Give Truth a Helping Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secure Tenure in a Better Country

There is a line in the Runrig song, ‘Flower of the West’, which says that ‘the breathing of the vanished lies in acres round my feet’. For me, that articulates something that I feel very much here in my own community – the almost palpable sense of history everywhere. I know people who claim no interest in the past, who dismiss it as irrelevant. We are here, now, they will say, what’s the point in looking back?

Well, the point in looking back is to see how we got here. I am firmly with William Faulkner on this, when he said, ‘The past is not dead. The past is not even past’. How could it ever be, in a place like this?

That’s why I think it is a tragedy that Gaels do not learn their own history. For many years, the only formal access to it was through the Higher Gàidhlig course where, if you studied the poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries, you would also be taught about the Jacobite cause, the clearances, the famine, emigration and the Land War. And that knowledge is so empowering. When you know about these things, you can see where your community, your family, and you as an individual fit into the bigger picture.

That is where I derive my identity from.  I am a Gaelic-speaking hybrid of Maclean and Macdonald. My father’s people were cleared from Mangersta and settled at Doune: that’s Doune Carloway of the Iron Age broch. And my mother’s folk were from Harris on her paternal side: na Fìdhlearan, hereditary foresters to the Campbells of Scalpay, in the deer forest of Amhuinnuidhe, before relocating to Ardhasaig, via Taransay.

Today, I work in the very college from which I graduated in 1997. Our pretty campus is situated in the grounds of Lews Castle, built by Sir James Matheson in 1851 and gifted by Lord Leverhulme to the people in 1923, when the Stornoway Trust Estate was created – the first community-owned estate in Scotland.

I sit on the board that manages the Lancashire soap magnate’s legacy. Despite all the talk, the iconoclasm, and the liberal sprinkling of meaningless words like ‘progressive’ throughout public rhetoric, I see at least part of my role there as being to maintain the dignity of such an historic organisation. Stornoway Trust has always had a sense of its own historicity, and that’s why I feel an affinity with it: knowing your roots will always strengthen your sense of identity.

Of course, there are other aspects of my identity too. On a Sunday, I worship at the Free Church on Kenneth Street  – itself a relic of that great chapter in our history, when ministers and congregations walked out of the Church of Scotland to form a denomination free from the power of patronage, and outside interference.

Its establishment precipitated other radical acts. Described as ‘the crofting community at prayer’, it is believed that the community cohesion and leadership provided by the early Free Church, contributed to the events that followed, culminating in the Napier Commission and the Crofting Act of 1886, which finally granted security of tenure. Beyond that there were – here in Lewis – the raids which saw crofters clashing with landlord and government in their thirst for land on which to subsist.

I grew up in the relatively new village of Newmarket, where there is a mixture of crofts and of allotments, rented from the Trust. Our home was built on one of the latter, but my father still ran the croft at Doune, shearing and dipping sheep within the tobhta of his old home.

Land, you see, runs through it all. The soil under our feet, and the landscape before our eyes, seem to form the boundaries of our being. We ache for places we have left, and love those in which we make our homes. It is a universal experience, but always rooted in a familiar landscape – one whose form and history is meaningful to us.

And yet, however strong my sense of self is, however anchored here in Lewis, and however much the past whispers to me as I move through the landscape of my life . . . this is not really home. Yet, this is not the contradiction that you might think, because – like many other refugees – I have a dual history and a dual identity.

As much as the Fìdhlearan of Ardhasaig are my people, I would claim kinship also with the Israelites. Their yearning for the land of promise speaks to me in my own geographical and historical context. Because I know who I am as an islander, I can recognise in myself that desire for true belonging.

The most famous articulation of this, unsurprisingly, comes from Paul in 2 Corinthians 5: 8, when he says that he would prefer to depart this world to be with Christ. In a letter he left for us, his family, before his death, my father expressed his love for us all in just those terms. Though he said that another lifetime with us would be wonderful, he was prepared to go and be with his Saviour, which – he wrote – was far better.

Is that not an extraordinary witness? When we are blessed to have family and friends for whom we care deeply; when we are intimately tied in to the landscape and history of a particular place; when our identity here on earth is made of something older and finer than ourselves . . . what a testimony, then, to be able to say that there is something more awaiting us beyond those limits.

