Coming Out of the Wilderness

Among the many things we don’t do in the Free Church – joy, love, peace, freedom, feminism – apparently we are not much into marking Easter either. So I’m told.

We don’t festoon the church with fluffy chicks, or put bunny ears on the elders; and we don’t exit the church en masse to roll eggs down the staran after the Easter Sunday service. The Wee Frees, you would think, are the ideal denomination for an Easter bonnet competition but, well, they’d all look sort of the same, wouldn’t they – black and devoid of fol-de-rols?

Of course, we do mark Easter, in the sense that we have hung onto the heart of it. Next weekend, in Stornoway, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper – it is a sacrament, dispensed for remembrance of His death, and so that those who believe in Him will meditate upon the benefits they have derived from His sacrifice and, based on that, reaffirm their commitment to Him and the debt they owe.

When, at the beginning of the Supper, the presiding minister utters the words, ‘On the night that He was betrayed . . .’ I shiver. Nowhere else, in no other context could these words be both an accusation of guilt and a proclamation of freedom to the same person. But because Christ died and rose again for us, for the unworthy, we feel both the guilt of His crucifixion, and the freedom in His resurrection.

In other faith traditions, the period of Lent – beginning on February 14th this year, and ending on March 29th – will be observed. My first encounter with it was in school when a classmate from Barra was eating blocks of jelly during our morning interval. I asked her why and she told me that she had given up sweets for Lent. Being teenagers, none of us had much idea of what self-sacrifice was, and the jelly was a good substitute for her, while she technically kept her Lenten vow.

But I’m more than twenty years older now and I still have the same problem with dying to self that my jelly-eating school friend did. As a Christian, I should be working harder to subdue the inner voice that shouts, ‘what about me?’

Recently, I have been subject to some criticism for my beliefs. My last blog touched something of a nerve and the unbelieving community in Lewis, alongside a few professing adherents, were outraged by what I said. Well, no, sorry, let me rephrase that. They were outraged by what I am; no one actually critiqued the writing, unless you consider words like ‘disgusting’ and ‘rude’ a critique (I don’t).

The slurs are mainly inaccurate, but I am not going to bore you with that here. One very kind Christian lady whom I have not yet met, messaged me to point out that people who resort to personal attack when they have never met you, are merely highlighting the fact that they are spiritually bereft. Comments on my personality, lack of Christlikeness (how true), lack of manners . . . well, they are meaningless when they come from strangers.

Some of the arrows hit home, however, as they will do. This is a vulnerable time of year for me. I don’t say that to garner sympathy, nor to claim that I am a victim – I am not and never have been that. But I do make myself suffer. For a little while, I dwelt on the fact that there was no Donnie to make it better; I wallowed in self-pity and the memories of three years ago, when our time was running out. When the going gets tough, I often retreat into that kind of self-harm, picking at the wound, and making everything seem much blacker.

This is Lent. And Donnie’s last weeks were Lent. It is representative of forty days spent by Christ in the wilderness, preparing for ministry and resisting the Devil.

I decided last Saturday that I was going to stop blogging. Or, at least, that I was going to stop commenting on the activities of unbelievers in my own immediate vicinity. When you are alone, and feeling sorry for yourself, you can easily believe the liars. They themselves are speaking, of course, for the great liar. He seems to be fond of hanging about the wilderness.

But I don’t choose to linger there with him; and I am not alone. If the Lord doesn’t come Himself, He sends His people with encouragement and prayer. And His own Word, so full of peace and strengthening – Psalm 31, Isaiah 43 . . . and my own mantra, if a Wee Free can be allowed such a thing: ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid’?

Lent for many who observe it is a pilgrimage. It should bring us, finally, to the very foot of the cross. My journey, three years ago, brought me to rest there, in Him.

On Sunday night, I was powerfully reminded of that once more. Tempted though I had been to find a solution in myself to this latest problem, the preaching reminded me that challenging situations should not be met by doing, but by being.

