Drawing Out the Poison

I recently gave a talk on the power of words to heal and to harm. It was an exploration of the role played by incantation and charm in the field of folk medicine. This harks back to a time when our forefathers – and, more usually, our foremothers – used all their native wisdom in curing sickness with nothing to hand but nature’s own bounty.

They might chop up the root of lus nan laogh and boil it into a horrible brew which, despite its unbeguiling appearance, could soothe various stomach complaints. The leaves of this common bogbean might, on the other hand, be used to make a poultice for the drawing out of toxins.

I am no wise woman. Although I know a little about the use of plants and seaweeds to cure sickness, my understanding is purely cerebral. There is no instinct, no practical magic. It is possible for me to speak and write about such things because others before me have recorded their wisdom on how to use God’s providence in healing the sick.

God’s providence, as I have frequently observed here, is rarely for the individual alone. He neither gives nor takes spuriously, and we should not see His dealing in our lives as random. 

Right back at the beginning, when I started this blog, I wanted to share my experience of being a young widow in the Free Church in Lewis. Tired of hearing the worn-out, sellotaped together stereotypes of Wee Frees, I have tried to tell it like it is from the inside. I am not an official spokesperson (the men wouldn’t let me) and so I am free to say how things feel from where I stand.

I write for myself first. If I am struck by something, or chastened, or inspired, or filled with righteous indignation (everyone’s favourite), then I pick up a pen. Words are healing for me and it is my prayer every day that mine would never cause harm to others. Many who know me probably won’t believe it, but the last thing I would ever want to do is hurt anybody’s feelings. This is not because I am particularly good, but because I know for myself how the words even of  strangers can cut, and I have no desire to be the one inflicting that pain.

Sometimes, though, my writing seem to act more like a poultice, drawing poison to the surface and revealing just how toxic a situation is. When I have discussed social issues and attitudes which are contrary to Biblical teaching, I have brought the full venom of anti-Christianity down on my head. We live in a society, you see, which is pleased to call itself ‘tolerant’ but has way more rigidity and rules than a Wee Free could dream of in a hundred lifetimes.

I do not presume to pass judgement on lifestyles and experiences which are alien to me. Naturally, when I see something that is evidence of a life lived out of step with God, I am moved to pity. Not condescendingly or patronisingly, I hope, but as the person in the lifeboat spotting a man still drowning.

A lot has been said – much of it unjustly – about Christians and their ‘intolerance’ of anything at odds with how they perceive the world. I would like to see the balance redressed a little, and make a plea here for a bit more respect to be shown towards Christ, and the people who follow Him.

It would do my heart good to go a whole week without being exposed to the phrase ‘so-called Christians’. I received an email recently, peppered with those loathsome inverted commas and all that they imply. Then, there are those casual, yet incredibly arrogant value judgements from non-believers: ‘if you were any kind of Christian’. In the same week that I was threatened with being reported to the minister for being on the Stornoway Trust (he knows, he rigged the vote), I was told that no ‘good Christian’ would be involved in public life.

I wonder what the world thinks a ‘good Christian’ is? One who smiles all the time and helps old ladies cross the road? A bland, simpering person with no opinion on anything? It is my belief that those looking on from outside the resurrection expect their Christian neighbours to be perfect.

But in a world where there are no absolutes of good and bad . . . what does perfect look like? 

Well, I think I know. You are to agree nicely with everyone, even if their words are like shards of metal in your eyes. Never tell anyone they are wrong, or that their actions are an offence to God. In fact, the perfect Christian the world wants to see would never mention God at all. He spoils all the parties, all the marches, all the little lies we tell ourselves in order to make sin acceptable.

That’s why, whenever I write about our sin-sick society, there is a renewed outpouring of venom. It is the reason for the anonymous messages, and the belligerent emails. No one wants to hear that there is another, better way.

But it doesn’t matter. God’s truth has always acted like a poultice on us – as individuals, and as a society. We may rail against the remedy He offers, but when the greatest of all physicians chooses, He will cure all our maladies. 

The poison always has to be drawn up before healing can begin.

