, I inadvertently offended a whole lot of the Twitterati by sharing the petition to retain prayers in parliament. It was deemed arrogant, and I genuinely don’t think that it was anything I wrote which gave this impression – simply the fact that some are determined to despise public expressions of faith.

I am downcast, but I have been downcast before. Failure in the Christian life is actually an opportunity to relearn that we are not to do this on our own strength, or in our own wisdom. Ironically, that’s exactly why I think all public bodies should preface their daily business with prayer.

We have, as Christians, to be doubly careful because, as the quote goes, the world may not read the Bible, but it will certainly read us – our lives, our conduct, our motivation, the way that we treat others. Instead of me being disillusioned by what I perceive as unChristian behaviour in others, I need to work a lot harder on the page I am presenting to the world myself.

Am I displaying Christ, and the unparalleled hope, the joyous freedom I enjoy in Him? Yes, I write about it, and I talk about it too – but am I living it? Do those currently outside Him look at me, and at my life, and see nothing there to recommend this path? Am I actually hiding the marvellous light from them, instead of testifying to it in a life filled with joy?

I am reminded of an old lady who was asked if she ever doubted her salvation. She replied that she would often pray to God that if He had not already begun a good work in her, please would He start now. It’s never too late to begin.

God doesn’t speak in order to dishearten us, but so that we might rebuild the wall where it may have tumbled down. He has given me my answer – never mind the speck in their eyes, but worry about the beam in your own. All the while I’ve been getting bent out of shape over the behaviour of others, I have been drifting away from where I ought to be. That is not God’s plan, but the enemy’s.

Spiritual Journey to a Destination Unknown

In a couple of weeks, I plan to visit Ness, to speak to the ladies of the WFM there. Believe it or not, I rarely address any group without having put some thought into what I will be saying. I have a technique which works reasonably well for me in this respect and I started to put it into practice this week, while driving my car.

Actually, a lot of my spiritual journey centres on the car and it was only while sitting in it, thinking about Ness, that I realised just how long this has been true for me.

Life became frantically busy last year, and each day I spend at least 50 minutes just driving to and from work. On the mornings when I am pushed for time, I wait until I am underway before speaking to God as I drive. At first, I felt guilty about doing this, as though I was being disrespectful. But then it dawned on me that I had always spoken to Him on car journeys . . . just that I was now doing it out loud, and calling it ‘prayer’.

And, this year, I have taken things a step further. I am following a plan which allows me to listen to the Bible being read over the course of a year. As soon as I start the engine each morning, therefore, David Suchet’s calm voice reads to me a portion from the New Testament, followed by a reading from the Old.

When I worked in Ness, I drove back and forth across the moor every day. I was single and living with my parents, and enjoying life. There was nothing to trouble my mind. To while away the miles, I began to listen to recordings of sermons our own minister had preached. This being well before the digital revolution, I was limited to the cassettes that were available to me and so I listened to some of these sermons repeatedly, and two in particular.

One spoke of God as a refiner of silver, retrieving the object from the fire only when it was finished, and the Maker could see in it His own image. The other favourite was on Paul’s famous utterance about God’s strength being made perfect in weakness. I loved these – yet if anyone had asked me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell why.

But I know now. Reflecting on it as I prayed over what to say to the ladies of Ness, I realised that all those years ago, God was preparing me. I was not in the midst of troubled waters yet, but I stored up the precious truths in my heart against a time when I would be. This was not because of my far-sightedness, but because of His.

When the man I had not yet met was taken from me, I would fall back on these precious words and the reassurance that they convey: God is not punishing you; He is drawing you closer to Himself.

That our eternal God plays the long game should not surprise us, but it should certainly give us comfort. We often speak about the difficult providences which we encounter, and the fact that we often cannot comprehend their meaning. I think it’s important to remember something else, though: God equips us for the journey He has set before us; not the one we think lies ahead.

I didn’t know why I was listening to those sermons repeatedly back then, but God was working in me the faith that would hold me to Himself when that was all I had.

It was sitting in my office in Ness that I enrolled on the very first Free Church Saturday course in theology. This was an uncharacteristically bold move on my part, because I was terrified that I would be the only non-Christian (I was) and possibly the only non-elder (I wasn’t) in the class.