I believe that the privilege of heritage and history is there to teach us about this greater gift. God placed each of us within a particular lineage, a particular culture, so that we might identify with that international movement of refugees towards our ultimate home.

Knowing who my people are, and where I came from does not tie me faster to this world, as you might expect; it heightens my expectation of what God has prepared in eternity that is richer even, than the security I enjoy now. There, the father who once walked with me over the acres at Doune, was happy to go; there the husband who loved the vista of Traigh Mhòr was happy to go.

One day, I too will finish my journey, and find true security of tenure.

 

 

 

 

 

We Are Jolly . . .Honest.

When the minister announced that the theme of the evening would be ‘joy’, I wondered what we were in for. Surely not another lecture about excessive smiling, or raucous laughter in the church stairwell. Surreptitiously, I glanced down to ensure that I wasn’t wearing anything too gaudy. Nope: the usual hodden-grey as befits a Presbyterian widow of a few years’ standing. Oh well, I thought to myself, maybe it’s some other denomination that’s been bringing the cause into disrepute, because it certainly ain’t us.

Only, it turned out that he wasn’t warning against joy; he was actively promoting it. Not in a Ken Dodd, how tickled I am, sort of manner, I hasten to add; he was speaking up for spiritual joy – the real, enduring kind.

Now, Lewis Christians are not widely associated with joyfulness. That, for anyone who doesn’t recognise such things, is a monumental understatement of the type that only a dour Presbyterian can make with a straight face.

Anyone can – and, apparently, will – tell you of the myriad ways that Wee Frees (other denominations are available) have of spoiling your fun. We have taken an integrated approach, restricting not just dancing and the singing of worldly songs, but all forms of audio-visual entertainment and the reading of fiction (which we equate to lying). Thanks to people like me, families are being forced to spend time together at weekends instead of in municipal facilities, with disgruntled local authority employees who want . . . well, to be at home with their families.

It is time, social media tells us, that Lewis moved on and left all this stuff behind.

I have frequently drawn attention to the terrible things that are written about Christians on the likes of Facebook, and I will continue to call out that kind of bigotry for what it is. But, oh, how I wish we wouldn’t keep providing unbelieving folk with an opportunity to drag the cause through the mud. We have to be so careful: as wise, indeed, as serpents, while always endeavouring to be as gentle as doves. More is expected of believers than to simply blurt out the truth uncompromisingly in a ‘take it or leave it’ manner. That way lies the kind of misunderstanding that has caused our own community to think followers of Christ are joyless.

It comes down, however, to a definition of ‘joy’ which transcends the world’s understanding of it.  You will understand that it is not the kind of superficial feeling that is emotionally-led, and tied to our circumstances. My own moments of deepest spiritual joy came in the midst of the greatest grief of my life – because I had assurance of salvation for the first time. And, as the minister reminded us in the course of his unexpected sermon on joy, that salvation comes with a whole host of non-optional bonuses. Two of those – joy and peace – are interrelated and, I believe, feed one another. No matter what happens in my life, I have the abiding joy of knowing Christ, and the peace that comes along with that.

This is true of every Christian, of course, not just me. So, why are we such a poor advert for our faith? Why does the view persist that our ministers are of the I.M. Jolly stamp, and we ourselves a narrow-minded chorus of nay-sayers and lip-pursers?

Well, there are several reasons, I think. Some people just naturally incline towards seriousness, and this is how they will be as Christians too. Our essential personality does not change that dramatically. There is also the division between believer and unbeliever created by the simple fact of our once having been as they are, while they have not yet had the privilege of seeing things from our vantage point.

This divide causes a certain spiritual blindness in the unbeliever, and Christians should be sympathetic to it, because we were all afflicted with it once ourselves. Being sympathetic to it, however, also means that we have to engage a certain amount of emotional intelligence in our witness.

Let me offer an example. In the midst of all the dignified commemoration of the ‘Iolaire’ disaster, there was one discordant note struck. A local minister wrote an article for his district’s magazine, which was subsequently shared to the national press, and dragged back to the lair of Facebook to be torn asunder. I have read what he wrote and – spiritually speaking – there is nothing wrong with it. It was taken out of context, though, and has been most shamefully spoken about in various public forums.

