Religion, politics & doing your bit

If you don’t want to fall out with people in the pub or on the internet, you should steer clear of religion and politics. So, that’s cleared up why I’m so unpopular, then. According to one of my Stornoway Trust colleagues, I actually enjoy getting in the middle of arguments. Although I can see why some people might think that, it isn’t strictly true. Like most non-sociopaths, I certainly do not relish confrontation, but neither am I content to let lies spread unchecked, if they relate to a cause of any importance.

These days, as far as I am concerned, there is only one cause that fits into the aforementioned category, and that is the cause of Christ.

This does not mean, however, that I’m going to restrict myself to reading, speaking and thinking only of theological and spiritual matters. My understanding of what is required of me as a Christian is a little broader than that. In fact – and yes, I know I’ve said it before – I think that believing people have a duty to bring their faith into the orbit of their fellow human beings, whether that is at work, in the community, in public life, or on the internet. Indeed, we cannot leave it behind anyway, even if we wanted to.

At this precise moment in time, I don’t think we can ignore politics either, however much we might wish to. I know that Christians are having a particular difficulty in deciding how to cast their votes, because the reality is that none of the mainstream parties are saying what we would like to hear. If you consider the issues that matter more to believers than to the general public, there is no party out of the big four with policies a believing person can approve. I hear most about the party of which I am a member – the SNP – and their tendency towards support for unbiblical policy.

That is true. But it is also true for the other main parties as well. Neither Labour, the Conservatives nor the Lib-Dems could satisfy scripture in terms of their view on abortion, same-sex marriage, gender reassignment, or LGBT education in schools either.

So, what do we do? Tear up our polling cards and sit at home on December 12th? Or flounce off in high dudgeon and create our own party? That would certainly be in keeping with the Presbyterian way over the last two centuries. We have turned ‘schism’ into a verb, after all.

I have made no secret of the fact that I have wrestled with this issue myself. As a lifelong nationalist and member of the SNP, I have been disheartened by the direction of travel my party has taken of late. Nonetheless, I still believe in self-determination for Scotland and that – regardless of what some of my more overbearing brethren tell me – is not a point of view inconsistent with my adherence to the faith.

The reason, therefore, that I have remained a member of the SNP is that I am still a nationalist. I choose to vote positively, for what I do approve, rather than negatively, against what I do not. Withholding my vote from the SNP because of their stance on abortion, for example, would be somewhat hypocritical if I then put my ‘x’ next to any of the other big hitters – because their record is no better.

More importantly, I do not believe that we can legislate for morality. Nor, really, as Christians, should we want to. Our nation (however you choose to interpret the word) already suffers from the delusion that if people are ‘basically decent, law-abiding citizens’ then they have no need of Christ or his church. What do we achieve by imposing outward morality, then, on a country in state of spiritual decay? I don’t want Scotland to be a whited sepulchre; I want it to obey God’s law because it knows and loves the author.

Early on in the pre-election speculation, I am aware that a wee rumour circulated about me standing on a ‘Christian’ ticket. Despite atheist propaganda to the contrary, I didn’t even stand on such a platform for my election to the Stornoway Trust. I happen to think that it is not a ticket upon which a politician at any level should stand. Be a Christian, and let that speak for itself; let it inform your decisions and guide your behaviour, but never expect that anyone will cast their ballot your way simply because you follow Christ.

Far better for Christians to be part of the electable mainstream parties, and to be a force for change within, than impotent protestor without. It is not an easy matter, to be the lone voice for Christ in any situation – and that is why I fundamentally believe that Christians everywhere have to be tuned into the possibility that God may be asking them to serve him in a different way. We are not all bound to be ministers, or elders; they also serve who only stand for council . . . or parliament, or the grazing committee, or the community trust. Imagine these organisations transformed by the presence of genuinely God-fearing people, elected because they are able and conscientious, and for their personal integrity.

Now, stop imagining it. This is one of these situations, I’m afraid, where you have to quit looking around, quit expecting ‘someone to do something’.

Have you ever thought that someone might be you?