Your identity, once found in Christ, remains there. He keeps you safe in His hand. Gradually, He takes you, leaning upon Himself, up out of the wilderness. If I am tempted again by the Devil to take refuge in the past, to dwell on my loss and my human frailty; or if I am slandered and inclined to be affronted, I should remember what follows Lent.

At the foot of the cross, and again at the empty tomb, we remember who He is, and who He has made us. No person, no words, no circumstance can ever undo the finished work of Christ.

 

Lewis Revival – A Reaping Time

When the sign reading ‘Lewis Revival’ went up above a Cromwell Street shopfront in Stornoway , I’m sure it stirred a similar train of thought in the minds of many onlookers. It was not lovely vintage cups, or upcycled furniture I pictured, though, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

There are certain episodes in this island’s past which inform its cultural identity.

As we approach the centenary, of course, people are well aware of the ‘Iolaire’ disaster, when so many men of Lewis and Harris lost their lives within sight of home. That marked this community deeply.

Only a few years after, many more would leave forever on other ships – the ‘Marloch’, The ‘Canada’ and the ‘Metagama’: names that would resonate down through the years.

Lewis was not easy to live in. It struggled to support its native population and, frequently, the answer offered to the poor was ‘go elsewhere ’.

We hear their story often. The Lewis diaspora. They went to the ends of the earth and made the best of it. Some prospered. And some didn’t. Eventually, their deaths would be reported in the ‘Stornoway Gazette’, because, no matter where they were in the world, they belonged here. It was circumstance that sent them away.

Or, to give it another name, providence.

And that same providence kept others at home. Gradually, they honed a community from what was left. Even another war did not finish them.

Far from it.

The generation of young men who fought the war against Hitler, they were the old men of my childhood. There was something about many of them – a kindness, a patience and a quiet, dignified strength. They had seen horrors that my pampered mind cannot conjure. And they came back to this quiet place to make a life.

Only four years after their return, a spiritual awakening began in Barvas. Such events can seem sudden to us, looking as we do through the lens of history.

But God prepares the ground before he plants. Mary Peckham, a reluctant convert in 1950, explained to an American audience many years later what the Lewis of her youth was like. She described how ‘gabhail an leabhair’ was the norm in every household – family worship morning and evening. Unconverted people, that is, as well as Christians. Everyone. And the children were educated in Scripture and in the Shorter Catechism. Little children were learning some very big truths.

And as a result, she said, when God sent His spirit down, ‘there was fuel to burn’.

You cannot make a fire by simply lighting a match, after all. There has to be fuel, and something to make it catch.

I was confined to the house recently because of a stubborn flu. And while I was, I listened to a Gaelic sermon I’d missed in our own church. It was about revival as prayed for in Psalm 126.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,we were like those who dreamed.

Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.

The psalmist is not indulging in wistful daydreams about better days long ago. He evokes an older time of bondage from which God released His people, asking – and believing – that He will do so again.

Being aware of our history and of our spiritual heritage as an island people is not an academic exercise, however, and nor is it a foray into nostalgia.
The writer of psalm 126 is not asking God to make things exactly as they were in the glorious days gone by. That wouldn’t benefit anyone, attractive though it may seem.

No, the reason we need to remember these times of revival is so that we pray in earnest that He will send His spirit down again. Nothing short of that will bring the spiritual growth we so desperately desire to see.

This time, though, the fuel is more scattered. While we meditate on God’s goodness in past days of revival, and ask Him in His mercy to remember us once more, there is something else we need to do.

We need to gather together, building up in prayer and fellowship what will become His fire when He chooses the moment to send forth the spark of life.

The history of Lewis is worth keeping in our consciousness because through it, God’s faithfulness frequently shines. As a people, we bore with providence and held fast to Him. I have written elsewhere of how the twin demons of war and emigration were faced down with the singing of psalms. God’s providence is our inheritance, the motto of the old town council, says it best.

He has shown Himself faithful through it all; what reason have we to think that He will fail us now?