However, he must surely have known that this was a possibility and it was, at best, naïve of him to attach the comments he did to a piece on this very emotive topic. I realise, because I am theologically literate, that he did NOT say those on board the ‘Iolaire’ particularly were all sinners who deserved to die; he was speaking in more general terms. But it’s a nuance that is easily lost on those less versed in Scripture, as well as those who wilfully misunderstand what, deep down, they fear.

This is where we surely have to employ some wisdom. While something may be true, is it necessarily the best thing to present to those who still have not met Jesus? I would contend that the first thing to do with such people is effect that most important of introductions, and all other things will follow from there.

I am certainly not saying that we should hide the offensive truth from them, but I am saying that we should not brandish it in their face at every opportunity. Wouldn’t it work better if we showed them the pleasure we take in belonging to God?

The recent sermon on joy ended with words from the book of Nehemiah on the dedication of the rebuilt wall, ‘The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away’. That has to be our aim too, if we are serious about bridging the gulf in our community between those who love the Lord, and those who have not met Him yet: let them hear our joy, and crave it for themselves.

 

Wee Frees & Defective Hunks

’This hunk is defective’, the minister said, gesturing to one of the elders. Not wanting to agree too readily, I pretended not to have heard, and mumbled, ‘pardon?’ He sighed deeply, and repeated, ‘In hunc effectum – the meeting is in hunc effectum’. Really none the wiser, I nodded my acquiescence, but I’m sure he wasn’t fooled. After all, how would  a daft wee airhead like myself be as versed in Latin as those fellows who presumably use nothing else at their Session meetings? The point is, I am a mere woman and impossibilium nulla obligatio est.

We use language – jargon, even – according to the situation we are in at the time. My Stornoway Trust life involves talk of wayleaves and resumption, of decrofting and apportionment. And we never, ever approve anything; we just homologate.

I don’t mind admitting I had no idea what on Earth that meant the first time I saw it written.

In my job as a lecturer, I occupy a world of blended learning, of internal and external verification, of validation, of curriculum offer.

There was a day, I suppose, when I didn’t know what any of that was about either. I had come to it fresh and green from a world of grant monitoring reports, of capacity building, and of exit strategies.

Yet, none of this rich and varied vocabulary made much practical sense until I started to use it for myself.

Which brings me back to Wednesday night and the single-item meeting. Or, really, just before it.

Prior to convening our church communication committee, that ‘defective hunk’ of an elder had been part of my Bible study group. We were looking at the wisdom of James (the Biblical one, that is). And we were using a whole lot of words that I feel I’ve always been hearing: salvation, works, faith, justification. When Wee Frees like me were wee, we learned our Catechism, which was brim-full of vocabulary we didn’t understand.

Rote-learning filled our heads with words that were longer than ourselves. And, somewhere along the way I learned the TULIP acronym for five-point Calvinism. Oh, the hours of torture my wee brain has suffered over the years in trying to grasp unconditional election, and averting my eyes from my total depravity.

And then, when I grew older, I thought I could book-learn my way around these words. The Bible is God’s instruction manual for us, I reasoned, so I’d better try to figure out what He’s saying. I thought I could do it with a concordance and a few text books. When that didn’t work, I tried a course of study, hoping to unlock the mystery in the code wrapped around salvation. Surely a course accredited by no less an institution than the Free Church College would set me straight.

But no. All I was amassing for myself was so much head knowledge. I could read every single book ever written on salvation, and every treatise on grace, and never really understand their meaning. Oh, yes, I could have written you an essay. In fact, I recall one such, on the emotional life of Jesus. The brief was to demonstrate that He was indeed a human being with the full range of feelings that implies.

The fact that I wrote enough to pass actually shames me now. How could I calmly write of His joy and His pain, of the depths of His anguish on my behalf – and not be broken-hearted?

Simply, because I had not really learned these two words: atonement and salvation. I knew what they meant, yes; but not yet what they meant to me. And I thank the Lord every day that He, and only He, opened my eyes.

Powerfully, though, as we read what James has to say, I thought of those who have not yet accepted His definition of salvation. The letter runs:

’Even the demons believe – and shudder’.

I know what it is to have a cerebral knowledge of God, to be acquainted with His vocabulary, but not to have Him. Satan knows more of the divine attributes than many who profess to love God. He could, I’m sure, deliver a powerful lecture on justification, and not mean a word of it.

In the lexicon of faith, there is only one word that Christ Himself would place before us,exactly as He did to Jairus: ‘believe’.