 

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.

Health Warning – Being Offended Kills

‘Sinner, not singer’, the minister said reprovingly to me. I thought this was a bit much, seeing only a few days before he’d been emphasising the need for us all to join in the psalms, regardless of vocal ability. And then I realised he was merely pointing out a typo I had made, not suggesting I stick to what I do best.

Oh well, another opportunity to take offence goes by the wayside. Although, if he had been calling me a sinner, it’s only what half the country imagine goes on in Wee Free churches up and down the land every Sunday anyway. Ministers, jumping up and down, frothing at the mouth and thumping the pulpit, castigating all before them for a stiff-necked people, mired in sin.

Don’t get me wrong, sin is mentioned quite a bit. They would be somewhat failing in their duties as pastors not to mention the one thing which stands between mankind and God.
A minister may tell a congregation of two hundred believers that they are all sinners, and they will not flinch. But say this to two hundred unbelievers and there is an outcry.

The first group openly admits that they believe in the existence of sin, while the second says sin is a social construct, invented to keep people in their place. Yet, those who don’t believe in sin are more offended to hear it mentioned.

How come? What’s the difference between the two groups?

Knowing the Great Physician: Jesus Christ.

Because Christians have a saving knowledge of Christ, they know that they are sinners. Sinners saved by grace, but sinners nonetheless. They are more offended by sin than anyone – but by the reality of its hateful, destructive power; not the mere mention of it.

Unbelievers, meanwhile, hate the word being levelled at them, yet, with a fearful irony, take no issue with the reality of sin in their lives.

Why, then, do these people who claim no belief in God, or the Devil, in heaven or hell, take such offence at being told they are sinners? This had puzzled me for a long time, until I experienced something of an epiphany in church recently.

In the context of a sermon, the minister addressed the objection raised by many unbelievers against hell – that God would condemn someone to eternal damnation for living a ‘basically decent’ life. It is an argument echoed by Stephen Fry’s famously blasphemous description of God as ‘mean-minded and capricious’, and it is a device which has flummoxed many would-be apologists in their armchair fights with a would-be Dawkins.

And, like so much else, it is built on a staggering foundation of ignorance. In this case, the minister pointed out, their argument betrays their misunderstanding of the nature of sin.

Sin is not something mean we do to one another. The bad things we do, feel, think, and say, they are the fruit of sin. But at its root, sin is our state of being at odds with God. People are looking at it from the wrong end, so to speak.

In recent weeks, in various conversations – mostly online – I have had to point out the same thing repeatedly: God’s creation was made perfect in His own image. We dismantled it and remade it in ours. Now, standing in the half-built wreckage of the world, we point accusingly at Him, the God of all Creation. And what do we say? What great arguments have Fry and Dawkins, and others like them given their disciples?

Why, the same two excuses that children caught out in misbehaviour have been using since the Fall:

‘He made me do it’, and, ‘It was already broken when I got here’.

It’s pathetic in the absolute, deepest sense of that word. I pity them in their failure to see that God does not condemn them to eternal damnation; they condemn themselves. They listen to false prophets like these blasphemous men who are lauded as clever, erudite, and incisive, and whose great argument against Christianity is ‘your God doesn’t exist, but He’s wicked and cruel’.

The hypothetical two hundred believers who do not flinch at being called sinners are not hardened in their hearts. They do not balk at the diagnosis because they have already begun the cure. I think the devastating news of sin would be impossible to bear if we did not always receive it simultaneous to the remedy. Yet another of God’s great kindnesses to us, though, is that we only feel the pain of being at odds with Him when He has already begun the work of restoring us to life.

But the great question for all such sinners saved by grace is: how do we persuade the afflicted to hospital when they don’t realise they are ill?

 

 

Free speech? What free speech?

You won’t be surprised to learn that, as a Lewiswoman of the Wee Free persuasion, there are certain things which I am not encouraged to have an opinion on. These include, but are not limited to: whether elders should wear ties, the use of more innovative psalm tunes, or anything to do with the carpark.

