Wee Frees and Wise Men – Not Mutually Exclusive

When the Calvinists of the Free Church in Stornoway are not busy oppressing the people who want to exercise their free will by swinging a golf club on Sundays, we like to sit around, oppressing one another. Old Christians try to prevent young Christians from enjoying themselves, men keep women in their place (the kitchen), and, I suppose, the ministers whack the other elders on the knuckles with a wooden ruler if they overstep the mark. Our times of fellowship are an endurance test, with the first person to laugh put outside by the bins.

It is remotely possible, though, that we are just harsh and humourless by nature. I mean, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame everything about us on Calvin. The atheist intelligentsia has been doing that for a long time – they blame him for destroying Gaelic culture, for taking art and music from people’s lives and they blame him for stealing Christmas.

John Calvin, a.k.a. The Grinch.

There was, it is true, a tendency among the Reformers to distance themselves from these holy days which had been so much a feature of the Roman Catholic church. Nonetheless, Luther permitted its observance and Calvin . . . well, Calvin’s position was not exactly as it has been portrayed.

The celebration of Christmas had already been abolished in Geneva before he went there, and it was later reinstated during his temporary expulsion from the city. By the time he returned, Calvin had either mellowed somewhat, or had not been strongly opposed to it in the first place, but he stated his intention to allow Christ’s birthday to be marked as the people had become accustomed to doing.

Knox shared Calvin’s reservations about the celebration of a day not explicitly prescribed in scripture. Christmas was eventually banned in Scotland by an Act of Parliament in 1640. Despite its repeal 48 years later, it continued as a very low-key festival, not becoming a public holiday until 1958.

Now, however, more and more Presbyterian churches in Scotland are tentatively marking the religious significance of Christmas. In what looks like a binning of the rule-book, the dour men in black are decking the halls. Or something similar.

Well, what does the rule book say about the matter?  The Westminster Confession of Faith says that, in addition to the Lord’s Day, there is room for. ‘solemn fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner’.

It is the manner of the celebration that matters: the spirit in which it is done and the intention behind it. If the primary objective is to point to Christ, to glorify God, then the marking of Christmas is entirely compatible with the ethos of every Calvinist church.

Of course, the Westminster Confession of Faith is itself based on Scripture, and it is back there we must go if there is any doubt about the rightness of such a move. One of the objections levelled by people like Knox himself was that the Bible does not offer any authority that December 25th is the birth-date of our Saviour. Far be it from me to call poor Mr Knox a pedant, but . . . Surely the material point here is not when the Son of God was born, but that He was born. Only last weekend, we reflected in church upon the startling fact that, in the storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee, it was God who slept, in the person of His Son. That was the real miracle – that God, as John Betjeman wrote, was man in Palestine.

He was born, then, and we have several accounts of how this came about. In John 6:38, He Himself addresses the why, ‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me’.

From that incarnation stems everything that we have as believers, starting with hope. Hope was born the day He came into the world, and gathered in strength towards the cross and finally the triumph of the empty tomb. It is because of God incarnate that we have been redeemed from the bondage of our own sin and the certainty of death.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I cannot think of anything more worthy of celebration.

Not celebrating as the world celebrates. The bloated excess of Christmas as it is marked and commercialized these days would turn the least sensitive of stomachs. In that feast of self-indulgence, all that remains of Christ is the name – and there are those who would expunge even His name from the proceedings.

Last year, Christmas Day coincided with the Lord’s Day and we concentrated in church upon Mary’s Song, and upon the importance of unwrapping and making our own the gift which God has given us in His only begotten Son.

This is the message of Christmas when told properly. The world took Christ, it beat Him and abused Him, and it finally crucified Him.

Now, it is doing the same with His very name.

It was appropriated, and all the meaning with which Christmas is redolent has been leached out, to be replaced by a consumerist frenzy.

Advent is all about waiting. It is about silence. And it is about anticipation of the greatest event our world has ever known. This year, I am grateful that I will be able to draw aside with God’s people, singing His praise for what He did all those Christmases ago:

Sacred Infant, all divine

What a tender love was thine

Thus to come from highest bliss

Down to such a world as this.

