Romeos, cailleachan and spiritual undress

I went on an outing with Balaich an Trust last week, and, after a relatively brief car journey with one of them, discovered I was an item of clothing short. Searching high and low, I could not find it anywhere and was forced to confront the fact that I was out minus  that which no respectable Lewiswoman willingly divests – my cardigan. 

What rush of blood to the head, you ask, had overcome me, to the extent that the knitted reputation-saver had been lost . . . 

I remembered in my confusion, my father’s tale of a woman at whose door the vehicle of a well-known lothario was frequently parked. My father – driving for the dry-cleaners – went one day to deliver freshly laundered garments of which it turns out she was in dire need. She had been, he told us, many years later, up to no good with the visiting reprobate. ‘How do you know that?’ myself and my sister scoffed, believing our own generation had a monopoly on shenanigans. His answer was hard to argue against: ‘Because’, he said decisively, ‘when she answered the door to me, she had taken off her apron’.

The implication, of course, was that she had been carried away. Such had been the allure of the local romeo that she had lost her head – and her wrap-around floral pinny. If you are unfamiliar with the complexity of these garments, let me assure you that it’s unlikely one was ever removed by accident.

We set a lot of store by clothing, don’t we?  Apparel has a kind of cultural importance, beyond the merely practical one of preserving decency and keeping out the cold/midgies. I was reminded of this when visiting the fabrication yard at Arnish that cardiganless day. Aside from the hard hat and hi-vis jackets, we were told to don steel-toecapped footwear that will always be referred to here in Lewis by those of a certain age, as ‘Arnish boots’. They achieved currency during the heyday of the yard, and have come to be inextricably linked with its name. 

I can remember, too, when the windows of local clothing retailers, Murdo Maclean’s, and its rival, Nazir Bros, would be filled with ladies’ hats, deftly to coincide with communion season. For most who still attend church assiduously, headgear is not part of their wardrobe, and so the shop displays no longer reflect what was once very much a local event. Of course, we still celebrate communion but it is less of a community affair now.

My own personal dress code for public worship has relaxed somewhat over the years. I have come to the conclusion that the outward trappings don’t matter too much. God listens to me when I pray at home in my pyjamas; I can’t imagine for a second he’s going to turn his face from the earnest petitions of one of his own, just because they’ve gone to church in jeans. Truthfully, I would rather see our pews packed with folk in biker leathers than sparsely populated by ‘correctly’ attired ladies in hats and posh frocks.

I have found, anyway, that there is really only one outfit necessary to the Christian: armour.

Ephesians 6 tells us what ‘the whole armour of God’ consists of: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, feet shod with the readiness that stems from the gospel of peace. All of this should be accessorised with the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit, and the helmet of salvation.

Do I agonise over this outfit as much as I might over my outward apparel? Is it my habit to make an inventory, checking that all the pieces are in place?

Honestly? No, I don’t always. Sometimes I go far too long in neglecting to fasten and refasten the buckles that hold everything together.

In recent weeks, something happened to remind me about being a better soldier. I had not been in prayer so much, I had spent less time in the Word, and I had skipped the means of grace far more frequently than was wise or necessary.

And then I was brought up short by an incident. Petty, anonymous hatred of the most insidious and accusatory kind, intended to steal my peace. It reminded me of a very precious truth: the world is poles apart from God, and it is, therefore, not my home.

We will have troubles here. People might let us down, hurts will come – but we should receive these as they are intended by God: to persuade us that we really do belong to him. For me, the whole sorry debacle was an opportunity for the Lord to show me the truth of Joseph’s words to his brothers, ‘you intended to harm me, but God intended it for my good’

He brought me swiftly back to his side, where I am safest. And I have straightened out my armour, reattaching what had worked loose, and preparing both my sword and shield so I might follow him more closely.

But, even in that fray, when I was undoubtedly tussling with Satan, there was one element of my outfit that did not move.