 

May The Force Be With Us (The Real One, That Is)

So, the newshounds  have finally caught up with An Lanntair’s plans to open one Sunday each month. It is a big deal for them, and for those people living in Lewis who don’t like the island very much the way it is. For the media, it is an excuse to point the quaint, wee island out to mainland sophisticates, so they can laugh at our eccentric ways. Somewhere, right now, I guarantee you, a ‘journalist’ is writing copy that contains the words, ‘they’ve only recently been allowed to hang their washing out on Sunday’.

People outside of Lewis love this. To them, we are hilarious anachronisms in black clothes. The only modern thing about us is the microchip implanted in our heads, controlled by the minister from his study computer. Him and his big, fluffy, white cat.

We are other. And we always have been. It makes us fair game.

Here, I’ll empty out the sack of cliches, and you can write the headlines yourselves – just pick and mix. Strictly Sabbatarian. Narrowly Presbyterian. Deeply Religious. Chained-up swings. Swimming prohibited. Wee Frees. Disapproval. Opposition. Planes. Ferries.

You know, the usual sort of thing. Journalists are after a couple of hundred easy words, so I suppose it’s no wonder they resort to rummaging in the stereotype bin. Tomorrow, they will be casually ripping into someone else’s community.

The people I really don’t understand are the ones who live here in the island. I get that they want to make it like everywhere else; no one can punish them for the fact that they apparently lack any feeling for the uniqueness of the place. We have a saying in Gaelic, ‘an rud nach d’ fhuair Niall, chan iarrar air e’. Similar, I suppose to the English: what would you expect from a horse, but a kick?

But do they never stop, in their endless, whining, ‘but I waaaaant’, to think about why Lewis has not ‘caught-up’ with the rest of the country? Could it possibly be because Lewis did not need to be like other places, having enough of its own character to stand apart?

However, the decision is made. The cinema will open one Sunday a month. To begin with. And then the gallery, the cafe, the shop. Will that be enough for our restless secularists who apparently can’t be alone with their families even one day a week? Of course not. Already they are talking about the swimming pool. Then it will be buses, shops, supermarkets . . .

Then, though? Then, they will be satisfied?

Not even then. Discontentment like theirs knows no end. That’s why they are building themselves this house of cards – they think, ‘one more blow against the Lord’s Day and we will be happy; one more victory over Christ and we will have Him beaten’.

They expect opposition from the church. No – correction – they want opposition from the church. It entitles them to rail against religious privilege, if anyone representing an island church raises even one objection to this latest ‘development’.

Well, they won’t get it. The time for that is long past. They are using their God-given free will to spend their time as they choose. Nothing I or anyone else can say will change that. Already, they know that it’s wrong to keep none of it back in tribute to Him. Oh, they’ll deny it. But they know.

It is called the Lord’s Day, not because He commands us to spend it in chains, bored, and reading the Bible without understanding.
He wants us to fulfil our purpose, which is twofold: to glorify Him, and to enjoy Him.

This is not the language of bondage, but of freedom. God wants us to choose to spend time in His presence – He doesn’t compel, or command; and He will not drag you to Himself kicking and screaming.

Though, one day, you may wish He had.

And, even though this step has been taken, it does not mean the atheists have won. They are not victorious in any sense that I can envy. I can say that even though the auditorium will be full on the first open Sunday, because every ticket has already been sold.

It was calculated that way. Some savvy person knew that these superior beings who will not allow their children to be duped by fairytales from the Middle East, would like nothing better than a Sunday afternoon watching aliens and spaceships.

Harmless escapism? I suppose that all depends on what you’re fleeing from.

Meantime, we Christians will be invoking that much talked-about religious privilege. We only have the one, but it really is all we need. ‘The force’, you might call it.

It is our privilege to pray for those who will not pray for themselves. We pray that their eyes will be opened to the folly of what they’re doing; we pray that they will get a heart of wisdom.

Closed minds and deaf ears will not hear our protests; but God is waiting for our petitions. Not – lest they wilfully misunderstand and take offence – petitions that He should smite them, nor anything of that nature. This isn’t Star Wars, you know.

