Downcast, but not Outcast

Usually I look at the mirror only out the corner of my eye. I figure that’s the kind of glance most others will give me throughout the course of the day and anything that doesn’t scream at me out of the reflection – giant spot, cow’s lick etc – is unlikely to be noticed by a passing stranger either.

Sometimes, though, I’m brought up short. Lately, the circles under my eyes are darkening, and bags are starting to form. Altogether, I look uncannily like my Carloway granny. This will mean nothing to most of you, but suffice it to say that my late husband, when he wished to pay me a compliment, would remark on how lucky I was to have taken after the other side of the family. Let me tell you, things are bad when you’re hankering after the days people thought you might be from Achmore.

Eye bags and blemishes notwithstanding, this is still not the most disturbing reflection I have encountered this week. I have to confess to something of a struggle; one of those challenges to my faith that cannot simply be brushed aside. It is something I have heard often from others, and always tried to talk them out of – but lately I find myself tested by the same question: what are we supposed to do when the church behaves worse than the world?

There is no sense in pretending that this is not sometimes so. The Bible provides us with plenty examples of it – righteous men, like Jacob, for example, using deceit to achieve their own ends.

So, if it’s there in God’s word that a cheat can still enter the kingdom, who are we to doubt it?

This week, I have been disappointed by the behaviour of some fellow Christians. It is not something that needs to be discussed here, but it has caused me much reflection. And, as always, God provides direction. I shared a favourite Bible verse on Facebook – Peter’s exhortation that we should always be ready to give a defence of the reason for the hope that is in us – and I expressed sadness that no one ever asks for a reason; they merely mock my faith.

Might that not, however, someone pointed out, be my own fault? I should clarify, he wasn’t being unkind, and he didn’t single me out – he actually said ‘the fault of believers’. However, I am singling myself out, because he was absolutely right. If I don’t show forth the hope that is in me, who is going to ask about it? The very same day, in the course of searching for something else, I discovered an old tweet in which I was described as representing Christians the same way that Richard Dawkins represented atheists.

Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place. Unbelievers have consistently described me as ‘bitter’ and ‘hate-filled’ – because that is how I come across to them. I have failed to go where they are, to get alongside them, and to represent Jesus as what He is to me, and what He could be to them. Hung up on protecting our Christian heritage, I have somehow managed not to show love, but judgement.

This was never my intention. It just shows you, though, there’s a wide gulf between the person we see in the mirror and the face we present to the world.

We have to be careful of that. I am not suggesting that we compromise on the message, but that we have to be careful of its presentation. Of course, I know that a certain amount of whatever we might say will always be met with derision, regardless. At the weekend, I inadvertently offended a whole lot of the Twitterati by sharing the petition to retain prayers in parliament. It was deemed arrogant, and I genuinely don’t think that it was anything I wrote which gave this impression – simply the fact that some are determined to despise public expressions of faith.

I am downcast, but I have been downcast before. Failure in the Christian life is actually an opportunity to relearn that we are not to do this on our own strength, or in our own wisdom. Ironically, that’s exactly why I think all public bodies should preface their daily business with prayer.

We have, as Christians, to be doubly careful because, as the quote goes, the world may not read the Bible, but it will certainly read us – our lives, our conduct, our motivation, the way that we treat others. Instead of me being disillusioned by what I perceive as unChristian behaviour in others, I need to work a lot harder on the page I am presenting to the world myself.

Am I displaying Christ, and the unparalleled hope, the joyous freedom I enjoy in Him? Yes, I write about it, and I talk about it too – but am I living it? Do those currently outside Him look at me, and at my life, and see nothing there to recommend this path? Am I actually hiding the marvellous light from them, instead of testifying to it in a life filled with joy?

I am reminded of an old lady who was asked if she ever doubted her salvation. She replied that she would often pray to God that if He had not already begun a good work in her, please would He start now. It’s never too late to begin.

God doesn’t speak in order to dishearten us, but so that we might rebuild the wall where it may have tumbled down. He has given me my answer – never mind the speck in their eyes, but worry about the beam in your own. All the while I’ve been getting bent out of shape over the behaviour of others, I have been drifting away from where I ought to be. That is not God’s plan, but the enemy’s.