That still leaves me with baking, when to use doilies, and what colour of shirt is most becoming to the ministers. That last one needs very careful consideration if they’re standing against an all-white backdrop, and had a late one at the Session the night before. Peelie-wally face, grey shirt: you see the problem.

However, the restrictions imposed upon my thinking within church confines are as nothing compared to those that society has put my way.

Indeed, the overbearing Free Kirk patriarchy which has repressed my kind for so many years seems positively liberal by comparison. Why, this week alone, they allowed me to press buttons on the recording equipment unsupervised. And when the singing elder ran at me, shouting, ‘who let you loose on that?’ the minister reprimanded him. Progress, you see?

But what happens inside our secret society of Calvinist oppression  is well-known to those who merely look on. They know that the men rule with a rod of iron and the women meekly obey. It is a matter of common knowledge that the minister tells us how to vote, what to watch on television, which newspapers are acceptable, and which horse to back in the Grand National. Well, no, not that last one. Our local intellegentsia are not daft enough to think betting is encouraged; just that their neighbours are robots.

They are particularly good at making those kinds of judgements – what is harmless, what is harmful, what is important, what is not. And, of course, they are well aware that we Presbyterians are strangers to rational thought . It is for our own good that they tell us what to think, what to say, and when to be quiet.

This week, I shared a ‘Spectator’ article on facebook. It was called, ‘Questioning transgenderism is the new blasphemy’.

So, I questioned transgenderism.

The response? I was variously accused of being uncaring, ignorant, commenting on something that didn’t concern me and, inevitably, I was told to be quiet.

All of which rather made the author’s – and my – point. You cannot discuss transgenderism rationally. The same applies to abortion, to gay marriage, and to any number of other social phenomena which have quietly been ushered onto statute books in the west, without anyone really talking about it.

The responses are always the same: those arguing against you position themselves as caring, and will use words like ‘hurt’ and ‘shame’ and ‘rejection’. With no evidence whatsoever, they will tell you that generations of islanders suffered shame, mental illness, and even took their own lives as a result of being judged and rejected for things over which they had no control .

And perhaps that is true. But Christians do not mean to add to anyone’s unhappiness. It’s just, no one has asked their opinion. Had there been debate, they could and should have been part of that. Then, an appropriate response could have been discussed – by which I do mean with all sides being heard, not just those voicing the socially acceptable view.

What is not socially acceptable, as I am fast learning, is Biblical authority. People will dismiss it, using words that I find chilling – not because I am offended, but because they are.

They are offended at the idea of submitting to anything that is not their preference, or their will. In all of this, the supreme irony is that they are in chains of their own making. Like Jacob Marley, they have forged them inch by inch, and tightened them further with each half-turn away from the will of God.

There is, of course, another taboo here. You may not talk of sin. In this fruitless online exchange, the opponents of free speech write emotively and scathingly of the shame inflicted on generations of people for their lifestyle choices. While I have no doubt that may be true, and regrettable where there was a want of empathy, the truth has not changed.

So, don’t be offended at the mention of ‘sinner’, because I freely admit to being one of equal, if not greater guilt.

No Christian calls sin into question to humiliate, or judge anybody. That is never the aim.  Yes, we may indeed quote you Romans 3: 23, ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.

That means you, but it means me as well, and I speak to you, not as a would-be judge, but as a fellow convict who has been granted the key for my cell door.

You see, Romans 3 has a 24th verse. It says, ‘ and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’.

That is the key. If a Christian tells you you’re imprisoned, it’s not to cause you despair. They want you to open the door to freedom like they have.

Perhaps, after all, your hurt and offence has nothing to do with hearing the word, ‘sin’, and everything to do with being out of step with the only One who can truly dry your tears.

 

May I Speak to Whoever is in Charge?

When I was a teenager, I used to ask my father questions about God, many of which were greeted with, ‘Ist, a Shàtain’. After one such conversation, I overheard him telling my mother that my ‘atheistic streak’ worried him.