No. Prayers that they will see Him as He really is. And that they will take hold of that for themselves. This is not about power, or imposing a Sabbatarian lifestyle on others.

For the Christian, this is much more important than lifestyle – it is about life. We would have everyone choose that themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

Hats, hymns and the Holy Spirit

I got a bit of a shock last Sunday night. After the evening service, I met my mother. No, that’s not the shock – I’ve known her all my life. But something was different . . . It took a few minutes before I realised: she wasn’t wearing a hat! My first thought was, ‘I knew it – she’s gone back to the Church of Scotland.’ Subtly, I glanced to see if she was carrying a hymn book, and then it occurred to me that I didn’t know what one looked like anyway. Besides, surely I’d have heard if my own mother had absconded back from whence she came.

Actually, she had just got fed-up of hats and decided, at seventy-eight, that it was time to join the aotrom* throng of bare-headed Free Church women. She really does believe in doing things in her own time, and for that . . . well, I take my hat off to her.

The hat-wearing ladies have long since become a symbol of more so-called ‘hardline’ Presbyterian churches. Somehow, people got the idea that the hat symbolised male dominance and female subjugation. As if the Session appointed a committee to discuss such things. ‘What was in style ten years ago?’, the chairman might ask. After consulting a long out of date JD Williams catalogue, one of the elders would say, ‘pillboxes, with a small veil’. Two hours later, an edict would be issued to the local shops – ‘Stock only pillbox hats (with or without veils) and sell these to our women. No gaudy colours – they’re vain enough as it is.’

The hats are fewer and further between with each passing year. You will see more people (of both genders) wearing jeans to church, and fewer men are opting for the suit and tie look.

Last Sunday morning, the preacher mentioned that thousands of others had once occupied the pews in which we, the congregation, were sitting. In the more than 150 years since the church was built, successive generations have indeed sat under the Word there. Fashions changed many times over that period, and so many ministers have mounted the steps to preach in that very pulpit. Even the language of worship has changed. And the light-fitting, the Habitat-esque monstrosity which replaced – I am reliably informed – two perfectly charming pulpit lamps, was also a reflection of the (lack of) taste and mode of the time.

Were it possible for some of these Victorian worshippers to return to Kenneth Street now, they would undoubtedly be struck by some of the outward changes. They might be confused about standing to sing and sitting to pray, or the purpose of the camera, to say nothing of references to soup and pudding, Tweenies and newsletters. And I am certain that they would wonder why the whole affair was being lit by something resembling an oil drum.

But then, the reading from the Word would reassure them that all is still well with their old church. The preaching is as Bible-centred as it ever was, and the congregation hears the truth, however unpalatable that sometimes can be to us. There may not be much in the way of pulpit-thumping or histrionics from the minister, but the message remains the same. One and a half centuries on, the building still resounds with the Good News. People in varying states of grace are awakened, comforted, challenged and fed, depending on their spiritual need.

What you see may be quite different, but what you hear is the same: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.

And what you don’t hear, or see? That would be the Spirit, abroad in our midst, opening ears and eyes, and changing hearts. He was there in the nineteenth century, and He is there in the twenty-first. The church he occupies isn’t, though, the lovely edifice on Kenneth Street but, as 1 Corinthians 3:16 puts it:
‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in you?’

With heads covered, or without, in jeans, or suits, or Sunday best frocks, it doesn’t matter a bit. The world sees and laughs either way. The Holy Spirit is as out of style as the pillbox hat, but His work goes on regardless. And the world rejects the Holy Spirit because they cannot see Him. To them, it is all reminiscent of the Emperor whose new clothes were not merely invisible, but nonexistent.

Christians, nonetheless, are to clothe themselves in the Spirit. That garment supersedes trends or fads, and resists the restless human desire for novelty and innovation. Whichever church you go to which claims Christ as its head, this will be the dress code: come as you are, and He will do the rest.

 

Notes

* lit. Light, insubstantial – used colloquially to denote spiritual superficiality.