Courage, Dear Hearts – God is Not Silent

‘Aslan is on the move’. This is surely the simplest and yet, most memorable line from CS Lewis’ Christian allegory, ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’. A Narnia suspended in perpetual winter by an evil ruler who has no rightful authority, thrills at the mere mention of Aslan’s name. Even though they do not yet see him, they know he is at work.

I know God is at work. We worry that He has forgotten us; we worry that He has grown cold towards our disobedient, sinful world. But eachtime that fear seizes our hearts, we ought to engage in a single act so important to the Christian, yet so frequently overlooked: rememberance.

The nameless thrill felt by the Narnians is based upon a memory –of who Aslan is and what he has done in the past. In the moments that they dwell their hearts upon him, all fear of the witch melts like snow in spring.

Of course, we know that God is sovereign and can accomplish anything. But it isn’t actually His power that comforts – it’s His goodness. The two are, of course, like all divine attributes, related to one another. However, it is the knowledge that His strength will be exercised for, and not against us that inspires Christian confidence. When you regard Him from within the security of the resurrection, you experience the perfect love which casts out all earthly fear. His hand will not be lifted against those who love Him.

So yes, I do believe that God is on the move. He is always active, of course. Just like Aslan in the story, we should know that He does not cease simply because we cannot always discern His work.

The lion’s great return was preceded by rumoured sightings and deeds here and there. It is exactly this way with God: just when we may be despairing of ever hearing His voice in the land, He makes himself known in power.

Since beginning this blog, many people have written to me of their hopes, but more often their fears regarding the Kingdom. The cause of Christ is so under attack in this world that it’s hard for those who have been on the journey for a long time to remain encouraged. Sometimes I felt that people looked to me simply because I was younger in the faith, and still flushed with that first love and the enthusiasm that goes with it.

It is almost three years since I formalized the contract with Christ, and I can tell you that I am more filled with hope now than I was then – not less. Of course I have wavered and faltered, and failed Him many times. I am far too slow to forgive, quick to judge, and reluctant to give of myself. Far too many days have ended with me confronted by a sense of having let Christ down when I should have been a witness to Him.

But – mercifully – my hope has got nothing to do with my conduct, any more than my salvation does. My increased optimism comes from knowing Him better, and from seeing how He exercises me in all those sins. Every day of life, I have fresh proof of my own weakness. Couched in Christ, however, that is actually a greater reason for hopefulness – that He will deal with my sin, and conform me a little more to His own likeness all the time.

Not only do I know Him to be personally active in my own experience, but I have a strong sense of His activity beyond that as well. It may seem a little perverse tosay this but, in some ways, I think the so-called ‘secular’ movement in Scotland has been of benefit to the faith. Encroaching danger has been the means of rousing our slumbering watchmen to action. Here in Lewis alone, people have been forced to pick a side more than once – with good results for the cause of Christ in our midst.

On Friday, my inbox filled up with repeated requests to sign the petition for retaining daily prayer at Westminster. There is a network of believers, seized with fear that God is being removed from public life – and prepared to do all they can to restore His place. I hear from the lips of believers often, ‘God’s cause is under attack’.

Remember, though, God’s cause has been there many times. The Bible is full of nations turning away from Him utterly. Great swathes of the Old Testament would have you despairing. Yet, that doleful history is shot through with prophecy; with the promise of a coming Messiah. This narrative unfolds over many centuries: hope recedes into despair, only to re-emerge with yet another prophet, reminding that redemption was indeed at hand.

It came in the glorious blaze of light we find in the Gospel, in the person of Jesus Christ. His perfect love for us drove out the darkness.

He was on the move then, and though He is seated in heaven, Jesus Christ is still active upon the earth. Of course He is – His people, His prized possession are here, bought with His own blood. Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be. What a heart we have, then, inclined towards us in all we do. Is it likely that He could ever forget?

No. He IS coming back for us; and meantime, He is active in us, and on our behalf. What can the world do to the Man who defeated death?

Tolerance is Not an Option

The Scottish Government is considering a change to hate crime legislation in this country. That they are consulting extensively on it up and down this land – even in extremist Stornoway – is surely an encouraging sign. I wasn’t able to attend the consultation, being one of those subjugated Wee free women, but I have every faith that the Men in Black would have filed into the town hall, banged the table, shouted ‘Kenneth Street says “no”!’ a good few times, and generally held up the stereotype to which our national (and sometimes local) media so loves resorting.