By the time the Ness chapter of my life had closed, I found myself no closer to being a Christian. Although I had found happiness with my husband, and a new job, everything else seemed to have been a waste of time. The theology books I had bought sat in the bookcase, mocking me – reminding me of that other sermon message which replayed in my memory: do not begin building the tower, unless you are sure you have the tools to finish the job.

But that was just spiritual myopia, and a failure of faith on my part. I didn’t start the job – God did, and when He begins a good work in us, He will see it through.

Perhaps you are reading this, feeling discouraged, thinking you are no nearer to Him than you were many years ago. It’s just possible you feel that way because you don’t see what He sees: this is a journey, and He knows what you will need along the way. God is making sure that you are trained and equipped as you need to be for all that providence has in store.

It was because of this period in my life that I knew there was Someone there to catch me when I fell. There is no wasted time with God: He knows the plans He has for us, and every breath we take builds towards the moment when He calls us by name.

 

 

Planting, Prayers and Trench Warfare

This week, people in Lewis came together to plant trees in memory of the 201 men who lost their lives on the ‘Iolaire’ in the early hours of 1919. Fittingly, these have been planted on the road that leads to the war memorial, officially opened in 1924 by Lord Leverhulme – his last public act in Lewis.

Despite the tensions that have been evident in some parts of the community lately, over who has the right – or the wherewithal – to develop wind farms on a particular patch of moor – it was possible for unity to reign during the few hours it took to create this living monument to bravery and loss. I think the Lancashire soap magnate would have liked what he saw. We were largely united in our common purpose: to create something dignified that will serve as a reminder for many years to come.

The Lewis war memorial was built on Cnoc nan Uan, because it overlooked the four parishes which had sacrificed their men in the cause of freedom. From somewhere in each, this barional-style tower can be seen, pointing skywards. It is constructed of Lewissian gneiss, dressed in Aberdeenshire granite.

And, when it was officially opened by Lord Leverhulme, the watching crowd must surely have believed that this was a memorial, not just to their dead, but to war itself. This had been the conflict to finish all such. Weeping widows and bereaved mothers could comfort themselves with the thought that they were looking upon the last edifice of its kind.

Only, of course, we know that this was not the case. They were not really laying war to a peaceful rest, because it rose again – bloodier and more terrible than before.

Planting my first tree on Wednesday afternoon, I thought about the symbolism of the wych-elm. The first element in its name has nothing to do with ladies who cast spells, and everything to do with pliability – so an eminently suitable species for one such as myself to be planting, biddable creutair that I am.

More importantly, it is a crucial quality if we wish to avoid unnecessary conflict. We have to be prepared to bend a little. Too much rigidity and we are liable to simply break under stress.

I remember going out in a neighbour’s boat as a child. His advice for avoiding seasickness has remained with me, and can be applied to other areas of life too: go with the movement; don’t resist it by holding yourself taut. Given that he would insist on nosing the vessel in between the Beasts of Holm, with all the mythology surrounding them in my young mind, it was quite hard to relax.

This does not mean, of course, that you allow yourself to be buffeted by every prevailing wind, changing your mind on a whim. What I suppose I mean is that you should never be so uncompromisingly devoted to your stance that your treatment of those in opposition becomes less than it should be.

What we have today –and what fortunate Leverhulme did not have – is social media. It can be a useful tool for communicating, and for disseminating information. But, misapplied, it can become a battle-ground of bad manners and bad attitudes. There are those who use it to address others as though they were inferior beings, using the sort of belligerent, barracking tone that would never be countenanced in real life.

The result is something not unlike trench warfare. People become so identified with a particular point of view that everything else about them recedes into the background. We have to work very hard so that this does not become our attitude.

I appreciate very much all the good advice I have had over the years in this regard. It was useful to one so dangerously liable to veer into sarcasm when under duress.

My mother taught me many years ago to avoid putting myself in situations where I would have to apologise. I try, therefore, to think through the consequences of my words before I utter them. Once they are said, they cannot ever be taken back.

Even my years of political campaigning taught me something very valuable indeed – the vast majority of people are turned off by negative rhetoric. Slandering and smearing your opponent says more about you than it ever could about him.