As with any soldier, it will remain fixed until the battle is over.  That gives me comfort because I know I will fail again: my arm will flag in holding up my faith as a shield, and I will try to fend off the blows without it.

But the one item I will never – indeed, can never – lose, is the helmet of salvation. Christ puts it in place, and only he has the authority to remove it.

Which no soldier does until the battle is over.

Blood Brothers are Watching You

Coming towards the Free Church Seminary on a Sunday morning recently, I fell into step with the minister. He opted to walk through the vehicular access gate, which is broad, while I used the narrower, pedestrian gate. We don’t deal in symbolism in this neck of the eaglais, however, so I’ll just leave that there.

I was going to the Gaelic service, something I’ve been doing, off and on, all my life. For that reason and more, it holds many pleasant associations for me. It was certainly in that building the Gospel first touched my needy heart, and it was there, in the packed Session room at the back, I first professed faith.

Just this week, I was discussing with one of the elders what an ordeal it can be, contemplating an appearance before such a large assembly. ‘I don’t think you were there the night I went forward’, I said, which he contradicted. Hours later, I recalled our conversation, and thought, ‘yes, of course he was there – right in my line of sight, smiling and nodding encouragement’. How on earth could I have forgotten that? Because, I think, my mind was in such turmoil before, during and after.

Needlessly, I might add. Because there is one other nugget which has remained in my mind from that evening. It was the minister, telling me how I belonged to the fellowship of God’s people, and how these men were now my brothers.

Of course, I already had brothers – two, to be exact – and a sister. So, I know what family is. It is, and always has been, an enormous blessing to me; a place of safety and support. But, in the interests of absolute honesty, I must add that we have the capacity to get on one another’s nerves, to have misunderstandings, and differences of opinion.

We could attribute our awkwardness to that unfortunate cocktail of Doune/Achmore/Ardhasaig/Newmarket genes. But the main reason for it is that we’re human, with all the selfishness, sin and ego that entails.

And so are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Because, although we are in Christ, we are also still sinners; works in progress.

There is a tendency to criticise unfortunate conduct in the church – ‘Christians squabbling/holding grudges/cheating/lying’. But take that word, ‘Christians’ away, and substitute ‘people’. Everything that is levelled at Christians is also true of the world.

The principal differences are that Christians should be more troubled by their own bad behaviour, and work to remedy it; and Christians are aware that they are being sanctified – it is, though, a process, and not an event.

This is largely a word  to myself, because I have struggled to hang onto these truths lately. In the midst of feeling a bit hard done by, I failed to subdue self, and I failed to judge myself quite as harshly as others. Or, rather, I wasn’t as magnanimous to them as I would be to me. And, as ever, I nursed my hurt to keep it warm.

But, just like my literal family, my spiritual brothers helped me get back a sense of proportion.

One or two of them dispensed sage advice, and more than a little laughter. They encouraged me to loosen my grip on grievance. And then, another provided me with a really humbling moment in a totally unexpected way. It was a song he shared, sung from the point of view of someone worried they had sinned once too often and that this would be the one where God turned His back.

I was cleaning the window as I listened, and the thought made me stop in my tracks. Imagine if I was in God’s place, with that power over people, and refusing to forgive. The idea made me shudder, picturing myself asking such a cold and unrelenting Lord for forgiveness myself. In that moment, knowing what my own heart is like, and how much I’ve been forgiven already, I did indeed start to relent.

God wasn’t quite finished, though. There was the other brother – the one perceptive enough to recognise that I needed support. No fuss, no fanfare, just what I have always had from him: quiet, steady and strong back-up. I know that I can turn to him when, as he puts it, ‘things get really rough’. And things will. The Christian life seems to be about riding out one storm, only to find yourself launched headlong into another. You might be sparring with secularists one minute, and slighted by Christians the next.

No matter: God has made provision for us against those days. He has given us a spiritual family. We will misunderstand one another, we will squabble, and irritate our brothers and sisters because we are human.