But I remember it differently. I was actually trying to better understand this God who, whatever my parents may have thought, was always real to me. So, when people question and criticise Him publicly now, I flinch and fear for them, but it also causes me to hope.

For myself, I was never further away from Him than when He was totally absent from my thoughts.

So, it doesn’t do to dismiss their challenges out of hand. If we disregard people’s concerns as foolish or wicked, there is a risk that we detract from the seriousness of the argument, or fuel the notion tha He is just a fiction and not worth defending . We may say that it is wrong to challenge God – which it is – but it is equally careless of us not to take the opportunity to increase another’s understanding of Him.

Last Sunday, in passing, I heard the familiar verse from 1 Peter ‘always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you’. Those were the same words ringing in my ears when I professed faith for the first time. In the final analysis, it all comes down to confession. I knew in my heart and soul what the Lord had done for me, and I could no longer deny it before others.

Equally, then, when someone takes it upon themselves to accuse God, am I not required to gently say, ‘no, you have that wrong’? If they are maligning Him, should I not interpret that as an opportunity to defend the reason for the hope that is in me?

When a person walks into a church (or a school, or a park) armed to the teeth and bent on murder, I do not believe that God is behind him, spurring him on. This is sin, and our Lord has nothing to do with, can have nothing to do with, sin. We are in possession of free will. If, every time I was about to commit a sin, God reached down from Heaven to stay my hand, I would no longer be free, would I?

Yet, if my fellow human being commits such an atrocity, does that not mean that I also have the same capacity for sin? What has stopped me from doing what this man did in Texas? Why do I choose to take a seat among the worshippers instead of turning the full force of anger and murderous intent upon them?

Is it my innate goodness? My kind-heartedness? My immunity from wickedness?

Of course it isn’t. It is nothing in me. Remember that old-fashioned saying, ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’? That is the reason: His grace. You have it too, even if you don’t believe in Him, you have benefitted from His grace, just as surely as you bear His thumbprint.

After all, if this God is really a despot, why has He not already struck you down for your unbelief?

And if He really is God of all, why would you not speak to Him about what troubles you in the world?

There is a reason why the Christian response to the events of last Sunday was, ‘pray for Sutherland County’, and it isn’t anything to do with ducking the arguments about gun control. These same Christians are, in fact, praying all the time. They pray for themselves, for their families, for their friends, their colleagues, their communities – they pray for this broken, tragic world.

Even if you don’t pray yourself, there’s a good chance that someone else is doing it on your behalf. Someone who cares about you is holding you up to God’s attention and saying, ‘have mercy on them, and open their eyes’.

I could try to tell you who God is and what He is, but you wouldn’t believe me. He isn’t a cold, careless egomaniacal deity, randomly pushing people off cliffs, or sweeping them to destruction. God loves this world, and He sorrows over what we have made of it. Our purpose is, and always has been, to worship and enjoy Him. Sin, however, has so warped that relationship that we commit evil against Him daily and have the temerity then to blame our actions on Him.

If He exists, that is.

So, please, if you don’t already know, find out for yourself who He is. Talk to Him. I promise you this: He’s waiting for you to speak His name. Ask Him to reveal more of Himself to you. Pick up the Bible and read it prayerfully.

You won’t ever get to know Him by alternately denying He exists and calling Him names. And, if you’re a reasonable person, you won’t denounce Him as a fiction whilst trying to hold Him and His people responsible for all the ills of the world.

His grace has given you every chance to see Him as He really is: take it, please. We are praying that you will.

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.

 

 

 

Humiliated, redeemed, thankful

I was born on Thursday of the Stornoway communion, which is a day of humiliation. It certainly was for me. Whatever test it is they perform (or used to), on newborns, I scored a mere nine out of ten. An under-achiever from the beginning, the pattern of my life was set.

At this communion service, though, forty-two years on, I was struck by something that the visiting minister read from the book of Isaiah:

He saw that there was no man,

and wondered that there was no one to intercede;

then his own arm brought him salvation,

and his righteousness upheld him.