He came into the world, taking our humanity – out emotional range – to Himself, in order that He might suffer in our place, wholly and substitutionally.

But we don’t have to define substitution; we merely have to accept it. And the reason for that?

It’s because Christ’s appointment at Calvary was most assuredly in hunc effectum.

 

The Trust, the Well and the Council Clock

‘You may lead a Lewisman with a hair, but you won’t drag him with a cable’. Thus spoke Lord Leverhulme, the proprietor of the island in 1920. A mere two years into his tenure, he had already seen enough of the people to know that they were versed in the art of subtlety, as well as masters at being thrawn.

I’ve always been interested in this hard-headed northern businessman. He thought he knew what was best for the crofters of this island – and perhaps he did, in economic terms – but he also reckoned without the strong attachment the Hebridean feels to his land.

It is hugely to his credit that he was willing to gift the very terrain that caused such dispute, back to the people who had opposed him. I wonder how a successful entrepreneur managed to set aside ego to this extent; his financial worries notwithstanding, it was a magnanimous gesture.

Attending meetings of the Stornoway Trust, which manages the estate of the same name, I frequently look upon his portrait, which hangs on the boardroom wall. I think he would find the plans and projects, the obstacles and objections strangely familiar. And I imagine him rubbing his hands with relish, and getting stuck in, bluff wee northerner that he was.

The Trust is guardian of his legacy, yes – but his intention in gifting the land to the community was that the community should run it, not Leverhulme’s way, but the Lewis way.

Just last week, I took a tour of the Castle policies with the man who is responsible for the day to day management of the estate. He definitely has a name, but is known to everyone simply as ‘the Factor’. With him, I got a palpable sense of the way that history is a living thing for us in Lewis. Conversation flowed seamlessly  around which was Lady Matheson’s favourite picnic spot, to a Second World War bunker, to the Millennium Forest project, to a prehistoric chambered cairn, to the Castle School, to Mac an t-Srònaich, to speed bumps, to Lord Leverhulme e fhèin.

I think we generally have an easy relationship with our past. Modern kit houses sit on the site of, or even alongside early white houses and, sometimes, the tobhta of the family blackhouse. We incorporate patronymics into our identity, so we are part of a line which stretches back through history. And the different names we go by – our forefathers’ – inhabit and shape history at different times.

My maternal seanair helped build the iron water well, a landmark in the Castle Grounds. It commemorates a sensitive individual who used to moor his yacht in Stornoway for the peace and quiet. How very strange that he should be memorialised here in that way, and that generations of Lewis children should know the name of the reclusive Robert Alfred Colby Cubbin.

Whatever the plaque says, though, for me it is a monument to Alex Hearach, my grandfather.

Following the Lewis way means guarding our identity. It involves maintaining a relationship with the past in order to move forward. The more I contemplate our close connection with history here in the island, therefore,  the more fiercely I am determined to see all of our heritage protected.

We cannot say ‘yes’ to Lady Matheson, or Mac an t-Srònaich, and ‘no thanks’ to our Christian legacy. There is something incomplete in our understanding of Stornoway’s history if we believe that it includes Lord Leverhulme, but excludes Rev Kenneth MacRae; if we embrace Latha na Dròbh but, frankly, find òrduighean Steòrnabhaigh a bit of an embarrassment.

You cannot separate our civic and religious past, you see. Literally, sometimes. When the Town Hall was razed to the ground in 1918, the clock was lost and folk had no way to tell the time, unless they visited Sime’s shop on Church Street. So, the Town Council came up with an ingenious plan – they erected a public clock on Kenneth Street Free Church.

The building belonged to the Free Church, and the clock to the Council, but the time that moved its hands, that belongs to God. We so seldom look beyond what is right in front of us; we accept the face that history presents, and we do not question.

But we should. I have always thought of that graceful stone monument in the Castle Grounds, built in part by Alex Hearach, as the iron water well. Walking there last week, though, something that now seems rather obvious was casually alluded to: the actual well is some feet away, anonymously supplying the man-made structure with pure, clean water.

That, I think, is as good a metaphor as any I’ve found for what Christianity has been to the history of this place. It is always there, feeding us living water, and giving real meaning to all the events that we foolishly believe are authored by ourselves. While we are busily cleaning up and repointing the facade, the water continues to spring forth and give us life.