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?

 

Better a Bible in the post than being post-Bible

The local patriarchy of the Free Church this week played a blinder: they allowed a woman to share a platform with actual men. She was asked for, and allowed to express what can only be described as opinions.

Of course, it was a safe enough move – they probably know that they have brainwashed her so thoroughly that whatever she says is really just furthering their agenda.

But what is their agenda? Well, that depends on who you speak to.

The people of superior intellect, the ones who really know where it’s at, they say it’s about hanging onto power. That’s why these men want Lewis to be a six-day island, why they want folk going to church and reading their Bibles. It’s about maintaining status and holding sway.

My dizzy wee brain has been working on this problem for a while now, but I can’t for the life of me figure out the nature of their power.

Some of them have a strong handshake. And there are others who can lift a pretty flat rendition of the psalms out of the doldrums. Is that the power?

Or maybe they mean something a bit more, well, mysterious.

On communion Sunday, I’ve seen a few elders do a deft, wee trick in which they simultaneously shake your hand and take your token. That?

Or, perhaps it’s the power to drive cailleachs in minibuses to church. Or the power to visit the housebound. Perhaps it is, when all is said and done, the power to be a stoical presence for you in the worst moments of your life.

I have not forgotten the elder, despite all the hard times I give him, who came to me after my husband’s funeral service, and put a comforting arm around my shoulders. Or the minister, up off his sickbed, to visit and pray with me on my first morning as a widow.

Nor do I forget the moments of real empathy I have experienced from men who had plenty other things on their mind, but still saw how fresh grief for others might reopen old wounds for me.

They are counsellors, encouragers, friends. I see them as what they are – men who love Christ and try to serve Him in an increasingly hostile world. Many of them are husbands, fathers, grandfathers. Some are retired, the rest are in a wide variety of jobs.

Among them are people who can’t hold a tune, who are handless in the kitchen, who can’t match a tie to a shirt, who are hopeless at small talk, whose jokes are a bit corny, who are simply not for turning.

These men are human. Real. But they are making an utter hash of being an exploitative patriarchy.

Not one of them has ever whacked me over the head with the Shorter Catechism (or the Larger, which has more impact). They do hover protectively about the pulpit steps as I pass, but I don’t think they actually expect me to try storming it.

Or maybe it’s all a clever ruse so I won’t spot their real agenda.

The Presbytery event they permitted me to attend marked 500 years since the start of the Protestant Reformation. This was, amongst other things, a reaffirmation of the complete sufficiency and authority of the Bible.

In other words, if you are trying to figure something out and popular opinion says one thing, while the Bible says quite another, scripture gets the final say. It’s well worth being clear on that point – scripture, not ‘the church’, and certainly not individual men within it.

Recently, a shopkeeper in Stornoway was sent a Bible by the Lord’s Day Observance Society/Day One, accompanied by a supporting letter. She, it would seem from all the media coverage, felt threatened and harassed by this, which I would assume was not at all their intention in contacting her. Their motivation I think I can guess at. They were trying to remind the lady that, whatever she thinks is right and acceptable, the Bible says otherwise.

This, to the unbeliever feels like an imposition, like the dark-suited men of the church trying to assert some authority. They are – but not their own. It is not about control; it’s about love.

I know already what the response to this would be: ‘I don’t believe what you believe. Live your life the way you want and leave me to do likewise’.

However, the plain truth of the matter is that, regardless of whether you believe or not, God’s supreme authority as revealed to us in scripture is that: supreme. For a Christian to accede to the ‘leave me alone’ request would be a denial of one of the central tenets of their faith. When you have been plucked out of dangerous waters yourself, you do not sail blithely away, leaving others to drown.

Remembering the birth of reformed doctrine is not just an idle look into history for Christians. The man credited with sparking the birth of Protestantism – Martin Luther – is an example of that. He also felt the weight of unwarranted authority pressing down on him and, like many non-Christians, regarded God as a distant figure, threatening damnation for every misdemeanour.

And then Luther’s eyes were opened, and the chains which bound his heart fell away. He risked his life to bring that same freedom to others – all because he opened scripture and really read it.