He hasn’t; He won’t. We must bear with His timescales and His plan. Think of what he has brought us from and what He has brought us to. Think of who He is and what He has done.

That’s who we are counting on – not governments, or economists, not churches, and certainly not ourselves.

His providence is our inheritance, and our heritage is established by Him. It is an unquenchable flame, and He is not finished with us yet.

 

What Would You Have Me Do?

I am, more often than not, a failure as a Christian. The ways in which I let Him down, get it wrong and just wilfully disobey are seemingly endless. But the sins which hurt the most are repeat offences. It tells me what kind of material He’s got to work with in me when He needs to give the same lesson over and over.

What was it this time? Forgiveness. Largeness of heart. Grace. Denial of self. These are just a few of the many things I don’t do well.

It’s been a practice of mine for a while now to get involved in online conversations where the cause of Christ is being discussed. Remedial Christian I may be, but I do, of course, realise that I cannot change the atheist heart, nor save the unbelieving soul. Neither, however, do I think that I should let ignorance and misrepresentation go unchallenged. So I don’t. Many Christians probably think I should leave it alone; and I know that many atheists feel that way also.

These things can escalate and a discussion forum on local democracy led to a series of misunderstandings between myself and someone I had considered a friend. We were not on speaking terms by the time it was all over.

I should have climbed down -not on matters of Christian principle, of course not, but on my own ego. What people think of me, or say, or write when I am properly witnessing for Christ, that doesn’t matter. The day I accepted Him, I was meant to die to self. All such brickbats are not meant to matter in the light of His glory and grace.

But I couldn’t let this go. No – correction – I wouldn’t let this go.

It took a Quaker to make this Wee Free penitent. He knew, somehow, of the ill-feeling between me and this other person, and suggested very gently that I should show her a modicum of support in something very brave she did recently.

Well, I’m not going to lie. He floored me with his mild common sense, and his pure motive. I thought about it from every angle and realised that the only thing preventing me from doing as he said was my own pride.

So I swallowed it. Not as graciously as I could, or should, have. But she, I think, felt as I did and all these months of bitterness and rancour swiftly evaporated.

And it felt good. I didn’t know what a weight had been pressing on my conscience until it was lifted. All because of grace. Oh, not mine. No, God’s grace at work in this man who has somehow fallen into step with me along the journey. If it had been dependent upon me letting go of my pride . . . well, I shudder to think what a state my life would be in.

It set me thinking about people, and about the latent power of the online community. All of this reconciliation hinged, as I said, on God’s intervention. But it was made possible through digital, not face-to-face, connections.

Some folk dismiss social media as being a bit of a fantasy land, somewhere Christians should avoid. I disagree. It is a mirror-image of this world with all the wickedness and danger that entails. There are people there, teetering sometimes on the edge of danger.

So, shouldn’t Christians be there too, shining a light into the dark corners? Isn’t the internet a digital mission field?

I am profoundly grateful to God for putting the wise Quaker in my life, and for teaching me so gently that forgiveness and love must not be forsaken, especially in defending the cause of Christ.

When Christ was nailed to the cross, His Iove never wavered. He was still every inch the Saviour. Remember Satan, in the last blog – he knows he’s defeated, and wants to take as many with him as he can.

Jesus Christ knew at Calvary that victory was His. And as He looked down on the soldiers casting lots for His garments, what revenge did He plan?

‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

Though we may reject Him and plot against His cause, He still loves and wants to take as many with Him in glory as He can.

And if I want to be like Him in the smallest way, I need to cultivate that love too.

Mercifully, He reminds me of this when I need reminding. Pray for me that I will not forget this lesson in humility and grace. And pray that, when any of us speaks up for Christ, we ask Him first:

‘What would You have me do?’

Learning From The Devil’s Example

There is at least one respect in which I differ from the devil. When I am frightened, I become paralysed and unable to do anything. Both times my husband underwent lifesaving surgery, I sat in the same spot on the sofa, cold and sick-feeling. My plans of cleaning the fridge, or tidying out the cupboards to distract myself . . . well, they didn’t happen. I couldn’t even move.

