The Way To Go Home

He didn’t look like a threat of any kind, this visiting minister. Taller than what we’re used to, certainly, but of otherwise benign aspect, I unwittingly settled into my pew and surveyed that Sunday morning’s ‘Bulletin’ – and there it was: undeniable proof that we were actually dealing with a dangerous radical. Psalm 118, right enough, but the Sing Psalms version, to be sung while the elements were laid for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Trying to quell my panic, I looked up at the pulpit, and saw our own minister leaning forward, whispering something to the visitor. Ah, I thought, he’ll be pointing out the mistake; he’ll sort this out. Imagine, then, my feeling of betrayal, of abandonment – which I’m quite sure the rest of the congregation shared – as we rose to sing the modern rendering after all.

He had mentioned in his sermon about our tendency towards ‘Jesus plus’. We’ve all heard this before, this human propensity to complicate the saving truth of the Gospel, and to believe salvation requires some input from ourselves. Of course, it doesn’t; God saw what our efforts were worth back in the Garden of Eden. But this radical visitor elaborated on the theme. Adding to Jesus can take many forms, including – he said – our own preferences.

These words came back to me as I sang 118, not to the old, familiar Coleshill, but another tune entirely. Did it matter? Or was I just taken a little bit outside the comfort zone of tradition? I like what I’m used to, but it’s hardly the end of the world if something happens a little differently.

In my folklore classes, I try to teach students about the notion of motifs in traditional tales. There are many versions of, for example, ‘Cinderella’, from a lot of different cultures. Some aspects of it vary from place to place: the characters’ names, perhaps, or their occupations. These things don’t matter very much to the integrity of the story, however. What remains the same becomes a motif, an essential ingredient that cannot be removed without altering the whole message and nature of the narrative.

Well, so it is with celebrating the Lord’s Supper. If he is the host, and we are his people; if we are there to remember his death and be strengthened in faith by meditating upon who he is and what he has done, does it matter which version of a psalm we sing? He is the author and finisher of our faith, not us.

Why, then, would we think that Christ needs our help? This same Jesus who, our visitor pointed out, had been subject to all the traps of this world, yet evaded them in order to present Himself, blameless and clean to God as a sacrifice in our stead – what could we possibly add to Him? I know that I am still liable to be trapped by sin, and even to willingly permit myself to be when it comes to certain of my pet failings. Contrary to what the world thinks we believe of ourselves, Christians do not esteem themselves perfect; it’s just that we recognise sin but – sadly –still sometimes do it anyway.

I suppose that’s one of the main differences between Christians and the world. Having had that meaningful encounter with Jesus, the absolute of truth, you can see where your life is out of true. After all, a line will only be recognised as squint when it’s compared against one that is perfectly straight. If you have not met and been changed by Him, however, you have absolutely no chance of knowing just how far your life has departed from the right road.

So, when we are witnessing – actively or passively, through our conduct – the first, last and most important thing we can do is show people Christ. Otherwise, we risk repeating the mistakes made by the Kirk Session at Cramond who tried to impose godliness on the people of the parish. I’ve been reading Alison Hanham’s book, ‘Sinners of Cramond’, based on the minutes of the Kirk Session over two centuries, and it offers a black and white account of just how futile this is.

It is why, despite much criticism, I stand by what I have said previously about picketing Pride marches or other worldly gatherings. Unless we are telling people about Christ or – better still – bringing them to Him, we are simply exercising our own vanity. We are, whether we intend this or not, being perceived as saying, ‘I’m better than you; I would never live as you do’.

This is why we have ongoing debate about Sunday opening in Lewis. People like me have unwittingly given the impression that the day is the thing that matters; it isn’t. What matters is that people would know Christ for themselves. Then, neither golf nor swimming, nor coffee, nor films would seem all that important – because life would no longer be all about pleasing themselves.

But we have to get better at communicating that fact. I love Sundays in Lewis because they are, for me, an oasis in a frantic week in which I can spend proper time in prayer, in reading, in worship, and in rest. It isn’t my job – or my right – to prevent others spending their Sunday as they wish. It is, however, my privilege to do everything in my power to change their minds so that they will submit freely to the power of Christ.

Others did as much for me. I was not won over by the suggestion that it was sinful to stay away from church, but I was drawn in by the irresistible message of salvation. Christ is enough. And, after last weekend, I am more persuaded than ever that all He requires of us is to point to Him, to His beauty, and to His sufficiency. Show them the Way, and He will bring them home.