Receiving a Bible should not offend you: it means that someone cares for you very much, and wants you to have all the chances they’ve had.

 

In unity to dwell . . .

Many years ago, my granny used to tell a story about an indignant woman from her own neck of the mòinteach who once nailed a list of her grievances to the door of the manse. While I would in no way suggest this as the best means of communicating with your minister, it certainly would be a non-confrontational means to tell him . . . oh, I don’t know, say, how much he hurt your feelings by implying you wouldn’t get a singing voice till Heaven. If that had happened. Hypothetically-speaking.

Generally, though, nailing stuff to doors is not the way to get taken seriously. Particularly, I would imagine if, like the woman in the story, your missive culminates with a threat to ‘cud of’ the hands of anyone removing your notice. Such dark ravings will only ensure that people avoid you in the street, while also keeping your exploits alive in folk memory long after you have passed away, hopefully to that place where – apparently – everyone will have the voice of an angel. She added, bitterly.

There’s one fellow, though, we remember for the door-nailing carry-on, not because his behaviour was eccentric, but because his influence was so far-reaching and long-lasting. Martin Luther did not like what the church had become and so he took very direct action, according to tradition, hammering his 95 complaints into the door of Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517.

This set in motion the chain of events which history recognises as the Protestant Reformation. It was not a time for subtlety, or gentle implication. Objections had to be nailed to doors, not whispered in corners, or written into politely phrased letters.

These days, though, perhaps we need to hammer our concerns to the inside of the door. It really takes someone exceptional to effect change from outside and, in the case of the church, isn’t it always better that we work together for the greater good, rather than react to external forces?

Luther, and the other Reformers are not remembered and revered because they created the ultimate schism. Surely, we celebrate their legacy because their eyes were opened to the truth, and they were used by God to relentlessly spread that message, whatever the personal cost.

One very important facet of their message was that Christ is head of the church, no one else. As such, then, it is His church – not ours. Logically, therefore , the outworking of that is for us to treat the church as we would wish to treat our Saviour. Of course, I hardly need add that by ‘church’ here, I mean the people, not the building.

Who has not been moved by descriptions of His plight at Gethsemane, and at Calvary? Which Christian has not shed tears over this perfect man being made sin for our sake? And yet, which of us has not harboured ill-feeling towards one of His sheep? Haven’t we had partings of the way which were unedifying and unnecessary? Most would agree that there are few things sadder than a family divided. How much more true is that of God’s family?

Besides, if we are of the reformed faith, then surely we must remember that the Bible is our guidebook. Too often, we act on our own instinct, which is never a good idea.

I don’t know about you, but my instinct is governed and guided by ego, by self-interest, and by pride. I may even be the guiltiest of the sinners in my church; I wouldn’t be surprised.

Nonetheless, I cannot be the only one whose judgement is constantly clouded by self. Yet, if we allow ourselves to react to every perceived slight and wrong and hurt inflicted upon us, and if we think our own behaviour beyond reproach, then we will always be at odds with a church which is full of imperfect people.

Sinners saved by grace are still sinners. I had heard about conviction of sin before, but really only felt the guilt of it once my prison door was opened. This, I imagine, is a truth which applies to all Christians – that we struggle daily with sin.

And as such, ought we not be moved to help one another, rather than to judge? If sin is our common enemy (which it is), we have more to gain by sticking together, and by helping one another with our burdens. The thief, that is Satan, comes to steal, and kill, and destroy. He knows better than any of us that a divided household cannot stand.

That love which we are exhorted by Peter to have for one another, is the same love which he later tells us covers a multitude of sins. When a Christian stumbles, the world purses its lips, and gleefully crows that he is no better than anyone else. It takes pleasure in his misfortune, and holds up his sin as proof that Christianity is a sham.

This is no more than we have come to expect from the enemies of Christ.

If his brothers and sisters in Christ do likewise, however, or stand aloof in his misfortune, how are they different from the world? And how are they showing obedience to the Lord that forgave them so much?

As Christians, we are the body of Christ. One body, of which no part can be afflicted without it causing suffering to the rest. That is why we are to love one another, to help one another, and to bear each other’s burdens.