Being a Christian, more is expected of you than to sink to the gutter-level of mud-slinging which can become the modus operandi of Facebook and other such platforms. Titus says: ‘To speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy towards all people’. It is a challenge that I could never meet on my own poor strength.

Sometimes I have to draft and redraft my written responses so that they are tempered with the humility and courtesy that ought to be my portion. And I thank God that He has surrounded me with people who are of that same mind, and who make me want to walk as I should because of their example.

Just for balance, he has also surrounded me with a few hotheaded crazies who would thoroughly approve my ranting first drafts . . .

I need prayer to keep my speech seasoned with salt, to not defile myself by what comes out of my mouth. And our community needs prayer – for unity, for perspective, for proportion.

Standing in the shadow of that tower, hewn from Lewis rock, I realised that the remembrance needed most is the petition that goes heavenwards; prayer for unity, and for the ability to disagree without stooping to revile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire and Remembrance

Once, when I was about seven or eight years old, I awoke to hear my father telephoning for the fire brigade. A few minutes later, my mother appeared in the bedroom and told me to get up and put my clothes on over my pyjamas. The house opposite was ablaze, it seemed, and people were nervous of flying debris which might set other homes alight. 

For a few minutes it was a great adventure, to be getting out of bed late at night to go and stand in the street. But when I actually saw the house in question, blackened timbers against a terrifying orange blaze, I didn’t feel so secure. 

In fact, it sparked off (pun intended) a lifelong nervousness about fire. Even now, I hesitate to light the wood burner on a windy night. I remember only too well what fire can do when it overpowers.

November begins, of course, with fires to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot. My enjoyment of these as a child was always marred by the recollection of that other inferno I had witnessed. Standing further from the flames than my peers, I winced at every crackle and spit. I could not get far enough away from fireworks when they were being lit, though I still enjoyed their colours against the night sky.

Strange that a tradition which unsettles people and their pets alike, and which has seen its fair share of tragedy, is actually about celebrating safety. We do not light our bonfires in tribute to the traitor, Guy Fawkes, after all, but in thankfulness that the King’s life was not forfeit. 

November is a month associated with remembrance, then, and with fire. Around the coast of Britain, beacons were lit to celebrate the Armistice; many will be lit again this weekend to mark its centenary. These practices echo the customs of our long-dead ancestors, who marked the end of the agrarian year by lighting up the darkness in this way. Knowing that months of winter would follow, they celebrated the harvest’s safe in-gathering by creating warmth and colour. 

For them, fire symbolised much that was good – warmth, light and safety. They used it to encircle their newborn children, and their livestock, and they traced the boundaries of their settlement with fiery torches too, to protect everything that lay within.

Over the years, we have lost this sense of fire as a protective force. It is something which the old adage reminds us is ‘a good servant, but a bad master’, and we have become nervous of its destructive power. Even Christians are inclined to think of it in terms of the everlasting torment of hell awaiting the lost.

In the Bible, however, fire is often indicative of God’s presence. When the children of Israel stepped out into the unknown, He lit up the darkness as a pillar of fire. Moses, of course, had already encountered God in the burning bush, when he had to avert his eyes. This suggests that what he was experiencing was God’s glory, as opposed to a His presence – though the two are hard for this novice to separate.

And then, there are all the instances of God’s wrath being likened to fire – when it burns hot against His enemies, and consumes the faithless. Psalm 89 speaks of this. In other passages fire tests and refined but does not destroy . . . surely all of this testifies to the fact that the Bible DOES contradict itself?

No, it testifies to God’s unchanging nature. He meets those who are His as a loving, glorious God; and He meets His enemies as a judge. In all circumstances, He is a fire – but that fire acts upon Christian and unbeliever very differently.

Britain was tested in the fire of war, and always came through with its faith intact. Services of remembrance have, traditionally, had a strong Christian element – with songs of praise and prayers of thanksgiving forming the central core. Just this weekend, however, I see the usual suspects on social media, trying to make God the culprit for war.

God is not the warmonger; Satan is. He stirs up hatred so that nations think nothing of wilfully taking lives in their hundreds. And he picks his way through the ruins of our lives, blithely walking away from the destruction he has wrought.

Some cling, wisely, to God. They give thanks that He has dealt mercifully with us. Prayers of gratitude and songs of praise go upwards to Him. Even in grief, they see His hand at work.