But Satan doesn’t let fear stop him in his tracks. Actually, it makes him busier than ever. Really up against it, he has nothing left to lose.

And even although his defeat has already been secured, he does not mean to go down without a fight – and to take as many of us with him as he can. He already has many hostages in his thrall. Here’s the clever bit, though: they don’t know that they’re captive; they believe that they’re free.

He isn’t called the father of lies for nothing. His artistry is such that the people who will follow him anywhere he leads are the very ones who would deny his existence. They don’t believe in him, except as a slightly comical character in fiction, a scorched, cloven-hoofed cartoon demon, jabbing at you with his trident.

But he does exist – and he would never be so unsubtle as to use his weapons in that way. He is as likely to croon as he is to jab.

If you don’t believe in his existence, then you do not believe in God either. This is why the devil does not push his ego, or insist that you acknowledge him. If you did, there is much more chance that his wiles would fail; that you would turn from his eternal ugliness to God’s eternal purity.

He doesn’t want that, though, so he lets you believe your infantile fiction – that all we are, all we have, came from nothing, is governed by nothing, and will return to nothing.

That is your experience as an atheist. Life is brief and, for some, filled with suffering. The nothing from which we came is neither moral nor immoral, and so looks on suffering and rejoicing unmoved. Yet, from some human hearts, sympathy comes. From themselves, for there is no guiding principle.

But there is still the convenience of having God to blame. When something goes wrong, you can spit at Christians, ‘where is your God now?’

What an unutterably sad state of affairs. This is the real God delusion. Atheists don’t disbelieve in Him – they hate Him. They say he’s a childish fantasy, but they blame Him for everything that is wrong.

They hate Him because they have remade Him in their own image. The object of their ridicule is not the Christian God. And Satan laughs as he looks on from the sidelines.

When that frenzy of God-hating is whipped up to its maximum, those who know He is there and love Him, they can become discouraged. It is easy to look around you at the degraded state of society and feel the power of darkness is about to overwhelm.

Yet we have this truth. The darkness cannot overpower the light. Always, the latter drives out the former.

Those who have been duped, of course, don’t think they’re dwelling in darkness because they haven’t yet seen the great light. They believe in their own triumvirate: gods of tolerance, reason and self-fulfilment.

These false idols are all that is available to a people who came from nothing, live for nothing, and will return to nothing.

I am more than aware of the challenge of telling people whose ears are stopped that there is something beyond what they are pleased to call reason. You can spend many hours faithfully telling them who Christ is, only to have your face slapped. They will tell you that they respect your beliefs, even as they spit on them.

This is the world that crucified our Lord, and would do it again. Not for anything He has done against them, because there is nothing. In truth, He has gone beyond anything they could dream of asking, and though they keep on rejecting Him, still He holds out those broken hands to beckon them to Himself.

They reject Him, they say, because they cannot believe such a fantastical tale. And Satan nods his agreement – much better to stick with him, the arch-liar. He knows they can’t see him and don’t believe he’s there.

And that they won’t know until it’s too late.

Unlike Satan, Christ does not dupe the unwary. His people in this world cannot do that either. Instead, we have to be relentless in holding out the truth. Those who seem unlikely to realise the danger are the ones we owe most to, because we were once just as blind as they. We need to tell them, and tell them, and tell them again. Though they beg us to be quiet, or put their hands over their ears, we need to go on with our witness.

So, I suppose that I have to try to be a bit more like the devil in that one respect. Instead of allowing myself to be rooted to the spot by fear, I have to get busy. The motivation is that incomparable truth: that Christ has already overcome the world, and vanquished its prince. Satan fights tirelessly, knowing he’s been beaten; we should do the same, confident of victory.

And we need, above everything else, to keep the unbelievers in our prayers. That, I think, is the action Satan fears most of all.