No man. Absolutely no one. I imagined how it would feel for God to scan the Creation that He had made in His own perfection, and find it so damaged that not one person was adequate to be an intercessor. Every last soul was shot-through and warped with sin to the extent that none could stand for us; each and every person was a spiritual under-achiever, a nine out of ten at best.

It is the custom in our church that communicants, on arrival, go straight to the area marked off with white linens, but are only said to be at the Lord’s Table when certain warrants have been read and the table ‘fenced’. This practice has been – like much else that the Calvinist churches do – subject to misunderstanding. People have thought of it as exclusive and as somehow compounding the fallacy that those who take communion think themselves, quite literally, holier than thou.

Consider, though, what a ‘fence’ achieves: it contains and it protects; it keeps in that which is precious. The Free Church, in complete accordance with Scripture, requires baptism in Christ’s name and a profession of faith before believers in their own denomination are admitted to the sacrament. It follows, then of course, that some sort of fence is necessary. The alternative would be to have open communion in which anyone could come, unexamined and potentially unbaptized, to the table.

Sitting there, I can assure you, I was not thinking smugly of my own perfection, nor do I believe that anyone else was entertaining such erroneous thoughts either. We were hearing that of all mankind, even the best person was far short of the mark, and that God’s ‘own arm brought him salvation’.

God is perfectly holy; God created mankind perfect after His own image; mankind sinned; mankind required redemption; God became that Redeemer.

In that whole list, there is only one thing that mankind has actually done: and that was to fall into sin. What would I – or any Christian – possibly feel smug about?

But God’s infinite mercy does not even permit us to dwell too long upon our own shortcomings. Even as we sat there, at what would soon become the Lord’s Table, we were led to muse upon the salvation He supplied in our deficiency. I recalled what our own minister had preached, the previous week, in preparing us for the sacrament. He said, that the Lord’s Supper is not primarily about witnessing to God – it is for us to feed off and be encouraged by.

Those who are not yet communicants watch as their friends who have already made their profession partake of that meal. In the ordinary sense, bread and wine nourish: they give us energy, and are necessary to the sustenance of life. But this meal is spiritual, and the elements consumed are symbolic of the much greater nourishment received when we dwell upon Christ.

It is not always easy to focus as you would wish. The first time I took communion, I was nervous and slightly overawed in human, rather than spiritual terms. This time, though, something about the calm and unhurried delivery of the minister, and of the peaceful spirit pervading the table, was conducive to fixing my mind upon the Saviour.

I rose from that table, fed but – crucially – not sated. Later, I shared a meal with others from the church, and we dined royally. Still, there came a point when we had all certainly had plenty. It is not so with the Lord’s Supper; it is not so with anything about Him.

On the closing evening, which is for thanksgiving, we heard about those who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and how their hearts had burned as he spoke to them. They could not stay where they were, they could not sit on the good news that they had received, going immediately to Jerusalem to tell how ‘he was known to them in the breaking of the bread’.

I was born on the day of humiliation, but this year I marked my birthday on the day of thanksgiving, and I had much to be thankful for. As I stood outside the church on Monday evening, wondering what – or who – it is the minister writes in that little red book from time to time, I was subjected treated to a tuneful rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ from some of the most enthusiastic singers of the congregation.

The really happy birth day for me was not forty two years ago, though, when I only scored nine out of ten; it was that other day, much more recently, when my competence had nothing whatever to do with the matter.

False gods and Free Church outings

I hadn’t been on a Sunday School outing in quite some years, what with me being forty one. On a Saturday, a few weeks ago, however, I found myself boarding the bus for Ardroil in Uig, with thirty or so excited children from the Laxdale Sunday School, where I’ve been a teacher since last August. It was pouring with rain and, as I stuffed the luggage rack with wee fishing nets and plastic spades, I worried that there were going to be a lot of disappointed people heading home that afternoon.

It rained quite hard for the first hour. The kids ate their barbecued food on the bus, while we hardier oldies huddled near the flames and drank cup after cup of tea to keep warm. And then, quite miraculously, the sun came out and we had a magical afternoon down on the sand. Once everyone had eaten a second round of burgers, psalms were sung and the annual event that is the boys versus girls tug of war got underway. Things looked good for the ladies at first, until one of the elders on the boys’ team sat down, which goes to show that Free Church men really will do anything to keep the women subordinate!