Still others make the war dead their focus, and berate a God whose existence they deny. They wear the poppy, and bow their heads in silence . . . but it’s an empty sort of remembrance.

We light bonfires on our shorelines to commemorate that our warfare is ended. But if these don’t also kindle an awareness of God’s presence in all our tribulations, what have we learned that’s worth remembering?

 

 

 

 

Revving Reverends and Remembering Revival

Being a Wee Free from Lewis, I am much more at home in the 19th century. So, it was in this spirit I pointed my car towards Uig on Friday evening, bringing two Baptist friends along for ballast. Not fast enough for our minister, as it turns out, because he overtook me in the Valtos glen. Then again, he was preaching, and needed to get into his frock coat and pince-nez before 7pm. His mission was to preach in the glebe at Baile na Cille, the site of the spiritual revival of the 1820s.

When the Apostle of the North addressed the congregation there in 1827, he reckoned their number was more than 7000. On Friday night, we were not 150. In the world’s eyes, this is evidence only of decline, of the irrelevance of the Gospel for our age.

The world, as I am fast learning, does not understand the way that God works. Even His own people do not understand everything He does – but we do trust Him, with very good reason. Down through the ages, He has been consistently faithful, and consistently God. We do not have to second-guess Him the way we do people, because He is not fickle; He is unchanging.

The God who presided over the Apostle of the North’s communion service in 1827, was also present on Friday, as Rev.James MacIver preached in that same glebe, from Psalm 126.

But, the world says, your numbers are so diminished: is your God losing His grip on power?

Psalm 126 is, appropriately, a psalm of revival. God’s people, in Babylonian captivity, struggled to maintain their faith. It is indeed hard to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Even here in Lewis, still so blessed by the Gospel message, people have tried to unseat God. There are days when we lose heart.

I have read accounts of revival, over and over. Times when God’s spirit came down in power are writ large upon our folk histories. Christians cling to those tales, holding them close, poring over them. And we have all wept, remembering this Zion.

But something I heard in Baile na Cille glebe encouraged me , even before the service began: the corncrake. It is a sound so reminiscent of my childhood that one crake and I am back in my too-hot summer bedroom in Newmarket, trying to sleep while these exasperating birds scrape out their song. And then, for years after that, there was silence; the corncrake was gone because the grassland was no longer managed as it had been. There was no safe nesting-ground, so these shy birds simply did not come.

But suddenly, one late summer, I heard the craking again. They had returned after years of absence. The conditions were right once more and they, it seemed, had not forgotten their former nesting ground. One wonders whether they had found it hard to crake so blithely in other lands.

In the glebe at Baile na Cille, the echoing and unmistakeable call of the corncrake chimed so well with the preacher’s message. God may seem to be inactive, to be silent, to be deaf – but this is the same God who brought the Israelites home from exile, who revived the spiritual deadness of Lewis, and who brought that little knot of people together on Friday evening. We were there, like the psalmist said, to remember God’s goodness in past times, and to pray – believing – that He would bring that miracle again.

Revival seems like a miracle from another age. There is something beguiling in the stories of people so in love with their Saviour that they would walk any distance to hear of Him. And the tales of their fellowship – not polite gatherings around home baking, but the kind of attachment that saw them unable to bear parting from one another, no matter how late the hour.

But I also wonder at times if my own attraction to the idea of revival is not a kind of spiritual laziness. You know, ‘please, God, convert all these people and fill all these pews because I just want to see instant results’. Am I praying for revival because I think nothing is happening? And do I think nothing is happening because I am not tuned in to the right channel?

God is not a cheap side-show magician. I do not believe He will simply gift us revival, or the presence of the Holy Spirit in such power, unless we strive for it. And I don’t think He wants to play a numbers game with us. It cannot be all about filling empty churches, just to satisfy denominational targets. We have to be hungry for it.

As I sat on a hillock on Friday (early, of course), watching other worshippers arriving in twos and threes, I felt that sadness, knowing we would not be seven thousand. But I was looking at things the wrong way.

God revives us spiritually, whatever the environment, whatever the outward appearance, just as he always has – one sinful heart at a time.

So, we have to do what we did for the corncrake – create the right conditions for growth, believing that He will send the Holy Spirit.