When the chips are down, though, as I have found, the family comes together. That the Church family is not perfect should surprise ourselves least of all – we can expect no such thing in this world. What does that actually matter, though, over against the eternity of blessedness awaiting all the children of the King?

Ambushed by the Enemy Within

I have a friend who is an elder. He is also a relative of some description but this is Lewis, so isn’t everyone? We have a Henry or two in common ancestry, that’s all I know. This particular fellow has a weakness for loud ties and, despite the fact that he has zero rein over his tambourine-wielding wife, I have an awful lot of time for him. She may be out of control, but I’m quite fond of her too, and have high hopes of reforming her. Or, at least, of removing her tambourine to a place of safety (probably Martin’s Memorial).

He asked me an interesting question about this blog recently. In fact, he’s asked me twice whether I get a lot of negative comments about it. A valid enquiry. Apart from that one time the minister cautioned me that I was in danger of harming my mother’s mental health (‘you’re sending your mother droil and she’s going to have to leave the island’ were, I believe his exact words), no one has given me any hassle about what I write.

It surprises me in one way because I have certainly experienced spiritual attack. I expected to; I’m a member of a very level-headed and scripturally-grounded church, so I was warned to expect such things after coming out for Christ. They prepared me for it, and they equipped me to know how to deal with it.

When it came, though, it did not happen the way that I thought it would. The Devil is the master of the surprise attack, the spiritual ambush, and while I was busy crying and getting upset about what had happened to me, he was stealing my peace. And here’s how he did it:

He exploited my sinful weakness and my propensity to harbour a grudge. Deviously, he got me to inflict the real harm on myself.

On what would have been my husband’s birthday last year, with the knowledge that his headstone was being installed in the cemetery at that moment, I took the dog for a walk, already feeling emotionally fragile. Yards from my own gate I was subjected to an aggressive verbal assault from a neighbour that I had never spoken to in my life. About Donnie’s death, she spat these words I will never forget: ‘I don’t care. Sh*t happens’.

I shut down. Instead of reaching out to God, instead of running to be with His people, that Sunday, I stayed at home, feeling sorry for myself. And her poisonous words festered. She had physically threatened me, but her words about my loss were what really stung.

Earlier this year, before I even started the blog, I received a horrible tirade of anonymous messages. They were sinister, dark and vile. Amongst other things, I was accused of cynically portraying myself as a ‘perfect Christian’ and ‘the grieving widow who found God’. It was a time of great grief for our church, so I didn’t feel I could confide in people who were already over-burdened. This time, I didn’t stay away from worship, but felt strangely isolated.

And it was all my own fault.

You see, the power to harm me spiritually did not come from the words used by either of these poor souls. It lay entirely in my own difficulty with forgiveness, and an unfortunate tendency to self-pity.

The frontal attack from these people was not what my eye should have been on, but the enemy within. My heart is deceitful above all things, and it can even fool me.

But my church prepared me. Somewhere in the armoury I had what I needed. Prayer and the Word, as we are repeatedly told, make up the first line of defence. We have the weapons, we have the whole armour of God – but we forget to use them.

In this case, I eventually understood what He wanted me to do. I let go of my bitterness and the feelings of injustice that I am apt to nurse all too fondly. It is not
up to me to forgive, but it is so much better to pray that God will. Once you have prayed for someone, all the enmity goes. He has forgiven me much more than this; why should these two troubled souls not have the same? Perhaps because they don’t deserve His forgiveness?

But, then, neither do I. Yet, I have it.

When I let go of all the bitter thoughts, when I stopped rehashing their attacks in my mind, the miracle happened. God’s peace returned, and the Devil skulked away. He can’t abide the light.

Prayer is the most effective tool, the most powerful weapon, and the most enduring comfort that any Christian has. If you need to achieve something, to defend yourself, or to find peace, use prayer.

This blog has been a source of great blessing to me; it has brought so many wonderful people into my life. It is encompassed by a ring of prayer. I believe that is more impenetrable than a ring of steel.

And, know this, so does the enemy.