When I was first asked to teach in Sunday school, it was by an elder who had run after me into the Seminary on a Wednesday evening. As he rushed up the aisle towards me, my first thought was, ‘what have I done?’ I imagined wildly that he had spotted the Matt Redman CD on the dashboard of my car, or found out about me laughing in the stairwell of the church. But, as he stood, anxiously twisting his hands, it occurred to me that perhaps he only wished to borrow money.

After accepting his suggestion that I might wish to teach in the Sunday school, I panicked. Quietly, obviously – it would be unseemly for a repressed Free Church lady to make a fuss. Ever since Rev.Macrae had made it his avowed intention to ‘give the swooners no latitude’ in the 1930s, fainting has been banned within the environs of Stornoway Free Church. So, I sat silently in my pew and worried. Surely it was too soon? What right had I to presume to teach anyone about Christ when I still had so much to learn myself? Might I inadvertently teach them heresy? And what would I do with all their questions? Despairing, I remembered my own teachers in the same Sunday school, many years before; they seemed so wise, so knowledgeable, so . . . holy.

But then the mists began to clear. People send their children to Sunday school and it is our privilege to share with them the message of salvation, as others shared it with us. What seemed like humility and lack of self-assurance on my part was actually a disgraceful want of faith. Of course I wasn’t going to be adequate to the task; not on my own. Which of us can claim that we are? That’s why Christ promised us a helper in the Holy Spirit. However, if you are called upon to do something for His cause, you do it, asking His aid. In my experience, I can truthfully say that He never fails me.

I cannot, however, say with any certainty whether the children benefit from my classes. Sometimes it’s a struggle to keep their attention. And, oh my word, the questions! ‘Will there be bingo halls in Heaven?’ probably qualifies as the most left-field. The truly challenging moment came, however, when we were discussing the Ten Commandments.

It was, unsurprisingly, idolatry which caused the problem. They struggled with the idea that Jesus must come first in our hearts, before any of their loved ones, or hobbies, or prized possessions. Yes, I had to say repeatedly, before mum and dad, before your kitten, before your mobile phone, before your signed football, or your iPad. I struggle with it too; don’t we all? But then, we got onto talking about other gods, and the worship of false gods. ‘Some people DO worship other gods, though’, one girl said, ‘and they have to be allowed to do that’.

Tolerance. They are taught this in school. All religions are equally valid. Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam – these are just different stories, and you choose which one you believe. Meanwhile, the same people in our community who howled with derision at the plans for a new church in Stornoway, rushed to publicly welcome the news that an Islamic place of worship was in the pipeline for the town. They were falling over one another in the rush to prove their tolerance of some – though not all – Abrahamic religions. It’s not tolerance, though, is it – it’s tokenism. After all, you cannot accept one faith as valid while defaming another, and say that you are accepting: that would be hypocrisy.

When a petition was launched against the planned building of a High Free Church in Stornoway, no one was terribly surprised. Those opposing it made all manner of justification, including that clearing the chosen site might make some rats homeless. However, one of the comments has stayed in my mind ever since because, for me, it represents that other great misunderstanding at the heart of so much anti-Christian prejudice: ‘they think they’re so perfect’.

So, the people driving the ‘tolerance’ agenda actually understand nothing about the Christianity they deride. If they think that Christianity is a choice, like which political creed to follow, or which shirt to wear today, they have a lot to learn; if they believe that Christians think themselves perfect, then they don’t even know the basics. Following Christ makes such demands on us that our sinful hearts would never opt for it of their own volition. We are drawn, irresistibly, towards Him because we are so very far from perfect.

I don’t mind what they say about me. Christians except to be mocked and criticised for their faith. But I do mind that, in their ignorance, they are depriving children of a proper understanding of what Christ’s message is. We surely cannot allow people who don’t even know what the central message of Christianity is, to dictate how it is taught to the next generation.