 

 

Give Truth a Helping Hand

The written word has an enormous amount of power and beauty when deployed in the right way.  I am a slave to its attractions – always in pursuit of the perfectly crafted sentence, and willing to search out the tools with which to do the job. Being an old-fashioned girl, I still like to write my thoughts out longhand. Give me a fountain pen, and some good quality paper, and I am as happy as any other stationery-loving geek in notebook and ink heaven.

Every writing occasion, however, demands a little subtle tailoring. For the all-too-necessary reminders of where I’m supposed to be, and what I’m supposed to be doing, it’s a raspberry-coloured Filofax (A5, so I can cram it with other ephemera as I go). Notes on the go are jotted down in either a pocket-size Field Notes book, or my beloved Traveller’s notebook system. Proper, sit-down, I’m going to write a blog situations will bring out the big guns – a silver Waterman fountain pen, and thick, Japanese paper.

But the most problematic situation of all has been what notebook and pen combination to use in church. I have tried them all – hardback, floppy covers, clipbooks, reporters’ notebooks, Field Notes steno pads, microscopic pocket notebooks . . . and, oh, the difficulty in finding the appropriate pen! You don’t want a scratchy nib that annoys the people around you, so that caused me to ditch the weird experience that is the friction pen (ink you can rub out).

After much trial and error, though, I have found the perfect combination: the Midori Color Paper Notebook (in yellow or brown), and the phenomenal Zebra Sarasa clip pens in vintage shades of green, brown, burgundy and blue-black.  The notebook is the right size to rest on my psalm book as I write, and the pen glides noiselessly over the yellow paper so my neighbours in the pew can listen undisturbed to the sermon.

By this point – if you’re still reading – it’s possible that I have been written off as a bona fide oddball with too much time on her hands. Here’s the thing, though, these tools matter to me because I love the craft of writing, of placing words on the page, and I don’t want anything to mar the experience.

I single my sermon notes out for particular attention here, though, because it is a very specific kind of writing. The reason I write is in order to summarise the minister’s sermons for publication on our church social media account and website. Given our very good audio sermon section, it may seem like a bizarre idea to have written summaries too. However, you can read one of my summaries in five minutes, you can reread it, and you can find any Scripture references or other quotes made by the minister in the course of his preaching.

Whatever value these summaries may or may not have to our online followers at Stornoway Free Church, they have been of immense benefit to me. I listen deeply in order to note down the main points of what is being preached, and I always finish writing the digest version, feeling that I have really had to engage with the text meaningfully myself.

Two Sundays ago, the striking element of a very interesting sermon was something said as an aside by the minister. He referred, in the context of talking about Amos and the plumbline applied by God, to something quite remarkable from the prophecy of Isaiah.

‘Truth’, he said, ‘has fallen in the street’.

I nearly broke the nib, skidding to a sharp halt when he uttered that sentence. How could the words of a prophet who lived over 2000 years ago be quite so apt for the age in which we are now living?

The image is one we are well used to, of people who lack the advantages we have in life, of homeless folk, and of those whose lives have been blighted by addiction. Of course, the Christian response to that kind of need is certainly not to walk by on the other side. We are supposed to view each and every one of those people as what they are: made in the image of God.

Scribbling frantically in my yellow notebook last Sunday, I listened to our minister preaching on – I believe – one of the most beautiful texts in the Bible: ‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power’ (Hebrews 1:3).

Christ conveys the exact imprint of God and, because of that, Christ is Truth. And this is the Truth we have allowed to fall in the street. We have permitted it by our failure to stand up on its behalf. I said as much to someone recently, while we were discussing the sad state of our society, and he disagreed, saying that it was not our protests, but our prayers that are needed.

Well, I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. Prayer and action are frequently different sides of the same coin: not alternative, but complementary to one another. It is we who have failed the Truth and if we go on our knees in contrition before God, ought we not to expect that he will have a task for us in restoring it to its rightful place? When we are part of the problem, it is only right that he ask us – and that we are willing – to be part of the solution.

Writing the truth, as best I can with God’s help, is my small contribution to lifting it out of the gutter. It is not nearly enough; it is not even enough from me. Writing the word of God, as it is preached, though, reminds me of the great importance of doing linked to hearing.