Knowing my place (the kitchen) does not, however, prevent me from having concerns about the proposed overhaul of laws relating to – in particular – hate speech. While I wholeheartedly agree that such behaviour has no place in a civilised society, I worry that lowering the threshold on what constitutes, for example, hostile language, will criminalise people who are actually motivated by love.

Not two weeks ago, I saw someone, commenting on a Facebook thread, in which she was outraged at a minister saying that we are all sinners. She denied her own claim to that title, saying that she had never done anything wrong in her life. A remarkable paragon, indeed, but a sadly mistaken one.

Being a sinner is not like being an organ donor, or a contributor to your employer’s pension scheme: there is no opt-out. Read Genesis 3 – it’s all in there. Nor is it anything to do with whether you remember your mother’s birthday and hold the door open for old ladies. I have never murdered anyone, nor stolen from them, nor plotted the overthrow of a legitimate authority (unless you count the Kirk Session); but I am a sinner.

It’s important that this exercise fully takes on board the fears that Christians have, because we already know where the wilful misunderstanding and hostility of other people can lead. Before any individual, or government makes the grand claim that they are tolerant of Christianity, I think they should be aware of the challenges with which it will present them.

‘Tolerance’, originates from the Latin ‘to bear’ or ‘to endure’. However, it has become a word much associated with our liberal, anything goes society. People ‘tolerate’ what they cannot approve. You can say with impunity that there is no God, that those who believe in Him are fools (or bigots); and you can rewrite His rules – so what if He created them male and female, there is no gender. In fact, so what if He said ‘you must not kill’; we have the means to terminate life in the womb and if that life is going to inconvenience someone by seeing the light of day . . . well, it’s intolerant of anyone to try saving it.

You see, I don’t think that you can ‘tolerate’ the Christian faith. It is founded upon a Man who is a polarising force – you are with Him, or against Him; you are lost, or you accept salvation; you belong with the sheep or the goats; you are bundled as chaff and burned, or taken safely into His storehouse as wheat.

Christ will not allow us to tolerate Him. And when I say ‘Him’, I mean that to include His Church. Those of us who love Him and follow Him, and have founded all our hopes upon Him . . . we are members of His body. Strike at us, and it is actually His wounds which bleed.

If you change the law of this land so that a minister preaching the Gospel faithfully can be accused of using hate speech simply because you don’t being called a sinner, you are placing many souls in jeopardy. He is a Christian, called by God to spread the saving truth, because faith comes by hearing. Stop his mouth and you are building a dam against rivers of living water. It is not the preacher of the Gospel you offend, but Christ, who IS the Gospel. You are keeping the lifeboat at bay for yourself, certainly, but you are preventing others from climbing on board as well.

On a personal level, I fear what this kind of legislation might mean for my blog. In the past, writing on attempts to change the Lewis Sunday, I was accused of stirring up hatred, bitterness, and even racism. I examined my own heart, and I scoured what was written, but nowhere could I find what offended the unbelievers.

What offends them, of course, is love. The preachers of tolerance claim to embrace all kinds of love. But they do not actually see the only love worth having when it is held out to them. Believe me, I understand: there was a time when I couldn’t see it either.

And this is where the whole edifice stands or falls. Christ is calling to every one of us to either take His side . . . or move aside.

A ‘tolerant’ society does not understand that the Gospel was made to be offensive. It does what our government, our society and – increasingly – even our churches – will not do: it calls us out on our bad conduct. But we live in a world where words like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ have virtually been excised from public discourse. We are wise in our own sight, and we have turned away from God.

Regardless of what laws a godless country might pass, followers of Christ know what they must do. I don’t want to be tolerated; I want to be heard when I say to people dead in sin as I once was:

‘Come, see a man who told me all I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’

He requires of you an answer. As CS Lewis said, ‘Love Him or hate him, Jesus forces that choice upon you’.

Tolerance is not an option.

 

 

 

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.