That is one reason why Sunday schools are important. Children deserve the truth. Plant the seed and someone else may water it, but God will make it grow. And no one, however tolerant, can stand in His way.

 

Keep the Faith for Sunday Best (Part 2)

This is the second part of a guest post by Andy Murray of Ragged Theology. Challenging and thought-provoking stuff as ever.

Men like Thomas Guthrie and William Wilberforce inspired a movement rooted firmly in Micah 6 v 8.  They called the church and nation to love justice, show mercy and walk humbly with the God of the Bible.  They wrote, they spoke, they preached, they persuaded and they campaigned for change to the way the poor were treated.  The work went on long after they were dead.  Their work changed whole communities, changed laws and changed the direction of our nation.  When Guthrie died in 1873 not only was education about to be offered to all, but thanks to Christian social reformers children were finally being offered protection and care instead of exploitation.  Men like Guthrie and Wilberforce were hated and opposed because they challenged the powerful vested interests in the alcohol and slave industries respectively.  But through all the challenges, they had an unquenchable hope in the redeeming gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  A hope that the most visionary and noble secularist cannot offer.  This is why secularism soon turns to pessimism.  As Blaikie says:

thomasguthrie2

Secularism may try to keep up its spirits, it may imagine a happy future, it may revel in a dream of a golden age.  But as it builds its castle in the air, its neighbour, Pessimism, will make short and rude work of the flimsy edifice.  Say what you will, and do what you may, says Pessimism, the ship is drifting inevitably on the rocks.  Your dream that one day selfishness will be overcome, are the phantoms of a misguided imagination; your notion that abundance of light is all that is needed to cure the evils of society, is like the fancy of keeping back the Atlantic with a mop.  If you really understood the problem, you would see that the moral disorder of the world is infinitely too deep for any human remedy to remove it; and, since we know of no other, there is nothing for us but to flounder on from one blunder to another, and from one crime to another, till mankind works out its own extinction; or, happy catastrophe! The globe on which we dwell is shattered by collision with some other planet, or drawn into the furnace of the sin.

It is the Christian gospel that has been the great agent of change in human history.  Has the church at times been corrupt?  Absolutely.  Has it at times disregarded the poor and even abused them.  Unfortunately, it has.  But what has been the fruit of the revival of true Christianity?  It has always been love, particularly for the poor.  The spirit of self-seeking is supplanted by the spirit of service and love.  Vice is replaced by virtue.  When men love God in sincerity, they will love their neighbour, particularly the poor and the outcast.  The church at its best lives by that early ‘mission statement’ in James 1 v 27 ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’  As Thomas Guthrie said about the kind of Christianity that brings transformation to communities;

We want a religion that, not dressed for Sundays and walking on stilts, descends into common and everyday life; is friendly, not selfish; courteous, not boorish; generous, not miserly; sanctified, not sour; that loves justice more than gain; and fears God more than man; to quote another’s words – “a religion that keeps husbands from being spiteful, or wives fretful; that keeps mothers patient, and children pleasant; that bears heavily not only on the ‘exceeding sinfulness of sin,’ but on the exceeding rascality of lying and stealing; that banishes small measures from counters, sand from sugar, and water from milk-cans – the faith, in short, whose root is in Christ, and whose fruit is works.

 

Keep the Faith for Sunday Best (Part 1)

This is a two-part guest post by my blogging (tor)mentor, Andy Murray, author of Ragged Theology. Part two of this excellent piece to follow tomorrow.

Philanthropy is not a casual product; it is not a mere outcome of a zeitgeist, or fashion of the age; its roots are deep in the soil of Christianity; it cannot pick up a living either from Paganism, or Agnosticism, or Secularism, or any other system cut off from the influence of the love of Christ.