Another of my jotters is crammed with notes on last year’s group Bible study relating to the Wisdom of James, surely one of the most practical letters in the whole Bible. It reminds us of the importance of prayer, yes, and urges the Lord’s people not to neglect spending time with him.

But he does not separate that from the edict that we should be doers, as well as hearers of the Word. Truth has fallen in the street, expressed in the passive voice though it is, does not absolve believers of blame for its sad condition. On the contrary, it is a plea to our conscience to clasp our hands in prayer, and then extend them in labour to raise it up once more.

Giving Up Sarcasm for Life

Many years ago, my father was in his local shop, where several neighbours were also gathered, buying their messages. A well-known local lady, noted for her considerable girth, walked past the window, but did not come in. Not a word was spoken as they all followed her progress past the shop, beyond which was nothing but a dead-end.

‘Where on earth is she going?’ one customer asked. The nonplussed silence of the others was finally broken by the shopkeeper:

‘Unless she’s going down to the bridge to turn’.

Nowadays, this might be misconstrued as all kinds of things: sexism, body-shaming, nosiness . . . Actually, it was of its time and of its place – an indication of how community was really an extension of family. These people knew one another. Gentle mockery and robust banter were all part and parcel of village life. The rules were implicit and understood by everyone at an almost instinctive level.

Our island has evolved over the years since then, of course. That kind of exchange would no longer be possible for many reasons, not least the fact that it originally took place in Gaelic. There is also a new seriousness, a carefulness, to people’s interactions. We have become more guarded in our dealings, one with another.

I see this online quite frequently. Not long ago, I witnessed someone being told off for being unpleasant when, what he had actually been was mildly ironic. We are lovers of irony in Lewis – dry wit that puts people in their place. You can get away with that when you are self-deprecating too; when you are equally willing to aim the barbs at yourself. It is all part of the code.

Interestingly, this obsession with political correctness and equality has not created more kindness, however – quite the contrary: it has brought a nastier, harder edge into our exchanges. We are trying to manage human relationships by legislation, and sometimes tying ourselves in knots in the process.

It is sometimes difficult for me, as a Christian, to see where I should fit into this new regime. The situation is complicated by the fact that I am a Gaelic-speaker, and an afficionado of the old way of dealing with folk – show them you care by laughing at them. Well, not at them, exactly; near them, maybe. I can identify with the seanair of a slightly older friend of mine who, having stepped into the breach when her father died, used to greet her brothers with a cuff around the head. Whoever sat nearest the door would receive this treatment; once, it was her new boyfriend from the South.

I get that bodach’s thinking. My slaps are usually verbal, but they are generally a sign of my affection – nothing else. People get that. Or, at least, I hope they do. Sarcastic I may be, but I would hate to hurt anyone’s feelings.

It used to be a major consideration for me: how, if I became a Christian, could I stop being this way? And, one day, I was in church and the message echoed my very concerns. Be wary, the minister said, of starting to build the tower without first being certain that you have the tools to finish the job. I don’t remember the context – I only remember the way I felt. He had verified my self-doubt, validated the sense of unreadiness in myself.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not blaming him. Preachers are not responsible for the way individuals in the èisteachd might be feeling at any given moment, which is just as well. They are not meant to be in the business of pandering to feelings or petted lips, but to laying the truth before us.

No, the point is that I recall that sermon – probably inaccurately – as being a caveat against rashly jumping into Christianity. Don’t start unless you’re sure you will see it through. And, part of my smorgasbord of excuses for holding back was, of course, my quick tongue. How could I even think of following Christ when the first thing I would probably do thereafter is let His cause down by saying the wrong thing?

As it turned out, though, saying things has been very much what He had in store for me. He has turned my . . . well, let’s be generous, and call it outspokeness, on its head. It was not necessary for me to work on ridding myself of sarcasm, or that wry Leòdhasach view on the ridiculous, because God had a use for it.

And it was never going to be up to me to change anyway because, for one thing, I couldn’t do it on my own. I understand that now. He hones you, chips away the rough edges and works at refining any impurities away. Yet, He does not change the essentials of who you are. If you rely on Him as your guide, and ask Him to govern your tongue – and, in my case, keyboard – then He will.

Viewed through the lens of prejudice and hatred, the world will always magnify your flaws. God, though, views you through the filter of the cross, where these flaws are made whole.