 

The Port We Long to See

This week, since donning my own ‘Iolaire’ pin, I have noticed them on other lapels also. Like the poppies which we are so used to seeing annually, they are a silent, unifying act of remembrance. To wear one, I think, says something about how much this place and these people mean. For me, the men who were lost on that night, and those whose lives were changed forever, are still part of the chain to which we belong. That lovely custom of patronymics – bearing not only your own name, but that of your father, and grandfather before him – has kept us linked to one another across years, across great distances, and even on either side of death.

It will soon be one hundred years since that night which entered the Lewis psyche, arguably never to leave. I am a believer in Carl Jung’s collective unconscious: that there are areas of the subconscious mind which are motivated by experiences we did not personally have, but which are inherited from our ancestors. Because I believe also in original sin, this makes perfect sense to me. Add to that the strength of what we now call community in this island, and it is small wonder that wounds inflicted a century ago have not quite healed.

And, of course, our own particular experience may add a poignancy even to something so far in the past. When I was younger, I could listen to Murdo MacFarlane’s ‘Raoir reubadh an Iolaire’ with relative equanimity. Now, I find his description of the woman’s dawning grief virtually unbearable:

Sguir i dhol chun an dorais

‘S air an teine chuir mòine

She ceased going to the doorway

Or putting peat on the fire’

I had so many years of waiting for my husband to come home that, even now, three and a half years after his death, on some level I think I am still waiting. Nonetheless, I know what it is to feel your hope dying, and for loss to move from being an abstract thing that happens to others, to being a reality from which no earthly power can liberate you. For me, it didn’t happen when I was told he would die within a matter of days; it happened when they removed the PICC line, which had delivered the hope-giving chemotherapy into his arm. It was symbolic of the death we were now all having to accept. There would be no more going to look hopefully out the door for me either.

 But, just as light drives out darkness, life overcomes death. You must go on, and the providences which God gives will shape your dealing with others, as well as your understanding of self.

And, as it is with individuals, so it is – I believe – with community.

The Lewis that awoke from the last year of war into a January filled with nothing but grief must have faltered at first. There must have been, as there is for every one of us who has lost a loved one, the thought that recovery from this would be impossible. And there were difficult times to follow; not least the years of emigration because, much as people wanted to cling to their home island, it could no longer support them all. As Donald MacIver put it, in these lines from the beautiful ‘An Ataireachd Àrd’:

S na coilltean a siar chan iarrainn fuireach gu bràth;
Bha m’inntinn ’s mo mhiann a-riamh air lagan a’ bhàigh;
Ach iadsan bha fial an gnìomh, an caidreabh ’s an àgh,
Air sgapadh gun dìon mar thriallas ealtainn ro nàmh.

In the woods of the west I would not wish to remain;

My mind and desire were always on the hollow by the bay;

But those who were generous in deed, in fellowship and joy,

Are scattered defenceless like a flock of birds before its enemy’.

 Scattered: by war, by the Atlantic, by death. And yet, still those names belonged in the patronymic chain. It may have been strained by absence, and by distance but, like the heaving rope which brought so many men alive from the Beasts of Holm, that chain held fast.

 And it holds fast even now. We don’t wear these badges to mark a distant and remote event, but a personal grief which has permeated life in Lewis and Harris since the turn of 1918. I like to think that it has shaped this community, made it finer and stronger, and knit it closer together. Even though we will have times of drifting apart, and of falling out, remembering is an act which will always unify us.

The sinking of the ‘Iolaire’ ended 205 lives, and blighted many more. This was part of the same providence which the Stornoway motto claims as our inheritance. I have often heard expressions of surprise that such a bitter experience did not turn the survivors against God. That incredulity comes from the same place that caused someone to ask me whether I had been angry with Him for taking Donnie. 

Job’s answer ‘Shall we receive good from God, and not receive evil?’ is the right one here. Like Job, and like the psalmist – over and over – we have to take providence and let it do its work. Those more challenging aspects are not something we recover from, but something which becomes part of our identity. 

To commemorate this centenary is only partly about those who were lost, although of course that’s significant too. We have, also, to be thankful for the fact that God was faithful to this community: a constant in the years of turmoil. Many gave their sons, and who understands that sorrow better than Him? 

The poppy, a symbol of violent death, is paired with the bell, a symbol of holy power on the lapels of islanders this year. May they be tokens to us all of the One who perfectly unites both, and sees all His people safely to the shore.

 

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.