We need have no fear that particular well will ever run dry. But equally, it’s important that no one should ever be permitted to stop its mouth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out on a Wednesday

Being out on a Wednesday night in the Free Church in Lewis does not mean that you have become gay part-time. It means that you have started going to the midweek meeting and that you have started following.

Following doesn’t mean that you are stalking someone obsessively. It refers to your lively interest in the message of the Gospel and the possibility that you may well be converted and even contemplating going forward.

Going forward doesn’t mean that you’ve suddenly become very bold and begun addressing the minister as ‘thu’, or pulling the elders up on their grasp of theology. No, it simply means that you are ready to make your public profession of faith.

Funnily enough, that public profession is usually made in a room with just yourself and the Session present.

The Session isn’t a band which does covers of Bob Seger and Neil Diamond. They are the elders, charged with the spiritual leadership of your church. When they aren’t checking your Sky subscription to make sure you only tune in to wholesome entertainment, they do other stuff, like hearing the testimony of newly-professing Christians.

These events have followed a well-trodden path here in the island for many years. Everyone knows the order in which your spiritual journey is supposed to happen.

I knew it. And yet, somehow, I ended up doing it all in completely the wrong order.

Not long ago, I was relating my misdemeanour to another Christian. ‘I didn’t set foot in the prayer meeting until after I took communion for the first time’ I said.

But that’s not strictly true.

Many years ago, a friend’s granny died. I went to the funeral and, afterwards, felt an overwhelming compulsion to be with the Lord’s people. It was a Wednesday. The thought made me sick with apprehension, but I simply had to go. To the prayer meeting. Ignoring my parents’ surprised faces, I headed out, hardly able to believe what I was about to do.

I didn’t do it again for fifteen years.

It has such significance attached to it in our culture that anyone going to the prayer meeting in the past would be marking themselves out as ‘one to watch’. And, when I look back over my own journey – which I understand better now that I have attained a small measure of spiritual maturity – I wish with all my heart that I had kept on going to that Wednesday meeting. Then, I might have been noticed by someone, and the right questions might have been asked of me. If nothing else, I might have asked them of myself.
But no. I allowed the weasel words of Satan to drop into my all too willing heart: you don’t belong here with them; you’re not good enough. And that absolute closer – you’re not ready.

When I was asked, the night I went forward, how I had come to follow the Lord, I could give no very clear answer. I didn’t know, exactly, and I was afraid to tell the complete truth. The complete truth being that I could not remember a time when He was not in my life, or when I did not feel destined to follow Him.

I had no idea how to go about making that a practical reality. And, while I may indeed be as mad as a box of frogs, or the irregular product of a Carloway-Achmore-Ardhasaig mash-up of genes, I would be prepared to bet that I am not unique in my spiritual confusion.

Tradition is great, as long as it isn’t harming people. And, when I reflect upon my own long and perplexing walk, and my failure to recognize exactly where I was at with God, tradition annoys me.

Shy and confused, I was drawn to the Lord and His people, but with no idea what I was doing at a midweek meeting. The whole experience was so uncomfortable that I came home, and stumbled on in lonely ignorance, certain that my discomfort was born of my own unreadiness for being out on a Wednesday.

I was not unready. Seventeen or so years on from then, I can say with absolute conviction that I should have persisted. Who planted in me the desire to be there in the first place? Myself? Absolutely not. Satan? Never. But we were both complicit in deciding that I should never go back.

There is a reason why meetings like these are included in the term ‘means of grace’. These are the outward, and apparently mundane ways in which Christ imparts His grace to His own. They are intended as a benefit to us, but they can only be beneficial to those who actually attend. We cannot understand everything within God’s mysterious dealings with us, but there is one thing I can say with conviction now: if He has implanted a desire in you to be with His people, you should obey.

The Bible counsels us repeatedly not to look back with regret, and so I do not count the prayer meetings that I have missed because I listened to the wrong voice. But I do look back with thanksgiving, that God did not allow me to continue depriving myself.

If you are contemplating coming to a midweek meeting, and you think you are not ready because you are not yet a Christian, or not yet a church member, please view me as a cautionary tale. Wednesday is the wellspring that waters the whole week, and if He has put it in your mind to come to the well, it’s because He knows that you thirst.