Don’t hold back from giving your life to Him as I did because you think yourself imperfect or inadequate. You are both those things, as am I, but the material point is that He is sufficient.

He may even use those very imperfections in His own service.

The Wee Free Church of Weaker Vessels?

Some things don’t change. You no sooner write a blog about feminism in the Free Church than your whole congregation gets a loud reminder from the pulpit that women are the weaker vessels, and they really need to remember to address men as ‘sir’.

As if that wasn’t pointed enough, the minister threatened me afterwards not to go undoing his efforts with my renegade talk. I swear all the blood drained from his face when he saw me later, sitting at a table full of women in the church hall.

Isn’t it great how you can alter the whole meaning of something simply by taking it out of context? It’s a wee trick I’ve learned lately. You can make the very truth a lie if you are prepared to go far enough.

When I heard what the topic of the sermon was going to be, I’ll be honest, I was not looking forward to it. There are lots of things that can creep up and stab you in the heart in church, but the duties of husbands to wives, and vice-versa, is a guaranteed killer. It can bring on my ‘poor me’ complex with a vengeance, if it catches me in the wrong mood.

This didn’t, though. Actually, it caught me in more of a, ‘how the heck is he going to pull this off, then?’ frame of mind. A quick advance look at the passage confirmed my suspicion that this was, indeed, the one that talks about women being subject to their husbands, and husbands remembering that blones are the weaker vessels.

Oh well, I thought, this could very well be the first schism caused by ladies exiting en masse from a Presbyterian church. What WILL they call the new denomination?

But, then, that’s just the world’s way of looking at relationships, isn’t it? Everything is about power.

That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. We sought after a knowledge we couldn’t handle, because it came to us out of context; divorced from God’s wisdom as it was.

And because it was untempered by His wisdom, we allowed our knowledge to rule us, and we became drunk on it, until we finally forgot that the wine we were taking was fermented from fruit that was never meant for us at all.

We now think that if the Bible – the unerring word of God – says something we don’t like, then surely the Bible is wrong.

Breathtaking arrogance – and I am as guilty of it as anyone. I bristle at the idea of being subject, and more especially at the thought of being deemed ‘weak’. Although I do a very unbecoming line in self-pity, I certainly don’t want to be ‘poor Catriona’ in anyone else’s eyes.

Until Sunday night, though, I had been labouring under the misapprehension that weakness is . . . well, a weakness. A woman’s propensity to greater emotional sensitivity can, however, truly be a strength, while still making her vulnerable to hurt in ways her husband may never experience for himself. That is why he should exercise understanding towards his partner in life – because her womanness is a crucial element of their relationship in God’s eyes.

And, it made me think of that other amazing passage, where Paul glories in the thorn given to him by God, concluding, ‘for when I am weak, then am I strong’.

One of the great spiritual truths I have learned is that my own strength is a puny thing that would have sunk me in the Slough of Despond long since. Just as well I’m not relying on it. I wonder, in fact, after Sunday night, whether women have the advantage over men here. Not, of course that it’s any kind of competition . . .

But, if we are the weaker vessels, then surely it is easier for us to put our ‘amen’ to Paul’s great proclamation. The less we have of what the world is pleased to call strength, the more we will depend on His.

Being subject to your husband is an interesting one, in an age when many brides choose not to use the word ‘obey’ in their wedding vows. The feeling is that it compromises equality. But, actually, the only equality which really matters is that men and women are similarly precious in the sight of God. After all, it is He who weighs us all in the balance.

It was not God that introduced the tension between the genders over who gets to be in charge. A Godly man does not abuse or mistreat his wife; a Godly wife, likewise, honours her husband.

I am not a wife any longer, but I do live in the world, and must meet with the occasional man. Elsewhere, I have written of how I don’t see the brethren in my church as competition to be beaten, or the elders as having a status to aspire to. They are what they are, as God ordained; and I am, likewise, what I am.

Last night, however, the challenge of living as a Christian woman, while trying to make my way in this world was brought sharply into focus. At the end of a meeting, I instinctively gathered my own coffee cup and those nearest, and carried them through to the kitchen. The men mostly left theirs on the table.

Even as I did it, I thought, ‘don’t become the stereotype’. But this is the problem with the gender war that sin has created – if we all stand on our rights, who will serve? And how will we honour God?

