Somewhere Under the Rainbow

All eyes are on Stornoway this weekend. It is hosting its first ever ‘Pride’ march, and the usual suspects are waiting, with baited breath, to see what ‘the church’ will say. Here and there we have seen the anticipatory wee asides – ‘what will a certain institution say?’, or ‘time tolerance came to Lewis’. And that, far more than the march itself, makes me sad.

If we are to retain community – not ‘religious community’, or ‘gay community’, or any other subsection, but the really integrated kind – we have to stop defining ourselves in opposition to what we are not. 

I have to hold my hand up here and admit I don’t understand what ‘Pride’ is meant to achieve. Modern society in the west can hardly be accused of not knowing such lifestyles exist. It surely is not about raising awareness, then. Neither can it be about rights because people who fall in under the LGBT banner have all the legal rights they’ve ever campaigned for. So what is it for? 

The only thing I can think of is that they’re marching for acceptance, to be normalised by people like you and me. But you cannot demand that people approve of you – you cannot foist a change of heart on total strangers.

As a Christian in the modern world, I know this very well. I am not entitled to liberally share my opinions wherever I please, nor to demand that others ‘tolerate’ my beliefs. In fact, where my faith comes into conflict with contemporary society, it is always I who must moderate my behaviour. If I was being honest about my opinion on this march, then, I’d have to say that human beings, marching under the banner of ‘Pride’ – for anything they are or have done – is utter anathema. An encounter with Jesus is enough to tell the haughtiest, most self-satisfied of us that pride is the last emotion we’re entitled to feel in regard to ourselves.

But, as I said, the march itself is far less of an issue than the opinions it has brought to the fore.

Some Christians in our midst have chosen to speak out against the lifestyles ‘Pride’ celebrates. I don’t think that’s particularly helpful. The condemnation of the world never brought one lost soul to Christ; but His love can reach anyone. Showing forth that love, and its influence in our lives, that’s what we can do for those who feel they live life on the periphery. It was the condemnation and judgement of her neighbours that kept the Samaritan woman from the well. But it was meeting Christ there that brought her true liberation, and made her free indeed.

She couldn’t have known that following Christ also makes you an outsider in this world. I don’t call myself persecuted, because I am still allowed to carry a Bible in public, to worship openly, and to speak to others about my Saviour. However, being a Christian does make me an object of some people’s hatred, and many people’s misunderstanding.

Just last night, I received an email from someone, via this blog. They were responding to my most recent post, and suggested that no Christian should have any involvement in public life here in Lewis. Every time they used the word, ‘Christian’, it had inverted commas around it – the inference being that those communicants holding any kind of elected office cannot genuinely belong to Christ. 

As a believer, I am repeatedly judged by unbelievers. They will pronounce on the falseness of my faith, the impropriety of my conduct, the tone of my debate, my lack of grace, my lack of love, my ignorance, my unfitness to hold public office, my unkindness and my intolerance. I do not meet their standard of what a Christian ought to be, because I am not perfect; and also because sometimes, I have to disagree with the things that they do.

Mercifully, for them and for me, God is not so unreasonable. He doesn’t expect perfection from sinners like myself; He only asks that I follow Him, and tell others to do the same.

So, for the marchers today, I pray for a removal of groundless pride. Not to be replaced by shame, though, as they might expect; only God’s love and grace, which cover a multitude of sins. The rainbow of His promise belongs to everyone who claims it as their own.

Carried Away by Passion

If you leave the windows on the west side of your house open, there is a risk that the sluagh – fairy host – will come and carry you off to their own country, a land of enchantment and confusion. It was a little like that for me on Friday evening when some folk from the west (well, Barvas) persuaded me to a place where nothing much was as I expected.

Even although it was our communion weekend in Stornoway, I had agreed to go with these enchantresses to view a production of Bach’s St John Passion at An Lanntair. We were intrigued by the idea that a venue which has cultivated such a reputation for hostility to the Christian faith should be hosting an evening of sacred music. Of course, I do not yet begin to hope that this is any kind of a softening of their position: evidently, many people consider this work by Bach to be great music and nothing more.

How very wrong they are.

It struck me quite powerfully, as I sat in church the following night, listening to the visiting minister preach about the two thieves on the cross. Both were in the presence of God, both heard and experienced the same thing; but one went, blaspheming, to a lost eternity, and the other to glory with his Saviour. And in every place where the gospel is preached, that is potentially true. Some will hear and believe; some will go on rejecting the salvation message.

I would imagine that there were some listening to, and perhaps also performing in, the St John Passion who would fall into the unbelieving category. They may have the highest appreciation for Bach’s undeniable talent as a composer, and they may very well think the libretto attractive, but that will be as far as it goes.