This is one of the first paragraphs in William Garden Blaikie’s Leaders in Modern Philanthropy published in 1884.  What follows is a barnstorming tour of all the great Christian philanthropists over many centuries from John Howard, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, Andrew Reed, Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie, David Livingstone, William Burns, John Patterson, Agnes Salt and many others.  The claim that some make that Dr Thomas Guthrie was some kind of lone voice in 19th century Scotland is simply not supported by facts.  Guthrie built on the work of Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen and John Pounds in England.  His work was taken up by many particularly Lord Shaftesbury in England.  He was part of a wider movement that rediscovered evangelical theology and roused a sleeping church to the Biblical mandate of fighting for justice and showing mercy to the marginalised.  Their work sprang from their theology.

Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

Despite the UK’s departure from its Christian heritage, much of our society remains rooted in the Bible.  The idea that we are all equal in the sight of the law, the idea of education for all, the concept of compassion for the poor, are all inextricably linked to a Biblical view of humanity.  If you don’t think this is important look closely at other societies and see the radical difference.  The foundational Christian belief that man is made in the image of God has radical implications for the way we treat our fellow man, particularly those who need special protection and care.  Christianity teaches that everyone has dignity and worth.  It also teaches that anyone can be redeemed from their fallen/sinful state.  Man’s fundamental problem is not poverty, housing or power; it is sin (Matthew 15 v 15-20).  The addict, the wife beater, the thief can all be redeemed and transformed by the grace of God.  Christianity is about grace, hope and most of all love.  It is religion of redemption and second chances.

But much more than personal transformation, Christianity places on the believer ‘a strong dynamic impulse to diffuse the love which had fallen so warmly on themselves’ (Blaikie).  Our Saviour, ‘the friend of publicans and sinners, is our ultimate example.  Jesus taught repeatedly about the need to love the poor in parables such as that of the Good Samaritan.  His teaching in Matthew 25 on the sheep and the goats couldn’t be clearer.  He defined true greatness thus: ‘the servant of all being the greatest of all.’  Remember that Jesus was speaking at a time when the order of the Roman empire masked a barbarous culture. Gladiatorial sports slaughtered tens of thousands for nothing but the amusement of the baying mob.  Slavery was commonplace and women were often used as sexual playthings.  Yes, there were occasional spurts of compassion when an amphitheatre collapsed, but there was no systematic relief of the poor.  It was a hierarchical society where groups and classes were systematically oppressed and kept down.  A bit like modern Britain.

It was as the New Testament church grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire that Christianity’s counter-cultural message of love for the poor began to change societies.  As Blaikie says: ‘In the course of time, barbarous sports disappeared; slavery was abolished or greatly modified; laws that bore hard on the weaker sex were amended; the care of the poor became one of the great lessons of the Church.’  This is not to say that the church did not frequently go wrong.  Often the methods of showing love became exaggerated and distorted.  The alms-giving in the mediaeval church became more about the abuse of power than equipping the poor to become self-reliant.   The Reformation was a great return to Biblical Christianity, and while it was a time of great conflict it also saw a return to Biblical philanthropy and care for the poor.  It encouraged education and saw the start of schools, colleges and universities.  The Bible was not only given to the common man but he was also taught how to read it.  This why William Tyndale became a hunted terrorist.  His English New Testament was a threat because it smashed the power of a corrupt church.

So far so good.  Even the most cynical atheist would surely acknowledge that Christian philanthropy has done great good.  But let’s be honest, there have been many inspiring philanthropists who haven’t had an ounce of love for God.  It is wonderful to read of philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie building libraries, donating ornate organs and building palaces of peace.  My family home in Sutherland has many monuments to the generosity of Carnegie.  We celebrate every effort that is made to relieve the poor and change society for the better whether in Christ’s name or not.  Nobody can deny that many charities have sprung up with little or no Christian inspiration.  History, however, shows us that all too often the greatest social reformers have been compelled by a zeal for God that leads to an enduring love for his neighbour.  They inspire followers who, if not always sharing in their theology, agree with their goals and are willing to follow their example.  Often secular philanthropists (such as Carnegie) are blessed with great fortunes and influence, but it takes an exceptional love to persevere in championing the poor without wealth or power.  It is one thing for an inspiring political leader to rise up, but unless it is underpinned with the theology of Christian compassion, how long will it last?