 

 

Lewis Sundays: A Love Song (Not a Lament)

Traditionally, this island has marked itself out from other places by continuing to maintain a six-day culture. On Sunday, everything winds down and the pace of life slows to something a little closer to the ticking of nature’s clock.

People rise later, eat a leisurely breakfast, walk the dog a little further. And yes, for some, it affords better quality time with their family. Children don’t have to be bundled into clothes and hurried off to school; parents’ heads are not already half-filled with the cares of the working day before they even leave home.

A slower day. Time to listen. The opportunity to talk, and to take pleasure in one another’s company.

It is an oasis in the midst of a world which increasingly lives at breakneck speed. My late husband and I used to enjoy our Sundays to the maximum. We would save the Saturday papers and enjoy a lazy wallow in the supplements with a breakfast of croissants and toasted muffins. Then, we would head out for a long walk or a drive somewhere, before coming home to prepare a roast dinner and watch a film.

In my last post, which I thought was about my sadness at the vandalism of the Lewis Sabbath, and my pity for the architects of its demise, I was accused of being self-righteous. I can only assume that those making this accusation thought I was saying that I was somehow better than them because I don’t want An Lanntair to open on Sundays and they do.

If that’s what people think I’m saying, then I am really not being clear enough, and for that I apologise.

How could I possibly think myself better than them when I was once as they are now? I used to think that it was okay for myself and Donnie to spend Sundays the way we wanted because we only had the weekend together. He worked away from home all week and we felt this entitled us to be a little selfish with the time we did have with one another. We felt this, even though neither of us knew just how short our time together would be.

I understand better than the secularists think because, like them, I was comfortable in my rebellion. It suited me; I was happy. If someone had said to me then that what we were doing was wrong, I would not have understood. Perhaps I would even have been offended.

But all of that changed when my eyes were opened to the truth. Living as you please, spending time with the people you love, doing the things you enjoy – yes, that all feels wonderful. What, though, are we made for? Are we really just here for endless days of doing what feels good in the moment? At the end of a long life, would I be content to look back on all the Saturday supplements I’d read, and all the potatoes I’d roasted, and say, ‘that was a life well lived’?

The change in me is not the thing of which I boast either. If I am self-righteous, my conversion cannot possibly be the source of it. Any Christian will tell you that they are not chosen by God for His mercy because they deserve it, because there is anything in them which causes Him to think, ‘this is promising – I can do something with her’.

After all, if I deserved it, we would hardly call it mercy.

A friend of mine – an atheist – said of my new-found faith, ‘I’m not surprised – you were always a believer’. It was a low point for me because her words caused me to realise afresh the huge gulf of understanding that exists between the Christian and the atheist. She was referring to the fact that I had always believed in the existence of God.

As any Christian will tell you, though, that is not believing. The kind of belief we mean is not something you do with your mind, or your imagination – it is something that consumes and occupies your whole being. It is not a lifestyle, it is not a choice, it is not a philosophy.

When I read the comments on social media from the people who think that they have struck a blow for freedom by opening a cinema on the Lord’s day, I feel sorry. It is sad that they think so little of their community that they would triumph over their friends and neighbours in such a way.

I am not sorry, however, because they have spoilt things for me; they haven’t and they can’t. My source of joy is immutable and unshakeable. Nor do my feelings stem from thinking I am superior to them; for I know I am not.

In truth, I know better than them, because one of the things that separates us is the fact that, while I have been in their position, they have not experienced mine. Not yet, that is. For now, I have the advantage, but no desire to preserve it.

Meantime, perhaps their little victory with the film is not so pyrrhic after all. It has moved more people than ever before to pray for the unbelievers in our midst.

And the Christians here in Lewis have no desire to impose, or prevent, or bully. If Sunday consumerism is what people think they want, so be it: no one can stop us praying for a change of heart.

Always Darkest Just Before Dawn

There is something about a brand new year that is like a clean sheet of paper, waiting to be written on. For some, there is the irresistible lure of the resolution, the resolve to be a better version of themselves in the next twelve months than they were in the previous. Few of these outlast January.