Except, of course, that is never as far as it goes. In fact, their decision to utter, or even just listen to the words of John’s gospel places them in a position of responsibility. Every time you have the truth placed before you, there are only two possible responses: acceptance or rejection. There is no third box marked ‘appreciation’.

This glorious – and beautifully performed – work is still, at heart, a proclamation of the gospel message. It carries the audience through the harrowing final hours of Christ’s life on earth. Each time I read that account, I feel a potent mixture of things: guilt, shame, empathy, gratitude. But, of course, when I read the Bible for myself, I do so in faith; and when I hear the gospel message preached, it is from men who have been called to proclaim it.

If you do not believe John’s account, then it cannot touch your conscience, nor move your heart. But neither does it leave you as you were before you heard it. Every instance of the good news being broadcast provokes a reaction.

Many years ago, I said to my parents, ‘I’m off to Martin’s Memorial to see the Messiah’. Ignoring my father’s wry rejoinder – ‘I doubt it’ – I set off in the company of some equally unbelieving friends to enjoy an evening of sublime music. Despite the fact that it draws significantly on Isaiah, some of the minor prophets, the Psalms and the Gospels, it didn’t bring me, there and then, to Christ.

I was, however, sufficiently impressed to buy a CD of ‘The Messiah’, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, which I listened to many, many times. Even when I wasn’t reading my Bible, I listened, and even when I didn’t see any beauty in the feet that brought good tidings, I thought this the most glorious noise I’d ever heard.

Music of this kind, though, is more than just sound: it’s ministry. Closing our eyes so that we can appreciate the beauty is fine; closing our ears so that we do not hear the still, small voice is not.

Although I was not converted the evening I first heard Handel’s beautiful composition, its message resonated with me throughout the years. Sometimes, in church, a verse would leap out at me and I would recognise it from his oratorio – crooked paths being made straight; comfort ye, my people; by his stripes we are healed.

The reason for that is to be found, not in me, not in the beautiful music, but in the book of Isaiah.

God’s word will not return to Him void, but will accomplish what He has sent it out to do. I need have no anxiety for those hearing the gospel message in whatever form it reveals itself to them, because He has a plan – for every note, every recitative, every rest in the great and glorious composition of which He is the author and conductor.

Whether An Lanntair knows it or not, last Friday, it was beaming out the word of God into its own auditorium. And from there, none of us knows where it might go. Pilate asked ‘what is truth?’ while standing before its living embodiment; but God opens eyes and hearts where He will.

Yes, even in an arts centre in Stornoway.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

FPs and children and bears – oh, my!

My grandfather’s cousin Maggie was headmistress of a primary school in Uist for many years. Every communion season, she would faithfully shut the school on Thursday morning and trot all the kids off to the Free Presbyterian service of preparation. She did not ask parents for permission, nor enquire as to the nature of their personal belief system. If it was now, I have no doubt that complaints would be lodged, enquiries initiated, perhaps even suspension of duties agreed. Maggie would be seen as imposing her ‘narrow’ views on other people who profess to possess none of their own.

Maggie would be vilified. And that would be wrong. Sometimes, a bit of perspective is what we need.

Recently, I spoke to someone who had been a pupil in her school. He smiled fondly, remembering the two-hour church services, a great alternative to lessons. Meanwhile, he said, the transport delivering that day’s lunches to the wee school would arrive to find the place deserted, neither teacher nor children to be found.

Her eccentric devotion played havoc with the routine. And yet no one spoke against her.

You see, Maggie was respected. She was a very competent teacher, and a good person, with real heart for the children in her care. When news circulated that Hercules the Bear was on the loose in Uist in 1980, she took steps for the children’s safety. Rather than risk anything happening to them, she kept them in after school. For a party.

Who says Free Presbyterians don’t know how to have fun?

The parents were used to her idiosyncratic approach to educating their kids, but trusted her implicitly. She loved children. I know that because the few times I was in her company as a little girl, I could sense it. Genuine affection spilled out of her, and she did not try to contain it, nor repress it. Everyone was addressed as ‘a ghaoil’; and she meant it.

Her former pupil who spoke so affectionately of her to me added something else. There were sometimes children in her school who were in need. They were not allowed to remain that way for long. Maggie acted, you see, not from a merely sentimental view of childhood, but with a practical, Christ-like love.

When He acts through the Maggies of this world, the Lord is not narrow, but expansive. She gave with both hands from a full heart. Hers was a life of devotion – to her family, to her community, to ‘her’ children. By loving them, she was serving her Saviour, and I believe she sought no higher honour than that because she had the wisdom to know there is none higher.

And so, to the present. If she was headmistress now, think of the administrative nightmare that Maggie would be. How many risk assessments and PVGs would it take to curb her enthusiasm? What would the food hygiene inspectors say about the congealed lunches served to pupils late back from the day of humiliation? Most concerning of all, what would the liberal thought police say about the children being exposed to Calvinist extremism?