The Electronic Mission Field

During a recent gathering in our church hall, the minister asked how many of his congregation were regular users of social media. Quite a few hands went in the air, despite the fear that he may be about to chastise us for wantonly dabbling in a century other than the one to which we belong (the 19th, according to many sources).

It was more unsettling than that, because he just looked mildly interested, and sat back. No shouting, no threatening – okay, he didn’t have a pulpit handy to thump, but really – and no accusatory pointing.

In still greater nonconformity to the stereotype, he was asking this question in the context of a wider discussion about Christianity and media: traditional and social. These have been a growing consideration since the 20th century came to the rest of Scotland and even occassionally lapped at the shores of backward, wee Lewis. Of course, with the advent of radio, and then television, the implications for the church have been catastrophic.

Last week, I challenged an assertion by the Scottish secularists, that it had been the norm for ministers in Lewis to regularly peer through windows, to ensure that people weren’t watching anything mì-chàilear on television. Nonsense – one minister on his own would never have been able to handle the workload – obviously there must have been a crack team of elders supporting him in these endeavours.

No intelligence was offered on what happened in the event that the entertainment being indulged in did breach Presbyterian etiquette. Did the outraged minister burst in and switch the set off? That would certainly have been more impressive and dignified prior to the remote control: imagine the interloper having to first rummage around under the sofa cushions, before he could eventually zap the offending signal.

It must have been an enormous relief to these overworked killjoys when the dear old Beeb closed down with God Save the Queen at midnight.

Now, though, media is 24/7. The recent discussion in our church hall was an acknowledgment of the challenges this poses to Christians. It is a minefield for young – and not so young – people. Satan lurks where we sometimes least expect, and the newer technology has provided him with a host of opportunities for trouble.

We hear about cyber-crime, and the dark web. And every parent should be aware of the threat posed by that laptop, or tablet with which their child spends so much time alone. What are they looking at? Who are they talking to? Are your family safe in their own home, or are you harbouring – unaware – a stranger who means you harm?

Of course we have to be mindful of the dangers. The internet is both an extension and a mirror of this sinful world. There is real evil to be found there, as there is here.

But also real potential for good.

I have heard prayers that people would spend less time on social media and more attending the means of grace. While I completely understand the sentiment, and the intention, I’m afraid it’s an unhelpful approach. Attendance at the means of grace should, without question, take precedence. We all must begin by ensuring our own spiritual lives are healthy before going elsewhere; but there has to be a Christian presence online as well.

Why must there? Well, obedience to the Great Commission – ‘go, therefore, into all the world’. The apostles had to wear out shoe leather doing that, but we can fulfil at least part of the command at the touch of a button.

On Friday, I was able to testify to Christ’s work in my life to a Highland-wide audience, using only my mobile phone. I sat in an empty classroom at work, and shared in prayers and witnessing with people I have never met. We could see each other, and speak like friends.

During the recent Trust election, I maintained a smidgen of sanity because of my WhatsApp support group. We anchored our daily discussion in the Word, and in worship music, and we had virtual – yet very real – human fellowship.

Videos of our church services go online now. A Gaelic sermon, preached to a congregation of perhaps seventy people, will be heard by five hundred more. And they feel connected to it because they can see the preacher and the precentor, as well as hear their words.

Aren’t these valid uses of technology?

Stornoway Free Church has never just been confined to the building on Kenneth Street. It has always been missional, sending people out into the field at home and abroad. Cambodia. Moldova. Uganda. Leaders go off to camp several times a year. And on our own doorstep, Campaigners, Sunday Schools, Christianity Explored – reaching out to the lost.

Now, though, mission has a new dimension. Make no mistake, it has its own difficulties. Christians will be pilloried and despised online as they are in the world; people will ignore your message on the internet, just as they do in person. Those who do not set foot on the threshold of a real Church are unlikely to click on your website link, or Facebook page just because it’s there.

But online mission is important, and I believe we have to get better at it. The people are there, and so many of them are lost.

Instead of praying that Christians would avoid social media, shouldn’t we be encouraging them to bring their witness to it? God does not send His soldiers into battle unequipped and, if we place our faith in Him, He will make us equal to this task also.

I can testify to the fact that technology is not bad, or wrong if, like anything else, we deploy it in His wisdom and not our own. Let’s encourage the world to look through our window, and let’s show them nothing but Christ.