Just because something seems to be threatened almost to the point of extinction does not mean we should lose hope. Not when that something depends entirely upon the God who has been faithful always, and will remain so to the end of the age.

Blood Brothers are Watching You

Coming towards the Free Church Seminary on a Sunday morning recently, I fell into step with the minister. He opted to walk through the vehicular access gate, which is broad, while I used the narrower, pedestrian gate. We don’t deal in symbolism in this neck of the eaglais, however, so I’ll just leave that there.

I was going to the Gaelic service, something I’ve been doing, off and on, all my life. For that reason and more, it holds many pleasant associations for me. It was certainly in that building the Gospel first touched my needy heart, and it was there, in the packed Session room at the back, I first professed faith.

Just this week, I was discussing with one of the elders what an ordeal it can be, contemplating an appearance before such a large assembly. ‘I don’t think you were there the night I went forward’, I said, which he contradicted. Hours later, I recalled our conversation, and thought, ‘yes, of course he was there – right in my line of sight, smiling and nodding encouragement’. How on earth could I have forgotten that? Because, I think, my mind was in such turmoil before, during and after.

Needlessly, I might add. Because there is one other nugget which has remained in my mind from that evening. It was the minister, telling me how I belonged to the fellowship of God’s people, and how these men were now my brothers.

Of course, I already had brothers – two, to be exact – and a sister. So, I know what family is. It is, and always has been, an enormous blessing to me; a place of safety and support. But, in the interests of absolute honesty, I must add that we have the capacity to get on one another’s nerves, to have misunderstandings, and differences of opinion.

We could attribute our awkwardness to that unfortunate cocktail of Doune/Achmore/Ardhasaig/Newmarket genes. But the main reason for it is that we’re human, with all the selfishness, sin and ego that entails.

And so are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Because, although we are in Christ, we are also still sinners; works in progress.

There is a tendency to criticise unfortunate conduct in the church – ‘Christians squabbling/holding grudges/cheating/lying’. But take that word, ‘Christians’ away, and substitute ‘people’. Everything that is levelled at Christians is also true of the world.

The principal differences are that Christians should be more troubled by their own bad behaviour, and work to remedy it; and Christians are aware that they are being sanctified – it is, though, a process, and not an event.

This is largely a word  to myself, because I have struggled to hang onto these truths lately. In the midst of feeling a bit hard done by, I failed to subdue self, and I failed to judge myself quite as harshly as others. Or, rather, I wasn’t as magnanimous to them as I would be to me. And, as ever, I nursed my hurt to keep it warm.

But, just like my literal family, my spiritual brothers helped me get back a sense of proportion.

One or two of them dispensed sage advice, and more than a little laughter. They encouraged me to loosen my grip on grievance. And then, another provided me with a really humbling moment in a totally unexpected way. It was a song he shared, sung from the point of view of someone worried they had sinned once too often and that this would be the one where God turned His back.

I was cleaning the window as I listened, and the thought made me stop in my tracks. Imagine if I was in God’s place, with that power over people, and refusing to forgive. The idea made me shudder, picturing myself asking such a cold and unrelenting Lord for forgiveness myself. In that moment, knowing what my own heart is like, and how much I’ve been forgiven already, I did indeed start to relent.

God wasn’t quite finished, though. There was the other brother – the one perceptive enough to recognise that I needed support. No fuss, no fanfare, just what I have always had from him: quiet, steady and strong back-up. I know that I can turn to him when, as he puts it, ‘things get really rough’. And things will. The Christian life seems to be about riding out one storm, only to find yourself launched headlong into another. You might be sparring with secularists one minute, and slighted by Christians the next.

No matter: God has made provision for us against those days. He has given us a spiritual family. We will misunderstand one another, we will squabble, and irritate our brothers and sisters because we are human.

When the chips are down, though, as I have found, the family comes together. That the Church family is not perfect should surprise ourselves least of all – we can expect no such thing in this world. What does that actually matter, though, over against the eternity of blessedness awaiting all the children of the King?

Birds who Pray and Birds of Prey

Etiquette in Lewis is not like it is anywhere else. One knows, almost instinctively, for example, not to bring up a person’s Balallan connections in polite company. And we don’t need a manual to dress appropriately (no wellies after Ness Gala Day), or which implement to use first when lifting the potatoes.