 

The Sofa & the Ghost of Christmas Past

Sometimes, you know, church can be uncomfortable. Oh, I don’t mean the pews: Calvinists are genetically adapted to fit those. If anything, the addition of those pesky cushions has interfered with nature. No, I mean more of a spiritual discomfort – the kind of thing that starts like a niggling little itch, but finally develops into a full-blown ache.

We like being uplifted by the preaching. Then, we can sing the psalms with gusto and pray fervently along with whoever is leading. And we go home feeling good and optimistic. When everything comes together and reaffirms that Jesus is everything and you are His, yes, of course, who wouldn’t be happy? Sometimes, you can actually see on people’s faces – their eyes shine – that this has worked on their hearts.

Other times, though, the sermon can prick your conscience. I had one of those moments this week when the minister accused me of worldliness, right in front of everyone.

Now, in case you’re imagining this is some archaic Wee Free thing where the black clad and be-collared minister fixes you with a fiery glare, and shouts, ‘woman, ye are a worldly sinner’, think again. That isn’t how it works in the real church, only in films and newspaper articles by people who have never actually been inside one.

In fact, when a minister is preaching, we are not really hearing the man. Yes, it is his physical voice, and words that he has chosen, but we are to believe that this is God speaking through them. Faith comes by hearing the Word preached and, as the Bible itself tells us repeatedly, faith is not of ourselves.

For me, a warning against worldliness was very timely. I cannot do the whole sermon justice here, but the counsel was not to become too attached to the things of this world, as John warned in his first letter. These things are, as we know, transient, and it’s a very bad idea to tether your life and soul to them.

Now, don’t laugh, but the reason I squirmed at this was because of my sofa. It’s a chestnut brown, soft leather chesterfield. I have had it two years and I have been very careful of it, gently vacuuming it each week, and wincing at the mere sight of people actually sitting in it.

Well, I don’t know who would want to sit in it now. Last Saturday, I trustingly and naively, left Mr Roy in his basket in the sitting room while I went to church. I came home, made a big fuss of how good he’d been, fed him a steak bake and then actually went into the room. There was a large puddle on the seat. Oh, he’d very thoughtfully chucked the cushions onto the floor (presumably so as not to ruin them), before urinating on the one seat in the room least able to cope with such an assault.

And I was livid. You know, in that unreasonable way that disregards the fact you’re addressing a dog and not a person who has done this to annoy you. I told him it was no wonder he’d had so many different homes, that he was unloveable, ungrateful, smelly, thoughtless (!) and even, with unwarranted hyperbole, that he was a ‘menace to society’.

It was several days before I could bear to look at him. I forced myself to pat him and speak civilly, because deep down I knew he had no idea what was wrong, but I was still very upset.

About a sofa. Yes, I do realise how shallow that makes me sound. By Wednesday, I had actually got over it, more or less, having started enquiries about getting it professionally cleaned. I knew that once it was clean again, I could forgive Mr Roy.

That’s why, on Wednesday evening, God accused me of worldliness. Well, not just because of the sofa, but it serves to represent everything else that gets too much place in my life. I recalled what Thomas a Kempis said in a book that has been a favourite since my teenage years, ‘The Imitation of Christ’:

‘To triumph over self is the perfect victory. For whoever so controls himself that his passions are subject to his reason, and his reason wholly subject to Me, is master both of himself and of the world’.

There is no one harder to conquer than yourself because there is no one more likely to allow you moral latitude. But I have begun an important lesson. Perhaps I need to see Mr Roy’s intervention like the visit of Scrooge’s first ghost who, frustrated with the old miser’s lifestyle, called him, ‘man of the worldly mind’.

It is fine to have nice things. And, it is good to take care of those things, being grateful to God for providing them. I do thank him for my comfortable home, and more so when I read of the destitution often faced by widows in the past. But, there is a disconnect between my thanksgiving and my attitude. My house, my furniture, my possessions . . . none of those should come before obedience to God, and trying sincerely to imitate Christ in a life of holiness.

Besides, I love Mr Roy for himself, as much as for the fact that he was Donnie’s faithful companion till the end. He is irreplaceable. And his little misdemeanour reminds me of something I must never lose sight of:

God loved me, even before the stain had been cleansed. If His forgiveness had been predicated on my being clean, I would have been beyond hope forever.