Sin: Catch It, Bin It, Kill It

There is usually a man standing by the roundabout as I drive to church on Sunday mornings. He wears a t-shirt that proclaims, ‘God Hates Divorce’. I fell to wondering recently whether we’d run out of denominations before we ran out of things God abhors, were we to dress every churchgoer in Stornoway similarly, listing a different object of divine wrath on each garment.

‘God hates gossip’ and ‘God hates lies’, or ‘God hates cheating’. Maybe even ‘God hates schism’ for someone edgy in the Church of Scotland.

Or, how about, in the interest of brevity, ‘God hates sin’?

I have been wrestling with sin myself lately. Sin is very much like . . . now, wait while I spend a convincing amount of time pretending to think of a suitable analogy. Hmmmm . . . erm . . . Oh, I know, just plucking one out of thin air: sin is like rubbish. We generate it; we have to be the ones to deal with it. And if we all took care of our own, there would be a lot less of it about for other poor souls to have to mop up.

When I fell victim to someone else’s badness recently, I was reminded of an old neighbour we had when I was growing up. Plagued by crows, plundering his garden and stalking his newborn lambs, he took matters into his own hands. Catching one, he killed it, singed it and nailed it to a fence post as an eloquent warning to other feathery felons.

It was in light of his display of native ingenuity that I finally agreed to report my foul-mouthed online stalker to the police. Make an example of just one loose cannon and the others will get the hint.

I made an error of judgement, though. Crows have the intelligence to recognise their own likeness, even when it is charred and nailed up and quite dead. Not so much with the keyboard warriors, though. They failed to see why, having reported one bona fide weirdo to the police I should not still go on submitting myself to their barbs and jibes as well. Oh, that person had gone over the score, some of them admitted – but not them.

They are, if you will permit me just one more Castle Grounds-related analogy, a little bit like the rhododendron ponticum. A great show is made, a display of concern, but every single one contributes to the toxicity of the environment. Each person who forcefully and repeatedly hammers home their opinion, and does so by naming names and making accusations that have no basis in fact, poisons the online atmosphere and makes it just that little bit harder for the fragrance of truth to break through.

You see, other people’s sin is much easier to spot than our own. I can see in the flamers and trolls that twisted humanity which enjoys humiliating and victimising their fellow man. If I could, I would make them t-shirts that read, ‘God hates bullying’.

But the point of bullying, like any other sin, is that we have to diagnose ourselves. Before we can don any garment emblazoned with our guilt, we have to own that sin, admit to it and meet it head on. I cannot do that for the many people – strangers mostly, but some who are not – who think that it’s acceptable to use a public forum to pillory and threaten me for having a different opinion to them.

That is actually their burden to bear; not mine. Besides, I think that someone who loses their dignity and their decency, ostensibly over the question of litter bins in a public garden, has bigger problems than poor online etiquette.

Episodes like this are distasteful. They upset the people who care about me and they persuade onlookers that public life in Lewis is a harsh and lawless thing. No one is encouraged into any kind of community service by witnessing my experience. Who would want to have their good name trodden upon for being . . . well, what? What am I that attracts such hatred?

I am a sinner – saved by grace, yes, but still a sinner. My wardrobe could be filled with t-shirts enumerating my guilt for the world to see. And that is for ME to deal with; it is between myself and God. It’s a daily struggle, and never more so than when I’m denigrated by strangers and have to remember one important truth. While that behaviour is theirs, and I have no control over it, or guilt for it, I DO have agency in how I respond. That’s the real test.

Do not, the Bible tells us, repay reviling with reviling. The world hated Christ to death and it shouldn’t surprise me to be loathed for his sake. I have looked on him, nailed to a cross, his human countenance marred by violence and hatred, made sin for our sake – and I have recognised myself.

It is simultaneously the lowest and the most exalted point in his story, and in that of any repentant sinner. You see what you are and what you have done, but at the same moment you realise that this is also the route to redemption.

From then on, the path is not smooth, as I have found out. Once you have seen yourself as you truly are, every day is a battle against that – but it’s a beautiful battle because of the template to which he is conforming us, little by aching little. What do I care, really, for lies told about me by strangers?

If there is any Christian looking on and questioning why I would expose myself to this kind of life – and I know there is – I can answer that very simply. He has called me to witness. I don’t serve an ungrateful community that hates me; I serve an incomparable Saviour that loves me. Christ loved me, as he loves them, before I ever knew his face. When they finally lift their eyes to him, as I pray they will, that understanding will become theirs too.