Life Goes On (and On)

A good friend told me a story about a lady who, some years ago now, was renowned for her tour of the communion circuit. She was something of a legend in her own lifetime and, when she passed away, a neighbour asked her husband what he was going to do now. He replied, ‘keep her in the house for a few days – something I never ever managed before’!

Women who are rarely at home are the stuff of Lewis humour. ‘Falbh nan sìtigean’, ‘rèibheireachd’ and ‘sràbhaicearachd’  have all been used as slightly judgemental ways of  referring to these shameless hussies who will not settle to the domestic life.

I have become one such. In a short space of time, I have been transformed from a  woman who rarely left her own fireside, to one who hardly gets to see it at all. Before I was widowed, I spent a lot of time in my own company, which I didn’t dislike. Donnie, before falling ill, worked all week at Dounreay. He would phone at the back of seven in the morning, and at teatime, and again at bedtime. It took me many, many months not to feel anxious away from a phone at ten in the evening; and I have only now stopped taking my morning shower with the bathroom door open, so that I could hear if he rang.

Life revolved around him, around us and around our home. I was content to ‘potter’.

So, when he had gone, I suppose I worried that time would sit heavy on my hands. At first, it didn’t matter, because other people filled the hours, or I walked the dog, or watched television, or worked in the garden. During that initial raw stage, I kept myself safe, and didn’t stray too far from home. I did a little redecorating, planted flowers, and slept soundly at night.

Through those months, I was sustained by my new-found assurance. Nothing was too big, or too terrible to bear because all my trust was not in a fragile human being who could leave me at any moment, but in Christ, who never will.

It was, of course, a sad time. All my routines, all my touchstones, all my plans . . . these made little sense any more in this strange, new world. But, when I look back on it now, I also see that it was a precious time.

I am reminded of the life of Elijah. In case any elders/ministers/outraged cailleachs are reading this, I am not comparing myself to the prophet. Well, alright, maybe just a little.

When this tower of strength and obedient zeal for the Lord was frightened, he took to his heels. And an angel of God ministered to him, persuading him to rest. This lovely interlude in the account of Elijah’s life reminds us of the need to conserve energy, and to draw back from the fray when it becomes too much.

My life has changed radically since those first months when I was ministered to tenderly by God. He gave me that time, I believe, as a gift, to prepare me for everything that would follow. I don’t suppose it ever entered my head as the first gaping wound slowly healed, that I would eventually regard that time in my life as an oasis. But it was.

Now, three years on, I have what Lady Bracknell would disparagingly call ‘a life crowded with incident’. I am rarely to be found in the house at a sensible hour, and hardly a day goes by without some sort of extra commitment – or even two or three. I have had to start operating a ‘system’ to keep abreast of where I am meant to be.

None of this is helped by the fact that home is a twenty-minute drive away from work, church and the various other places I now spend my time. Last week, I had a post-work meeting every single day. The previous week was about the same.

And, I hit a wall of tiredness and discouragement. So, I did exactly as Elijah did. Oh, you’re thinking, how very wise Catriona is. Follow the prophet’s example and you can’t go wrong.

How did he end up being ministered to by the angel, though? He took to his heels in fear and he ran – not to the Lord, but to find shelter for himself. That’s the behaviour I replicated: Elijah ran for the shelter of a broom tree; I took myself away from church and the fellowship of God’s people. I skipped a Sunday evening service because I was tired, and then a midweek prayer meeting. And, while I’m in confessional mode, I may as well say that my private worship was not all it should be either.

Thankfully, this weekend was an ‘in-house’ communion. There is a quietness and a peace about it, which encourages a spirit of restfulness. We heard about the strength and power in the Lord’s hands, but also the tenderness – and the knowledge that before His hands were extended towards me, they were first outstretched on the cross.

How did I ever allow myself to forget, in the midst of all the bustle of life, that my best shelter is there, under their protection?

 

 

 

The Electronic Mission Field

During a recent gathering in our church hall, the minister asked how many of his congregation were regular users of social media. Quite a few hands went in the air, despite the fear that he may be about to chastise us for wantonly dabbling in a century other than the one to which we belong (the 19th, according to many sources).

It was more unsettling than that, because he just looked mildly interested, and sat back. No shouting, no threatening – okay, he didn’t have a pulpit handy to thump, but really – and no accusatory pointing.