It is possible, as it turns out, to know all that and yet, still commit a great social taboo. I know, because I did it myself.

‘Will you speak at our fellowship in Kinloch?’ I was asked, an invitation which I happily accepted. But in the breathtaking arrogance of the lifelong Wee Free, I forgot to check which denomination . . . for there are two.

‘Two!’ I hear your exclaim in disbelief. Yes, well, I mean in Laxay. Obviously we have others throughout Lewis – we are Presbyterians after all.

Anyway, I discovered the daftness of my assumption in time and set off with friends for an evening service in the Kirk. Or so I thought.

In another colossal breach of island etiquette, we actually went to the Free Church next door. Such is our indoctrination, and our fear of the Session, that we thought we’d better, or risk censure on our return.

No, not really. In fact, the Church of Scotland notice board declared that they would be having a Gaelic service, and my pal is a monoglot, so . . .

Eventually, we did make it to the Aonadh fellowship. A lifetime of ribbing my mother about her ‘inferior’ CofS upbringing, of questioning the validity of her own and my father’s marriage (it having been Kirk-rendered) . . . all words I’d have to eat, along with some excellent pancakes. Because – and nobody tell the Session I said so – they were a lovely congregation. Aside from some native character flaw which makes them all turn up at the last minute for things, they are a warm, genuine and welcoming branch of God’s family.

I knew they would be. It’s not simply that one or two of them were known to me before, nor my natural Lochie bias, what with the Achmore genes, but something else altogether.

It was God’s timing, and His hand I could discern. My visit to ‘the Lake District’ of Lewis had been planned for a couple of weeks, and it was a standard, share-your-testimony kind of plan. But, I knew, a couple of days before that, whoever else might derive benefit from hearing me, one person really needed to hear that testimony again: myself.

I was running, if not quite on empty, very close to it. Physically, emotionally and even spiritually. End of term, end of tether.

There have been difficult conversations around differences of opinion with other Christians. Not everyone sees Grace on the Green as what we intended it to be: an open-air act of public worship, and a nod to the place Christianity has in our culture, all to glorify God. Nonetheless, I appreciate those who addressed their disquiet directly to me, and who did so privately, as Scripture prescribes. No difference of opinion between Christians should result in public displays of pique. And, I might venture, no one should assume they know the heart of another, nor the prayers that have gone out from that heart. God knows, and He deals accordingly.

It has been predictable, but dispiriting. On top of everything else, it gave me a quick flash of ‘why do I bother?’ which, after prayer, dissipated. The freedom I enjoy in Christ is not going to be bound up by anyone else’s idea of conscience. Otherwise, are we really free?

God had prepared the remedy for me last Sunday, however. It was not the good Laxay air, nor the copious amounts of baking, nor even the warmth of the lovely fellowship. No, it was my own testimony.

What is testimony, after all, but evidence – an eye-witness account – of God’s goodness to us? This same God who took my time of unspeakable sorrow and raised it up as immeasurable blessing. It is to Him I pray, to Him I commit every day of my life, and to Him I look for guidance. My faith is sure because of Him, not because of me. And so, I know in whom I have believed. That is more than sufficient for my peace of mind. Remembering His goodness to me reaffirmed that; I rest on Him, and He is enough.

The doubting – and sometimes unpleasantness- of others can shake your confidence. You can begin to question your own judgment and even your own motives. But whatever is anchored in Him is sure and unshakeable. Sometimes you need to remember that all over again.

As I left Kinloch, one of the congregation stood at the door of the church with me, and pointed out two birds of prey flying overhead. Hen harriers, he thought, and I marvelled how he could tell from that distance.

And then I realised that his confidence came from knowledge and a practiced eye. I think we Christians would also know each other better if we spent more time getting acquainted spiritually, and remembering our unity in Christ.

Even from this distance, we should all be able to discern His marks on our brothers and sisters, and them on us.

Never Say ‘Amen’

A friend was telling me recently about a job she used to do, which involved supporting families affected by Alzheimer’s disease. She found that the best way of getting people to open up was by going for a walk with them. If they didn’t have to look at her, they were much more likely to share honestly whatever might be troubling them. I was reminded of this today when a colleague alluded to the old adage about how we lecturers are meant to interact with students – ‘the guide at your side, not the sage on the stage’.