Well, I’ve heard enough of their po-faced, reactionary hysteria to take a guess. They would suggest that she was indoctrinating their children, abusing her position, being unprofessional. She failed to check which god, if any, the families worshipped, before bringing them along to meet hers.

I think we can all understand the need for rules, for standards, and for guidelines. But does no one else long for those days when we didn’t rely on them quite so much? A time when kids came home in the boot of a neighbour’s car because he was giving so many a lift in bad weather. Or when teachers could hold your granny’s displeasure over you as a threat if you didn’t really feel like going to Scripture Union that week.

We didn’t have an obsession with health and safety, nor with political correctness. Yet, we were more tolerant, more caring, more . . . real. There was community, and there was respect. No, we didn’t talk about it half as much as people do now, but we practiced it a lot more.

Maggie had retired from teaching before all of this, and I’m glad. She would not have understood why progress and coming into line with the hallowed land of ‘everywhere else’ had to mean the death of community. There would have been no place for her in this brave, new world.

That alone tells me that we are on the wrong path – one where our children are bound to meet something much more terrifying than any bear.

 

 

 

Adoption, supper and the empty chairs

Although my mother repeatedly told me that I had been left on their door-step by some passing tinkers, I always knew I was a MacLean by birth. There is my more than passing resemblance to the said lady, and that hereditary seam of cynicism, sarcasm and general badness which has come down through many generations (on both sides, alas). But, when I made my profession of faith for the first time, I developed a new awareness of what the word, ‘adoption’ truly means.

On the dread night of ‘going forward’, the minister said to me that I was now part of the family of God. Then, he corrected himself, ‘in fact, you were before now’. You are, of course, adopted when you give your heart to the One who created it anew within you, not when you tell everyone else. But I feel he was, in some ways, right the first time.

I think something important happens when you make your love for Christ known to other believers.

The first time I went to the Lord’s table, I was accompanied by another woman’s husband. Despite the fact that he is a deacon in our church, he was not actually some Kirk Session-issued escort, there to keep me in check; he was a friend, making sure that I did not have to take this momentous step alone. While I waited for him at the church door on Sunday morning, knots of people – twos and threes – I didn’t even know, approached to say how pleased they were. A lovely group of ladies asked if I wanted to come in with them.

The previous day, after the service where communion tokens are given out, I was met outside church by hugs, kisses and handshakes. There was real, open joy on the faces of these men and women.

We know that there is much rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents. Here on Earth, though, there is also much gladness among God’s children when another joins their ranks. It is like a second layer of adoption. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not suggesting that there is any deficiency in spiritual adoption. However, for myself, I feel that the Lord has heaped extra blessing upon me by placing me into such a wonderful spiritual family.

This family – like any other – can only truly be understood from the inside. What the world may see as odd, eccentric, or downright bizarre, makes perfect sense to us. It creates bonds which are completely pure, between people of the opposite sex; between people of different ages and backgrounds. In meeting together, there is real affection, and genuine enjoyment in one another’s company.

We may greet one another with the holy kiss mentioned by Paul in four of his letters, or we may opt for a hug, a handshake, or a smile. These things signify our delight in each other. The original holy kiss is reckoned to have been especially valued by believers who had been cast out by their people as a consequence of following Christ; it represented belonging to the family of believers.

I have experienced the warmth of that acceptance. One precious relationship in this life ended for me, but He replaced it with many more.

All of this enhances, but does not supplant, what God has done in adopting us to Himself. We love Him, but also each other, because He first loved us. He is the great Father, who adopts us and who in making us ‘joint heirs’ ensures that we have the comfort of fellowship with one another, in addition to the indescribable gift that He has already bestowed upon us.

When I sit at His table, it is because I need Him: His grace, His mercy, His love. I remember His sacrifice in the person of my Saviour. And when I look at my brothers and sisters in Christ, I give thanks for them too.

We are His family. There is joy, love, laughter. And there are tears sometimes too. We may weep a little because we miss those who have left the earthly table and gone on ahead.
But the sorest weeping of all is reserved for those who will not sit with us. We want them here, but they prefer not to come. It isn’t about numbers, or filling empty seats. It’s just that, when we are fed, we want those we love to share it with us. And when He feeds you, those you love are not just those you know.

That is the spirit of adoption brought to life in us all. If you are reading this and you don’t understand ‘Bible-bashers’ or ‘God-botherers’, that is the closest I can get to explaining it.

He brought me in out of the cold and He feeds me; but my adoption is not diminished by multitudes more receiving the same gift. In fact, the joy and benefit is multiplied to His glory with every one who pulls up a chair, sits, and remembers that God so loved the world.