In still greater nonconformity to the stereotype, he was asking this question in the context of a wider discussion about Christianity and media: traditional and social. These have been a growing consideration since the 20th century came to the rest of Scotland and even occassionally lapped at the shores of backward, wee Lewis. Of course, with the advent of radio, and then television, the implications for the church have been catastrophic.

Last week, I challenged an assertion by the Scottish secularists, that it had been the norm for ministers in Lewis to regularly peer through windows, to ensure that people weren’t watching anything mì-chàilear on television. Nonsense – one minister on his own would never have been able to handle the workload – obviously there must have been a crack team of elders supporting him in these endeavours.

No intelligence was offered on what happened in the event that the entertainment being indulged in did breach Presbyterian etiquette. Did the outraged minister burst in and switch the set off? That would certainly have been more impressive and dignified prior to the remote control: imagine the interloper having to first rummage around under the sofa cushions, before he could eventually zap the offending signal.

It must have been an enormous relief to these overworked killjoys when the dear old Beeb closed down with God Save the Queen at midnight.

Now, though, media is 24/7. The recent discussion in our church hall was an acknowledgment of the challenges this poses to Christians. It is a minefield for young – and not so young – people. Satan lurks where we sometimes least expect, and the newer technology has provided him with a host of opportunities for trouble.

We hear about cyber-crime, and the dark web. And every parent should be aware of the threat posed by that laptop, or tablet with which their child spends so much time alone. What are they looking at? Who are they talking to? Are your family safe in their own home, or are you harbouring – unaware – a stranger who means you harm?

Of course we have to be mindful of the dangers. The internet is both an extension and a mirror of this sinful world. There is real evil to be found there, as there is here.

But also real potential for good.

I have heard prayers that people would spend less time on social media and more attending the means of grace. While I completely understand the sentiment, and the intention, I’m afraid it’s an unhelpful approach. Attendance at the means of grace should, without question, take precedence. We all must begin by ensuring our own spiritual lives are healthy before going elsewhere; but there has to be a Christian presence online as well.

Why must there? Well, obedience to the Great Commission – ‘go, therefore, into all the world’. The apostles had to wear out shoe leather doing that, but we can fulfil at least part of the command at the touch of a button.

On Friday, I was able to testify to Christ’s work in my life to a Highland-wide audience, using only my mobile phone. I sat in an empty classroom at work, and shared in prayers and witnessing with people I have never met. We could see each other, and speak like friends.

During the recent Trust election, I maintained a smidgen of sanity because of my WhatsApp support group. We anchored our daily discussion in the Word, and in worship music, and we had virtual – yet very real – human fellowship.

Videos of our church services go online now. A Gaelic sermon, preached to a congregation of perhaps seventy people, will be heard by five hundred more. And they feel connected to it because they can see the preacher and the precentor, as well as hear their words.

Aren’t these valid uses of technology?

Stornoway Free Church has never just been confined to the building on Kenneth Street. It has always been missional, sending people out into the field at home and abroad. Cambodia. Moldova. Uganda. Leaders go off to camp several times a year. And on our own doorstep, Campaigners, Sunday Schools, Christianity Explored – reaching out to the lost.

Now, though, mission has a new dimension. Make no mistake, it has its own difficulties. Christians will be pilloried and despised online as they are in the world; people will ignore your message on the internet, just as they do in person. Those who do not set foot on the threshold of a real Church are unlikely to click on your website link, or Facebook page just because it’s there.

But online mission is important, and I believe we have to get better at it. The people are there, and so many of them are lost.

Instead of praying that Christians would avoid social media, shouldn’t we be encouraging them to bring their witness to it? God does not send His soldiers into battle unequipped and, if we place our faith in Him, He will make us equal to this task also.

I can testify to the fact that technology is not bad, or wrong if, like anything else, we deploy it in His wisdom and not our own. Let’s encourage the world to look through our window, and let’s show them nothing but Christ.

Rumour, Lies and My Religious Privilege

Many years ago, news swept through Lewis that a particular local minister had passed away suddenly. Fishermen preparing to set out for sea kept their boats tied-up in the harbour out of respect. A solemn air descended over the surrounding districts in response to the loss of such a well-liked figure.