Fools to make war on our brothers in arms

When the national media got hold of the fact that the Muslim community in Lewis was building its own meeting place in Stornoway, they scented blood. The expectation was that the narrow minds in black hats would be out in force, that a trench would be dug with Muslims on one side and ‘Christian fundamentalists (whatever they are) on the other.
Disappointingly for the usual suspects, that is not actually what is happening on the ground. As David Robertson points out in a recent blog, commentators from outwith – and, indeed, within, I would add – our island, fail to distinguish between the different denominations of Presbyterian churches represented here. Far and away the largest denomination is the Free Church of Scotland.

Its size and reach is, I guess, why the responsibility for influencing the Comhairle, rigging elections and intimidating old ladies falls fairly and squarely on the Wee Frees. Other denominations may have taken a different view, but the minister of the largest Free Church in Lewis has voiced what most of us believe: we would prefer that everyone saw the beauty of Christ and gave their lives to Him, but we will not achieve that by force.

Actually, he has articulated an important facet of the misunderstanding many harbour about Christianity: we really are not about power, we are about love.

However – and it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to say this – we need to be better at walking the walk. I can say as many times as I like to the unbelieving public that we are holding them up to God in love, but words alone are not enough. We have to be able to demonstrate our love to win the unbelievers over.

In a famous passage – 1 Corinthians 1: 13 – Paul speaks of the futility of Christianity without love. The older translations render this ‘charity’ which, as we all know, begins at home.

We need to be able, as Christians, to love one another demonstrably, before we are capable of winning the world over. How will an unbeliever be convinced that I am lovingly concerned for him, if I cannot show first that I love my brethren?

As Christ led us to expect, and as my church prepared me for, I have been reviled for my witness. There is no need for me to repeat here what has been said and done against me for His sake. It is because God is the stronghold of my life that I have weathered the excesses of
secular hatred; it is His armour, fastened and refastened by His loving people, that has protected me from the fiery darts of Satan and his – sometimes unwitting – workers.

But who will protect us from one another? When, in the middle of what is undoubtedly a spiritual battle, Christians waste their energy and misdirect their concern, in judging one another, who will make the peace?

Still punch-drunk from having my private grief used against me by unfeeling strangers, I was accused by one of the brethren of being ashamed of my Lord. His justification for this was that I had not, in my election campaign literature, explicitly said that I was a
Christian.

Another of the believing community took it upon herself to ‘name and shame me’ as unsuitable to hold elected office because of . . . well, my many failings. We do not, she said, share the same theology. Indeed
we do not.

But we do share the same Saviour. He is Lord, we are His church – and when we do this to one another, we offend only Him.
The world loves it. I know that unbelievers seize on any chance they can to justify their lack of faith, by pointing to the failings of Christians. It is not, ‘see how they love one another’, but ‘see how
they fight amongst themselves’.

This is a plea to my fellow Christians, of whatever denomination, to think about who it is you wound when you publicly rebuke one of your brothers and sisters in Christ. If we say something that you consider theologically unsound, or otherwise damaging to the cause, then I
believe the correct course of action is private counsel. The Bible has much to say on this subject, but nowhere does it
mention public pillorying, or shaming before the baying mob. In fact, Matthew 18: 15 tells us that our starting point, if we have a grievance against a brother, is to speak privately to him about it.

That’s privately – not on Facebook, not via a letter to the ‘Gazette’, not from a public platform in the Town Hall.

If you are certain that your position is the right one, as a Christian that means right in the eyes of God, and according to His Law. You need, therefore, no other witness than Him, and your erring brother in Christ.

He laid down His life for us; all He asks in return is that we crucify self, and see our brother as greater than we are. If we love our family in Christ, any error is not a subject for public shaming, but for private reconciliation.

Wee Frees and Wise Men – Not Mutually Exclusive

When the Calvinists of the Free Church in Stornoway are not busy oppressing the people who want to exercise their free will by swinging a golf club on Sundays, we like to sit around, oppressing one another. Old Christians try to prevent young Christians from enjoying themselves, men keep women in their place (the kitchen), and, I suppose, the ministers whack the other elders on the knuckles with a wooden ruler if they overstep the mark. Our times of fellowship are an endurance test, with the first person to laugh put outside by the bins.

It is remotely possible, though, that we are just harsh and humourless by nature. I mean, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame everything about us on Calvin. The atheist intelligentsia has been doing that for a long time – they blame him for destroying Gaelic culture, for taking art and music from people’s lives and they blame him for stealing Christmas.