It is a time of renewal, of hope; a time when whatever mistakes were made in the old year can be crossed out in the new. But it is also a time for evaluating how those aspirations that were so fresh last New Year have fared.

I was asked this week which of my prayers have gone unanswered. The question really unsettled me. It has always been my belief that God does not let sincere prayer go unanswered. Sometimes He might say, ‘wait a while’, or ‘no, that’s not best for you’, but I don’t think He ever ignores our petitions. For one thing, they are too precious to Him.

But I do have things which I bring before Him continually, as we all do. For most Christians, the first thing on that list would be for their loved ones to know Jesus as their Saviour. And for many, spiritual revival will also be a priority. Most Ch

ristians pray for those things . . . but I wonder whether we have artificially separated them in our hearts, as well as in our supplication to God.

What I’m saying is that when we pray for our family to be saved, we don’t mean them exclusively; we probably just mean them particularly. In reality, a general spiritual awakening which would include those we know and care for, well, that would be better still, surely. How much more generous are prayers which are expansive in their concern? What largeness of heart it takes to pray for salvation in those we do not know, or perhaps especially those with whom we are acquainted, but do not yet love.

The Rev John Morrison of Petty, a man reputed to possess the gift of second sight, once caught up with a member of his congregation, a young woman, on a stormy night. She was concealing her newborn – and illegitimate – infant beneath her cloak, and was making her way to a nearby loch to drown the child. Instead of remonstrating with her, he simply told her that before letting the baby go she should kiss it and ask a blessing on it. This she did, and – as the wise old minister knew would happen – she could not go through with her desperate plan.

Once you have prayed for someone, there is a bond created. I think that is how the Lord strengthens the love His people have, one for the other. He moves us to pray for each other and, once we have, that kind concern is marked indelibly on our hearts.

Revival for our community, for our country, for our world, has to be willed by God. But we surely have a part to play in readying ourselves for it. It is not a small thing we are asking for, and so we should not behave as though it is. God has shown us, I believe, that He is listening. The waiting is not a divine refusal, but evidence that He hears, and wants to hear more.
Words are easily spent. I have prayed for revival, really meaning it, but more often than not I have prayed the words to fill a silence. That isn’t what God wants; and it shames me to admit that’s what I give Him. He wants the earnestness of heart I bring to supplication which directly affects me.

How I prayed when I feared my husband might die is how I should be petitioning the Lord for our community.

It’s exhausting being concerned for people who have no thought of their own spiritual welfare. A few months ago, I heard this mentioned in a sermon as one of the things which can wear the Christian down in their own walk. And it’s true. I can testify to the frustration and even heartbreak of trying to bring Christ before people who still want to spit in His face.
They pretend it’s all part of this relentless march towards freedom and tolerance; but it’s really their own bigotry got up in fancy clothes. That’s why they’re so delighted about going to see a critically-panned ‘Star Wars’ film at An Lanntair on a Sunday afternoon; that’s why the deck of the first ferry to cross the Minch on the Lord’s Day was thronged with people: ugly triumphalism.

You see, they’ve lost any sense of community they may once have had. It’s all become lost in the morass of selfishness and hatred born of fear.

You can become so acquainted with that mindset as to despair that revival is even possible when no one will have this Jesus to be king over them. But that’s no attitude for a Christian. He wants us to be community-minded, and to pray and pray and pray for these people until all hope is gone.

Jesus is the ultimate lesson in hoping against hope. When the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were filled with despair because the man they thought would be the Redeemer had died a common criminal’s death, what happened? He himself appeared and reminded them how essential all those hardships had been to the fulfilment of His plan.

And His resurrection surely reminds us that He is hope in a hopeless situation.

My resolution for 2018 is to find that fear for others, that comes so easily where I’m concerned myself; and to give it all to God in prayer. He understands loss of hope. And He restores it like no one else can.

