And the prisoners heard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image is Everything

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

But, then, awkwardness often is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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