Except he hadn’t actually died. He was very much alive, and in robust health. Not only that, but he was pretty annoyed about the rumour, and made every effort to locate the source. This was finally traced to a bus driver and, so, the next time the good reverend had occassion to use the service, he confronted the gentleman in question.

‘What do you mean by telling people I was dead?’ the minister demanded.

‘Well, the last time you were on this bus, you told me that if you were spared, you would be waiting for me at the crossroads on Friday morning. And, when I drove by, you weren’t at the stop. I know a minister would never lie, so I naturally assumed you had passed away’.

Ministers were minor celebrities. Walk into any home in the island – especially where there was a cailleach – and the sideboard would almost certainly have at least one framed photograph of the local reverend in pride of place. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that they were the Kardashians of their time but, had Lewis had its own version of ‘Hello’ magazine, manse families would certainly have featured prominently. Hard though it may be to believe now, there would indeed have been an appetite for a six-page colour spread on which wallpaper the Stornoway minister’s wife had chosen for the dining room.

Times have changed. The churchgoing population of Lewis – as we are constantly reminded – has fallen from where it was. It is still a national envy-inducing 44%, but that represents a minority nonetheless. We are aware of that position, and reminded of it repeatedly by another – even smaller – minority: militant atheists.

Supposing a mischief-making bus driver wished to circulate a rumour about a man of the cloth nowadays, chances are he would be met with blank stares and ‘who?’ from his audience. These manse-dwellers have slipped in the social rankings because they are seen as representing something irrelevant to the majority of the island population.

I don’t like the label ‘last stronghold of the pure Gospel’ being applied to Lewis (or anywhere) because it is either Pharisaic, or sarcastic in its application. Besides, the stronghold of the Gospel is not actually a place; it is a Person.

Regardless, we have been a peculiarly privileged people in our spiritual heritage. That much is undeniable. It should not be viewed as a a source of pride, though; rather as a solemn responsibility. Luke 12: 48 reminds us of that fact – because we have been showered with blessings as a community, we surely should be paying it forward.

Statistically-speaking, although there are fewer of us with a ‘live church connection’ here in Lewis, there is one reason for evangelical optimism: the mission field is growing all the time. The net figures suggest that there is a trend towards in-migration to the Long Island. That is, somewhere in the region of 100 – 200 new people arriving among us each year.

These people come – according to research carried out in 2007 – largely for lifestyle reasons; drawn to the peace and safety of Lewis. It remains a stronghold in that sense at least.

We want to welcome them in with open arms, and we want them to settle here, so that they will love it as much as the natives do. And one of our priorities has got to be addressing the lie that Lewis somehow suffers because of undue influence from the church. That is an untruth which has gone unchallenged for far too long. It does not come from people who move to Lewis but is, I fear, an unwanted resident of long-standing.

Some born and brought up here, privileged as I was to be surrounded by Christian witness and teaching, have not yet been awakened to their own need of that truth. They have, for whatever reason, opted to reject it. Not content, however, with pushing it away from themselves, they are trying their utmost to dash that cup from the lips of others. I don’t mean me, or other practising Christians either, because once you are secure in the Saviour’’s hand, no amount of angry Facebook trolling by atheists can unseat you.

No, they are trying to stop the message of the Gospel from reaching those who need it most – the unsaved. They are a stumbling-block to their own children, and even to many who move to this community and misguidedly believe the lie that the church is a suffocating, dictatorial influence.

We have, as a Christian community, been quiet for far too long on this matter. Gradually and without apology, we are being discriminated against for our faith. Schools quietly ditch decades-old practices like morning prayers and grace before meals on the say-so of one or two atheist parents; but will not reinstate it at the insistence of many more Christian families.

After hearing, last night, from a South Sudanese pastor, of how his people suffer and die for their Christian faith, I hesitate to call what is happening here persecution. It is, for now anyway, discrimination. But the insidious creep of hatred often starts small.

I have lately been told by various vocal individuals that, in holding elected office, I have no right to act according to my ‘religious interest’.

What is my religious interest? If I believe that I am already saved – and I do – what am I striving to hold onto?  Nothing this world offers, I can promise you that. My interest is in becoming more like Christ, and doing what He wants of me; He wants me to be more like Him, and to have a heart for the unsaved.