Both those pieces of advice caused me to reflect on my relationship with God. He has been, I must say, the guide at my side for longer than I have ever acknowledged – even to myself.

For years, He was there, a presence I am ashamed to say I took for granted. If I had to describe it now, I would say that it felt as though He was just by my shoulder and that I could turn and speak to Him as you do to any companion seated nearby. There were periods of many months during which I said nothing and then, I might speak to Him easily and casually, with no preamble.

I never really thought of it as praying. There was no kneeling, no bowing of my head, no formality. And, I realise now, no amen.

My life, for almost as far back as I can remember, has been a conversation with God. He was there, whether I remembered or not, and whether there was silence, or speech from me. His presence is the reason that I never felt alone, even though I was frequently by myself; and His nearness is the reason I never felt weak, despite being faced by many situations to which I was not equal.

When I was a wee girl of nine or so, I asked Him in. The Victorian devotional for children that I was reading each night urged me to do so, and I was moved by the image of Jesus knocking at the door of my heart and being ignored. It troubled my childish conscience that He wanted my attention and was not receiving it. Yet, I hesitated to make the move because I had gathered that it was not to be undertaken lightly or unthinkingly.

Eventually, though, my defences were breached and I made the invitation.

And, if you had asked me a few months ago whether it changed my life, I would have very swiftly answered in the negative.

Now, though, I am not at all sure that’s true. Something did change for me that day: He did as I asked and took up residence in my heart, so that I was never quite free of Him afterwards. Even when my mind was far from Him, even when my behaviour was a million miles short of what would please Him, God was working in my life, and waiting by my shoulder.

It surprises me now to reflect on how utterly dense I was. All those years of wondering whether He would save me, trying to figure out what I had to do . . . I had to do nothing because He had already done it all.

It has been said that, if all else failed, God would whip you into Glory. I remember, shortly after my husband died, repeating this to the minister who visited me at home. He looked mildly surprised. Probably, on reflection, because this heathen was quoting Professor Collins at him. But I felt instinctively that this was what had happened – not necessarily that the Lord was inflicting pain on me to force my hand, but that He was using my pain to illustrate His own complete sufficiency. To demonstrate, in fact, a truth that has become so precious to me since then: that our trials are opportunities to experience even more of His love.

When these troubled times recede, even a little, it is easy to slip back into old habits and to reduce God back to nursery proportions. Because of His tenderness to me, and because of how I first got to know Him, I risk making Him smaller than He is. I know this, and it troubles me.

I was discussing this with a friend last Friday, and he spoke of how the heavens really do declare the glory of God – the stars He has placed so precisely, for example. Driving home that evening, I tried to capture some sense of that awe, but it evaded me. It still felt that He was in the passenger seat beside me, that I could tell Him about my day.

And then, on Sunday, I had a brief sense of the wonder I had been seeking. It was not in a blinding flash of lightning, nor the smallness one can feel under a wide-open Lewis sky.

No, it was sitting in church. The sermon was about God’s dealing with the ever-grumbling Israelites when He substituted the bitterness of Marah for the sweet waters of Elim. This God of the Old Testament – the one who is often said to lack love, by people who simply don’t know Him – dealt with the Children of Israel as He deals with me. He is patient, and He blesses in situations when that is the very last thing I expect.

There are not two Gods – Old and New Testament; the God of Creation and the God of salvation; the jealous God and the loving God; the nursery God and the church God. He is one. This God is vast in His power, but intimate in His knowledge of us; He is just, but merciful; He is a King, and He is also a Father.

He goes before me, but He walks beside me. I can speak to Him anytime I want. That does not make Him small – it only goes to show what love there is in the hand that shaped the universe, that it pauses in its work to dry my tears.

 

 
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Rumour, Lies and My Religious Privilege

Many years ago, news swept through Lewis that a particular local minister had passed away suddenly. Fishermen preparing to set out for sea kept their boats tied-up in the harbour out of respect. A solemn air descended over the surrounding districts in response to the loss of such a well-liked figure.

Except he hadn’t actually died. He was very much alive, and in robust health. Not only that, but he was pretty annoyed about the rumour, and made every effort to locate the source. This was finally traced to a bus driver and, so, the next time the good reverend had occassion to use the service, he confronted the gentleman in question.