 

 

 

 

Wee Free Woman Identifies as Herself

After finishing off writing the Sunday evening sermon, I checked my diary for the week ahead. Nothing too onerous. Gaelic department lunch on Tuesday, meeting a friend on Wednesday . . and then, I received an edict from Coinneach Mòr to record an interview for his Thursday morning radio show. Consummate professional that he is, he outlined some of the areas we would cover – blog (fine); monthly column (mmm hmm); how come a woman in the Free Church is being allowed to speak out so much on sometimes controversial issues? (ok . . . er, what!?)

I don’t like that question. Someone else asked me something similar recently and I must admit, it threw me a bit.

But it’s different with Coinneach. He may be, as I said, the consummate professional, but he is also the consummate Leòdhasach. His question was posed in very much the same spirit that I myself apply to writing the blog – mockery of the attitude which prevails outside the Free Church that women inside it are somehow subjugated and condemned to a life of baking scones. Coinneach, I think, understands that this is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was.

He understands, first and foremost, because he comes from within this culture. That is his – and my – privilege. The tragedy for some people is that because of an accident of birth, they can never know what it is to be a Leòdhasach. Some get as close as possible by moving here, and indeed, who can blame them? But there are a few things I would have them know.

First of all, native islanders are not necessarily fools. Some probably are, because there are fools everywhere. However, to suggest that because you hail from Lewis you are automatically (and this is by no means an exhaustive list of the accusations to which we are subject): small-minded, nosy, gullible, brainwashed, judgmental, unsophisticated, dogmatic . . . well, I think they call that racism in the big cities, now, don’t they?

Secondly, yes, there is an indigenous culture. You may shout that there isn’t and that we only say that to be exclusivist, but I’m afraid that’s just cultural imperialism talking. We are a Gaelic people. It is possible to learn the language and not be one of us, just as I can learn French but never be a Frenchwoman.
Thirdly, whether it suits you or not, the Free Church (other denominations are available – buy a book, learn the history of this place you’re calling ‘home’) has done much to shape and influence our culture. People of my generation well remember having to be home by midnight on Saturday, or not being allowed to make a noise in the garden on Sunday. Compliance came from respect for your parents and for the norms of your community. We weren’t quite so obsessed then with pleasing ourselves regardless of who it upset.

Yes, there were always those who didn’t appreciate the Lewis Sunday, but they were never so tormented by their own ego as to think everything should change for them.

It’s all about that – self. The issue of ‘being a woman in the church’ likewise. I clumsily told Coinneach that I don’t think of myself as a woman. Perhaps his journalistic nose twitched at the thought of such a story, ‘Free Church woman identifies as deacon’, but he merely raised his eyebrows quizzically.

And now I will explain: I try very hard not to think of myself at all.

That’s what we’re called on to do as Christians. I didn’t start this blog because I had a Free Church feminist agenda to push; I don’t. My stance is that gender doesn’t matter in the church and to say, ‘why can’t women . . ?’ is really tantamount to asking, ‘why can’t I?’ Don’t whine to your elders; go to God, and see what He says. He has a role for each of us – but it is according to our gifts, not according to our gender.

There have been many jokes about me ‘having my eye’ on the pulpit. The sermon I alluded to writing  at the beginning of this blog was not my own, however, but that of the minister of our congregation. I write summaries of them for the church social media account and help them reach a wider audience that way, hopefully. Those on the outside of the church might pity me these limitations, though, and be horrified at the jokes which are always predicated on the assumption that no woman will ever preach in the Free Church.

But I feel no self-pity. I am not a poor soul. Eldership is not a wee accolade for the person, it is a role endowed with the authority of Christ. Leading the congregation in prayer is not an ego-trip, nor are pastoring and evangelising; these are serious responsibilities which are the lot of those called to serve.

Instead of looking at others and wanting to be who they are, and have what we think they have, we must look upwards and ask God what he wants us to be. He intends each of us for service to His glory. I think we imbue the ‘patriarchy’ with more power than they possess if we honestly believe that they are preventing any of us from being what God intends.