Praying for those who hate Christianity, and witnessing to them about the power and love of Jesus Christ – that is my religious privilege. Which man has the power over a conscience committed to God?

 

Raging & Witnessing

Once, when I was eleven years old, someone really annoyed me. When my shocked teacher returned to the general mayhem of the classroom after playtime, she found me, standing on a chair dishing out a full-blown row to one of the boys. She gave the accustomed blast to everyone to get back to their seats and be quiet. Me, she took aside, and instead of the expected punishment,said that she’d like to see more of that kind of spark in future.

Great displays of temper are largely beyond me. Recently, I was ambushed by an angry secularist who claimed not to have been following the ‘debate’, but still knew that I was in the wrong. I simmered, but stayed calm. It was ill-judged and inappropriate in every sense, on her part, but I should have walked away much earlier nonetheless .

We have been hearing a lot recently in church about situations like these and, more specifically, where you are denigrated in public because of your attachment to the Lord. The correct response is not to say nothing. It is, pretty obviously, not to respond in kind either – we know better than to stoop to that kind of reviling and abuse. God wants a bit more of us than that.

And so I remember the one area of my life where aggression sometimes manifests. I am a pretty impatient driver. People dawdling along in front of me, pulling out at junctions when I’m almost upon them, waiting at roundabouts when they have the right of way . . . these can bring out the Mr Hyde to my normally placid Dr Jekyll.

However, I had the capability to subdue my baser instincts behind the wheel in one significant set of circumstances. At election times, displaying a sticker in support of my party of choice, I would turn into the world’s most courteous driver. Smiles, waves, signalling folk to pull out into the flow of traffic while I waited with a beatific, Mother Theresa-style countenance (or the Wee Free equivalent) – all these were suddenly possible. I could be an ambassador for that cause.

Surely this one deserves that same consideration, and more: much, much more.

What more can we do, then, when someone tries every lie available to sully our reputation? Other than walking away, that is, or standing mute before them.
Well, Peter wants us to bless them. He wants us to bless them so that we can show them by our good conduct how far short their own falls of what Christ requires. In other words, we do not just omit to revile them, but we actively do something for them to demonstrate the power of the Lord in our lives. That’s important to remember, or we just couldn’t do it.

He is in charge; they are not. The fact that they behave as though they are in complete control of their own destiny should cause sympathy in our hearts, because we know that is not the case at all. We have been where they are. And we did not take ourselves out of danger.

Earlier this week, I listened to a talk about the loss of the ‘Iolaire’ at New Year, 1919. There was, after the war, something of a spiritual revival here in Lewis. These men who had been in such grave peril were turning to God in peace time.

I hear some say that this is understandable – that after the unimaginable horror of war, compounded by loss of life on the threshold of home, they looked for something outside themselves.

There is no logic to this. Not in the ordinary sense. In looking for God’s hand, might they not see it as coming down against them? Some of those men witnessed the loss of childhood friends, the stench of battle in nostrils more used to the fragrance of machair and the tang of seaweed at home.

So, when they sought God, why did it lead to faith, and not rebellion against Him? Why were they not angry and reviling like the people in our own midst, who see the Lord only as someone who denies them freedom?

I can only think that it is this: those men saw God as He really is. They looked for Him, and they found Him – His spirit witnessed to theirs, and they were healed in their souls.
For the angry ones here in our own island, there is a difficulty. They are not looking for God, but pushing Him away. As yet, they do not see Him as He really is.

That, I think, is where Christians have a job to do. We must subdue the angry words that rise to our lips when they call us the names that they do. And we must shrug off the lies that they tell, because God, our witness, knows the truth.

It serves no one – least of all our Lord – for anger to seize us. This week, I have watched people tie themselves in knots to prove that theirs is the correct point of view. Ministers, one argued, must place the Bible between human conscience and false teaching. I disagree; I think all believers should position Christ there.

You cannot unsee Christ once He reveals Himself to you. No matter what else your eyes may have witnessed – battle, sickness, death, despair – suddenly they are filled with Him.

He is the truth. And once you have the truth, you are set free – from doubt, from anger, from all the cares of the world.

It is my job, the job of every follower of Christ, to quell our anger, and guard our tongues. Sometimes, I fear we distract from the Saviour, instead of pointing to where He stands.