‘What do you mean by telling people I was dead?’ the minister demanded.

‘Well, the last time you were on this bus, you told me that if you were spared, you would be waiting for me at the crossroads on Friday morning. And, when I drove by, you weren’t at the stop. I know a minister would never lie, so I naturally assumed you had passed away’.

Ministers were minor celebrities. Walk into any home in the island – especially where there was a cailleach – and the sideboard would almost certainly have at least one framed photograph of the local reverend in pride of place. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that they were the Kardashians of their time but, had Lewis had its own version of ‘Hello’ magazine, manse families would certainly have featured prominently. Hard though it may be to believe now, there would indeed have been an appetite for a six-page colour spread on which wallpaper the Stornoway minister’s wife had chosen for the dining room.

Times have changed. The churchgoing population of Lewis – as we are constantly reminded – has fallen from where it was. It is still a national envy-inducing 44%, but that represents a minority nonetheless. We are aware of that position, and reminded of it repeatedly by another – even smaller – minority: militant atheists.

Supposing a mischief-making bus driver wished to circulate a rumour about a man of the cloth nowadays, chances are he would be met with blank stares and ‘who?’ from his audience. These manse-dwellers have slipped in the social rankings because they are seen as representing something irrelevant to the majority of the island population.

I don’t like the label ‘last stronghold of the pure Gospel’ being applied to Lewis (or anywhere) because it is either Pharisaic, or sarcastic in its application. Besides, the stronghold of the Gospel is not actually a place; it is a Person.

Regardless, we have been a peculiarly privileged people in our spiritual heritage. That much is undeniable. It should not be viewed as a a source of pride, though; rather as a solemn responsibility. Luke 12: 48 reminds us of that fact – because we have been showered with blessings as a community, we surely should be paying it forward.

Statistically-speaking, although there are fewer of us with a ‘live church connection’ here in Lewis, there is one reason for evangelical optimism: the mission field is growing all the time. The net figures suggest that there is a trend towards in-migration to the Long Island. That is, somewhere in the region of 100 – 200 new people arriving among us each year.

These people come – according to research carried out in 2007 – largely for lifestyle reasons; drawn to the peace and safety of Lewis. It remains a stronghold in that sense at least.

We want to welcome them in with open arms, and we want them to settle here, so that they will love it as much as the natives do. And one of our priorities has got to be addressing the lie that Lewis somehow suffers because of undue influence from the church. That is an untruth which has gone unchallenged for far too long. It does not come from people who move to Lewis but is, I fear, an unwanted resident of long-standing.

Some born and brought up here, privileged as I was to be surrounded by Christian witness and teaching, have not yet been awakened to their own need of that truth. They have, for whatever reason, opted to reject it. Not content, however, with pushing it away from themselves, they are trying their utmost to dash that cup from the lips of others. I don’t mean me, or other practising Christians either, because once you are secure in the Saviour’’s hand, no amount of angry Facebook trolling by atheists can unseat you.

No, they are trying to stop the message of the Gospel from reaching those who need it most – the unsaved. They are a stumbling-block to their own children, and even to many who move to this community and misguidedly believe the lie that the church is a suffocating, dictatorial influence.

We have, as a Christian community, been quiet for far too long on this matter. Gradually and without apology, we are being discriminated against for our faith. Schools quietly ditch decades-old practices like morning prayers and grace before meals on the say-so of one or two atheist parents; but will not reinstate it at the insistence of many more Christian families.

After hearing, last night, from a South Sudanese pastor, of how his people suffer and die for their Christian faith, I hesitate to call what is happening here persecution. It is, for now anyway, discrimination. But the insidious creep of hatred often starts small.

I have lately been told by various vocal individuals that, in holding elected office, I have no right to act according to my ‘religious interest’.

What is my religious interest? If I believe that I am already saved – and I do – what am I striving to hold onto?  Nothing this world offers, I can promise you that. My interest is in becoming more like Christ, and doing what He wants of me; He wants me to be more like Him, and to have a heart for the unsaved.

Praying for those who hate Christianity, and witnessing to them about the power and love of Jesus Christ – that is my religious privilege. Which man has the power over a conscience committed to God?

 

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.