The Isle of Lewis is what it is – James Shaw Grant said it best when he called it a, ‘loveable, irrational island’. It need not try to be like other places. For me, it’s lovely in its own way.

And likewise, being a woman in the Free Church is also lovely in its own way. It is where God has placed me. I don’t intend to limit myself or Him by looking longingly at the pulpit, or even the suidheachan mòr; I need to fall back on my faith, ask where He wants me, and say to Him, ‘Here am I, send me’.

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?

 

Bovril, brokenness and adoration

This week, I went to pieces over a jar of Bovril. I’ve never liked the stuff anyway, but finding it lurking at the back of my kitchen cupboard was unexpectedly emotional. It wasn’t mine, you see; it was Donnie’s. And seeing it there, knowing I would have to throw it out, and that I will never again buy another jar of the revolting substance brought me to tears.

Every clear-out I have is difficult because, no matter how thorough you’ve been, there is always something. It is like stripping away layers of your life together. When you come across the object – Bovril, a CD, a book – you remember it in its old context. And now you have to deal with it in its new. Worse, you have to decide whether to keep it or not. It would have been ludicrous to keep an out of date jar of beef tea, though, so I didn’t. It was thrust decisively into a bin liner in a single, rapid movement I’ve become very practised at.

It took me months before I could do that with his toothbrush, or his toiletries. There is still a bottle of his aftershave in the bathroom cabinet. Little by little, as kindly as you can to your own heart, you have to make changes.

Two months after he died, I traded my car in for something that had never been parked in the hospital car park, nor sat for a week outside the hospice. I just needed a neutral vehicle, with no leaflets about coping with cancer in the door pockets. But it took more than a year before I could shake myself to give Donnie’s car away.

Grief is a painstaking process – it is like piecing the mosaic of your life back together with a toothpick, after it has been shattered into a billion shards. Some days, none of the tiles fit, and all you can see are empty spaces.

But that is not every day. Or, at least, it is not every day for me.

For a long, long time, I could not bear to sing Psalm 100 along with the rest of the congregation. It was too poignant, there where we married, singing the verses I walked down the aisle to. Every time it was announced, I wanted to flee from the building before the precentor even got to his feet.

But I knew this could not be allowed to continue. It is a psalm of praise to God – it is not about me, or my loss, or my grief, or my very unbecoming self-pity. So I read it again. I read it over and over, trying to hear His voice.

I’m no theologian. In fact, a lot of the time, I worry that I might veer into heresy, or take too much on myself in how I read God’s word. The Bible is not art, or poetry, and it isn’t safe to interpret it just how you please. But this Psalm speaks to me very clearly. It says ‘come into His presence with singing’, and it says, ‘enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise’.

It does not say, ‘come into His presence and sing’, or ‘enter His gates and give thanks’. We are surely to come into His presence already doing those things.

But, more than that, as I have found out – we are to come into His presence by doing those things. Praise Him, bless His name for all that He is and all He has done, and He will draw very near.

There are many shattered lives in this world. People see their plans unfulfilled, their hopes and dreams broken before their very eyes. The world is a place of brokenness and has been since the end of Eden. We were intended for perfection, yet we chose sin. If God was the cruel, remote entity unbelievers would have Him be, the story would end there and the atheists would be right: this world would be all there is. After all, we made our choice. Knowing and living in perfection, our first parents still rejected it and left us this legacy of grief, of doubt, of corruption and all the manifold horrors that sin brings in its wake.

God has not dealt with us as we deserved, though, has He? He offers us the beauty we rejected. In Jesus, He has made for us, not a mosaic from the pieces of our old life, but a perfect, new creation. I see it, even as I fit my life back into some semblance of order.

What I thought were spaces in the picture, are simply those things which are unseen. They are what will endure, just like His steadfast love.

Asked last week to write a short piece on ‘adoration’ for the forthcoming Free Church Day of Prayer, I had no hesitation in basing it on psalm 100. It does not represent loss to me any longer; but the only gain worth counting.

If we are His people indeed, ours will be a song of praise without end.

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.