Armour was always easiest to put on with help from a friend. If the breastplate of righteousness should work loose, who will help me tighten it, if not my brothers and sisters? And if I see theirs slipping, my hand should be first to help, and my lips silent of all reproach.

 

 

 

Closed minds and open Bibles

I really think that my boss should sack me. If, that is, what I’ve just read about myself online is true. According to the scions of the Western Isles ‘Secular’ Society, I am teaching students about the links between goblins and the Reformation. Yes, goblins and the development of the Protestant faith, if ever I applied for Mastermind, would probably be my specialist subject.

Exactly where this would fit into the BA Gaelic Language and Culture syllabus, I’m not sure. Somewhere between St Columba and the Pixies, and Fairies and the Clearances, perhaps. Why let logic get in the way of an opportunity for righteous indignation, though? These so-called secularists have me down as a fantasist of some kind, evidently.

They’re not too bothered about that, however . It seems that they’re happy for me to teach the students whatever lunacy I want, because the real star of this story is not me at all:

It is the pulpit Bible, open upon a lectern in the College library which has them coming over all concerned.

No mention of a be-pumpkined display of books next to it, proclaiming the impending festival of Hallowe’en. Nothing upsetting about a skeleton wearing a pointy, black hat. Books of folktales and accounts of how our ancestors summoned the Devil (roasting felines alive, as it happens) are nowhere near as offensive, it seems, as the Word of God.

The Word of God, which many people died to give us in our own language. Now, some people so filled with hatred as to count that nothing think it should variously be closed, removed,or – rather tellingly for a group which claims to be ‘secular’ rather than anti-Christian – replaced with the Torah, the Talmud, or the Quran. Anything, really, except the Bible, isn’t that it?

But the fact is that the Reformation happened, and it is still pertinent now, in 2017. When William Tyndale vowed that the ploughboy would eventually be better acquainted than a priest with the Word, he really meant it. In fact, he died making it possible.

If only this rather negative wee group of people would think about the irony inherent in this.

The ordinary Europeans were once denied access to the Scriptures in their own language, in order to refuse them spiritual autonomy. They were dependent upon an elite who ‘knew better’ to tell them what they should believe. Sound familiar?

Before the Reformation, the church kept the truth from the people by shrouding everything in a language they did not understand. Kings and queens could read, as could princes of the church: but not the ploughboy of whom Tyndale spoke.

Perhaps it is the legacy of the Reformation that makes me suspicious of an ‘open-minded’ and ‘tolerant’ group which wishes to suppress the truth.

Of course, they would argue that it is NOT truth, but mere legend. Then again, if they really believed that, the open Bible would not have offended them any more than Popular Tales of the West Highlands, sitting on a parallel display in the same library.

They don’t believe it, though. If they did, they would leave it alone. The enormous pulpit Bible – which belongs to me, in fact, and not the College library – would be no more offensive to them than the folktales piled high a few feet away.

One offended, though, and one went unnoticed.

The Word of God has always offended. Or, frightened. People frequently fear what they don’t understand. Surely, though, the rational response is to learn more, not to lash out, not to put it from you, like a terrified child who doesn’t want to see the thing that lurks under his bed.

If this wee insight into the ‘secular’ mindset does nothing else, it confirms that you cannot be indifferent to the Bible, because – fundamentally – it is not just a book like Carmina Gadelica or Scottish Traditional Tales. It is breathed out by God, and has about it the savour from life unto life, or from death unto death, depending on how things are between you and Heaven.

I’ve often been frustrated by the kind of people who call themselves ‘secular’ or ‘atheist’, yet can’t seem to leave Christianity alone. After all, if it’s an irrelevant fantasy – like unicorns – why waste so much energy on denouncing it?

But perhaps that is wrong of me. Isn’t it a good and encouraging sign that they are not indifferent to the sight of an open Bible? Saul of Tarsus was not indifferent either, and see who he became.

In fact, if they would care to step closer to the offending lectern, my ‘secular’ friends would see that the Bible is open at that very Paul’s second letter to Timothy. The magnifying glass is purposely laid to draw attention to this text:

‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’.

May they, one day, feel its reproof and profit from its teaching, even to the point of righteousness.