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.

 

Lewis Revival – A Reaping Time

When the sign reading ‘Lewis Revival’ went up above a Cromwell Street shopfront in Stornoway , I’m sure it stirred a similar train of thought in the minds of many onlookers. It was not lovely vintage cups, or upcycled furniture I pictured, though, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

There are certain episodes in this island’s past which inform its cultural identity.

As we approach the centenary, of course, people are well aware of the ‘Iolaire’ disaster, when so many men of Lewis and Harris lost their lives within sight of home. That marked this community deeply.

Only a few years after, many more would leave forever on other ships – the ‘Marloch’, The ‘Canada’ and the ‘Metagama’: names that would resonate down through the years.

Lewis was not easy to live in. It struggled to support its native population and, frequently, the answer offered to the poor was ‘go elsewhere ’.

We hear their story often. The Lewis diaspora. They went to the ends of the earth and made the best of it. Some prospered. And some didn’t. Eventually, their deaths would be reported in the ‘Stornoway Gazette’, because, no matter where they were in the world, they belonged here. It was circumstance that sent them away.

Or, to give it another name, providence.

And that same providence kept others at home. Gradually, they honed a community from what was left. Even another war did not finish them.

Far from it.

The generation of young men who fought the war against Hitler, they were the old men of my childhood. There was something about many of them – a kindness, a patience and a quiet, dignified strength. They had seen horrors that my pampered mind cannot conjure. And they came back to this quiet place to make a life.

Only four years after their return, a spiritual awakening began in Barvas. Such events can seem sudden to us, looking as we do through the lens of history.

But God prepares the ground before he plants. Mary Peckham, a reluctant convert in 1950, explained to an American audience many years later what the Lewis of her youth was like. She described how ‘gabhail an leabhair’ was the norm in every household – family worship morning and evening. Unconverted people, that is, as well as Christians. Everyone. And the children were educated in Scripture and in the Shorter Catechism. Little children were learning some very big truths.

And as a result, she said, when God sent His spirit down, ‘there was fuel to burn’.

You cannot make a fire by simply lighting a match, after all. There has to be fuel, and something to make it catch.

I was confined to the house recently because of a stubborn flu. And while I was, I listened to a Gaelic sermon I’d missed in our own church. It was about revival as prayed for in Psalm 126.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,we were like those who dreamed.

Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.

The psalmist is not indulging in wistful daydreams about better days long ago. He evokes an older time of bondage from which God released His people, asking – and believing – that He will do so again.

Being aware of our history and of our spiritual heritage as an island people is not an academic exercise, however, and nor is it a foray into nostalgia.
The writer of psalm 126 is not asking God to make things exactly as they were in the glorious days gone by. That wouldn’t benefit anyone, attractive though it may seem.

No, the reason we need to remember these times of revival is so that we pray in earnest that He will send His spirit down again. Nothing short of that will bring the spiritual growth we so desperately desire to see.

This time, though, the fuel is more scattered. While we meditate on God’s goodness in past days of revival, and ask Him in His mercy to remember us once more, there is something else we need to do.

We need to gather together, building up in prayer and fellowship what will become His fire when He chooses the moment to send forth the spark of life.

The history of Lewis is worth keeping in our consciousness because through it, God’s faithfulness frequently shines. As a people, we bore with providence and held fast to Him. I have written elsewhere of how the twin demons of war and emigration were faced down with the singing of psalms. God’s providence is our inheritance, the motto of the old town council, says it best.

He has shown Himself faithful through it all; what reason have we to think that He will fail us now?

He hasn’t; He won’t. We must bear with His timescales and His plan. Think of what he has brought us from and what He has brought us to. Think of who He is and what He has done.

That’s who we are counting on – not governments, or economists, not churches, and certainly not ourselves.

His providence is our inheritance, and our heritage is established by Him. It is an unquenchable flame, and He is not finished with us yet.

 

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.