We Are Jolly . . .Honest.

When the minister announced that the theme of the evening would be ‘joy’, I wondered what we were in for. Surely not another lecture about excessive smiling, or raucous laughter in the church stairwell. Surreptitiously, I glanced down to ensure that I wasn’t wearing anything too gaudy. Nope: the usual hodden-grey as befits a Presbyterian widow of a few years’ standing. Oh well, I thought to myself, maybe it’s some other denomination that’s been bringing the cause into disrepute, because it certainly ain’t us.

Only, it turned out that he wasn’t warning against joy; he was actively promoting it. Not in a Ken Dodd, how tickled I am, sort of manner, I hasten to add; he was speaking up for spiritual joy – the real, enduring kind.

Now, Lewis Christians are not widely associated with joyfulness. That, for anyone who doesn’t recognise such things, is a monumental understatement of the type that only a dour Presbyterian can make with a straight face.

Anyone can – and, apparently, will – tell you of the myriad ways that Wee Frees (other denominations are available) have of spoiling your fun. We have taken an integrated approach, restricting not just dancing and the singing of worldly songs, but all forms of audio-visual entertainment and the reading of fiction (which we equate to lying). Thanks to people like me, families are being forced to spend time together at weekends instead of in municipal facilities, with disgruntled local authority employees who want . . . well, to be at home with their families.

It is time, social media tells us, that Lewis moved on and left all this stuff behind.

I have frequently drawn attention to the terrible things that are written about Christians on the likes of Facebook, and I will continue to call out that kind of bigotry for what it is. But, oh, how I wish we wouldn’t keep providing unbelieving folk with an opportunity to drag the cause through the mud. We have to be so careful: as wise, indeed, as serpents, while always endeavouring to be as gentle as doves. More is expected of believers than to simply blurt out the truth uncompromisingly in a ‘take it or leave it’ manner. That way lies the kind of misunderstanding that has caused our own community to think followers of Christ are joyless.

It comes down, however, to a definition of ‘joy’ which transcends the world’s understanding of it.  You will understand that it is not the kind of superficial feeling that is emotionally-led, and tied to our circumstances. My own moments of deepest spiritual joy came in the midst of the greatest grief of my life – because I had assurance of salvation for the first time. And, as the minister reminded us in the course of his unexpected sermon on joy, that salvation comes with a whole host of non-optional bonuses. Two of those – joy and peace – are interrelated and, I believe, feed one another. No matter what happens in my life, I have the abiding joy of knowing Christ, and the peace that comes along with that.

This is true of every Christian, of course, not just me. So, why are we such a poor advert for our faith? Why does the view persist that our ministers are of the I.M. Jolly stamp, and we ourselves a narrow-minded chorus of nay-sayers and lip-pursers?

Well, there are several reasons, I think. Some people just naturally incline towards seriousness, and this is how they will be as Christians too. Our essential personality does not change that dramatically. There is also the division between believer and unbeliever created by the simple fact of our once having been as they are, while they have not yet had the privilege of seeing things from our vantage point.

This divide causes a certain spiritual blindness in the unbeliever, and Christians should be sympathetic to it, because we were all afflicted with it once ourselves. Being sympathetic to it, however, also means that we have to engage a certain amount of emotional intelligence in our witness.

Let me offer an example. In the midst of all the dignified commemoration of the ‘Iolaire’ disaster, there was one discordant note struck. A local minister wrote an article for his district’s magazine, which was subsequently shared to the national press, and dragged back to the lair of Facebook to be torn asunder. I have read what he wrote and – spiritually speaking – there is nothing wrong with it. It was taken out of context, though, and has been most shamefully spoken about in various public forums.

However, he must surely have known that this was a possibility and it was, at best, naïve of him to attach the comments he did to a piece on this very emotive topic. I realise, because I am theologically literate, that he did NOT say those on board the ‘Iolaire’ particularly were all sinners who deserved to die; he was speaking in more general terms. But it’s a nuance that is easily lost on those less versed in Scripture, as well as those who wilfully misunderstand what, deep down, they fear.

This is where we surely have to employ some wisdom. While something may be true, is it necessarily the best thing to present to those who still have not met Jesus? I would contend that the first thing to do with such people is effect that most important of introductions, and all other things will follow from there.

I am certainly not saying that we should hide the offensive truth from them, but I am saying that we should not brandish it in their face at every opportunity. Wouldn’t it work better if we showed them the pleasure we take in belonging to God?

The recent sermon on joy ended with words from the book of Nehemiah on the dedication of the rebuilt wall, ‘The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away’. That has to be our aim too, if we are serious about bridging the gulf in our community between those who love the Lord, and those who have not met Him yet: let them hear our joy, and crave it for themselves.

 

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.

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.