Sin is like rubbish. It is we who produce it, and it is we who must dispose of it. No one is asked to manage other people’s sin; only their own. Ignoring it is not a solution, nor is dumping it on others.

God hates sin, and he’s asking us all to deal with our own, leaving the rest up to him.

One man and his God

Whereas other cultures used to put children up chimneys, the norm for people of my age and background was to be put to work part-time as sheepdogs, in the absence of a suitably qualified collie. My father was hopeless at training his animals, and so he had four children instead who, if not as intelligent as collies, were certainly more responsive to his shouted commands.

As if this degradation was not enough, we would find ourselves subjected to ‘One Man and His Dog’ on television of an evening. I suspect my father hoped that we might pick up a few pointers if we watched enough episodes. He would comment on the shepherds’ control of their dogs, and of the responsiveness and obedience of said dogs. I, however, was always more interested in watching the sheep.

They are not the smartest of creatures, and they have a flair for the unpredictable. Nonetheless, I like their placid faces, and still maintain that the ear of a sheep is the cutest ear of any mammal you are likely to meet. And, having worked with so many of them, so to speak, I had gained an insight into some of their ways.

The outrun and the shedding was all good entertainment, but the moment I found most anxiety-inducing was the penning. Holding the gate open with his left hand, the shepherd would try corralling the flock in, often waving a crook with his right. You would almost be on the point of breathing a sigh of relief when – disaster – one woolly maverick would make a bid for freedom. Sometimes, this would be the end of someone’s dream. Frankly, if your only dream was to win ‘One Man and His Dog’, you probably deserved a reality check, but each to his own.

We too, like sheep, have gone astray. The Lord views us as his flock and it is the work of his church to help bring them safely into the fold. It is towards this end that the work of evangelism and outreach tends – get them on the outrun, win them for the cause. But I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that our eye should be on the ones we are just about to usher into the pen. There is a real flight risk there, and we all know why.

Satan is an awful lot more interested in people who are responding to the Lord than he is to the ones who are lukewarm, or even cold. They are nowhere near God’s pen; they are fully exposed to the ravening wolf, and easily picked off to be devoured.

Surely, then, a master strategist like the devil is going to turn his attention more fully on the ones who are almost – but not quite – safe. They are teetering on the brink of salvation, but the gate to the sheep-fold is not yet safely closed behind them. Something might yet catch them, out the corner of their eye, and they could easily turn and rush towards it.

I have been that sheep, so I know it’s true. It is while you are a churchgoer, a Bible reader, an utterer of prayer . . . but not yet safe in his grasp, that you are most vulnerable to the wiles of Satan. He will tempt you with the world in all its tinsel show; and he will contrast this with the dull rigidity of a life lived for God. Adept as he is at warping truth, he will remind you of all the things you want to do, all the things you have a right to do – and he will tell you that God can wait.

And I know others, now, who are in that position. The pen is open before them, they are almost within the circle of that gate . . . but Satan is up to his tricks again. He shows them the world, yes, but he does something else even more insidious. Coming right up to them, he whispers into their ears: ‘Look. Look at the ones who are already in. Apart from the fact that they are trapped, and can’t go anywhere, how different are they to you?’

He tells those who come to church, who hear the Word, and who are beginning to love the Lord, that they can have all of that – but why hang around with a people who are no better than those who live in the world? How are you, he asks them, meant to have fellowship with ‘these people’; and he lists them. I know he speaks to adherents, and I know he plays on the fact that they have seen bad behaviour from Christians. The church has in it liars, the self-righteous, the unjust, the vain . . . people, in fact, in all their brokenness.

Satan says to them, ‘why should you sit down in fellowship with these hypocrites?’ And they look again at the person in the pew next to them, and they realise that he is right. That upstanding Christian is a fibber. Or self-righteous, or egotistical.

Jesus, on the other hand, says to them, ‘take your place among these people – they are just like you; and yet I have claimed them all as my own’. He loved us while we were still defiled by original sin

We need to be mindful of his portion, to have care of one another. That includes especially those on the brink of life. Satan is watching them, hovering like a bird of prey over defenceless lambs. I have to examine my own life, therefore, and guard against being the stumbling-block that excuses them from coming in.

It gives an added impetus to our witness when we consider that those looking most closely at our example are nearer than we think. They are not necessarily the unbelievers on the outrun, but the almost-theres within the shelter of his gate.

Tolerance is Not an Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolerance is not an option.

 

 

 

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.