John Calvin, a.k.a. The Grinch.

There was, it is true, a tendency among the Reformers to distance themselves from these holy days which had been so much a feature of the Roman Catholic church. Nonetheless, Luther permitted its observance and Calvin . . . well, Calvin’s position was not exactly as it has been portrayed.

The celebration of Christmas had already been abolished in Geneva before he went there, and it was later reinstated during his temporary expulsion from the city. By the time he returned, Calvin had either mellowed somewhat, or had not been strongly opposed to it in the first place, but he stated his intention to allow Christ’s birthday to be marked as the people had become accustomed to doing.

Knox shared Calvin’s reservations about the celebration of a day not explicitly prescribed in scripture. Christmas was eventually banned in Scotland by an Act of Parliament in 1640. Despite its repeal 48 years later, it continued as a very low-key festival, not becoming a public holiday until 1958.

Now, however, more and more Presbyterian churches in Scotland are tentatively marking the religious significance of Christmas. In what looks like a binning of the rule-book, the dour men in black are decking the halls. Or something similar.

Well, what does the rule book say about the matter?  The Westminster Confession of Faith says that, in addition to the Lord’s Day, there is room for. ‘solemn fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner’.

It is the manner of the celebration that matters: the spirit in which it is done and the intention behind it. If the primary objective is to point to Christ, to glorify God, then the marking of Christmas is entirely compatible with the ethos of every Calvinist church.

Of course, the Westminster Confession of Faith is itself based on Scripture, and it is back there we must go if there is any doubt about the rightness of such a move. One of the objections levelled by people like Knox himself was that the Bible does not offer any authority that December 25th is the birth-date of our Saviour. Far be it from me to call poor Mr Knox a pedant, but . . . Surely the material point here is not when the Son of God was born, but that He was born. Only last weekend, we reflected in church upon the startling fact that, in the storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee, it was God who slept, in the person of His Son. That was the real miracle – that God, as John Betjeman wrote, was man in Palestine.

He was born, then, and we have several accounts of how this came about. In John 6:38, He Himself addresses the why, ‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me’.

From that incarnation stems everything that we have as believers, starting with hope. Hope was born the day He came into the world, and gathered in strength towards the cross and finally the triumph of the empty tomb. It is because of God incarnate that we have been redeemed from the bondage of our own sin and the certainty of death.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I cannot think of anything more worthy of celebration.

Not celebrating as the world celebrates. The bloated excess of Christmas as it is marked and commercialized these days would turn the least sensitive of stomachs. In that feast of self-indulgence, all that remains of Christ is the name – and there are those who would expunge even His name from the proceedings.

Last year, Christmas Day coincided with the Lord’s Day and we concentrated in church upon Mary’s Song, and upon the importance of unwrapping and making our own the gift which God has given us in His only begotten Son.

This is the message of Christmas when told properly. The world took Christ, it beat Him and abused Him, and it finally crucified Him.

Now, it is doing the same with His very name.

It was appropriated, and all the meaning with which Christmas is redolent has been leached out, to be replaced by a consumerist frenzy.

Advent is all about waiting. It is about silence. And it is about anticipation of the greatest event our world has ever known. This year, I am grateful that I will be able to draw aside with God’s people, singing His praise for what He did all those Christmases ago:

Sacred Infant, all divine

What a tender love was thine

Thus to come from highest bliss

Down to such a world as this.

Advent, òrduighean and the return of the King

This Sunday, I hope to be doing two things at once. In Stornoway Free Church, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will be dispensed. Those who sit at the table – and, I think, many who don’t – will remember the death of Christ. They will think back to Calvary, and they will begin to measure His love towards them.

But the service does not last long enough for anyone to finish that calculation. His love is the very definition of immeasurable.

Sunday also marks the beginning of Advent. It is the beginning of the waiting, the anticipation. There are four Sundays between now and Christmas Day, counting forward to the date which marks the birth of Jesus Christ.

Was He actually born on December 25th? Does it matter? Like the Creation, it is the same miracle, however and whenever it took place. Those who try to punch holes in the details of timescale and location are guilty of a very human smallness. They try to shrink God to fit their limited vision also, but He will not be contained. It’s the Devil who lurks in the detail, after all.

God is in the greatness, the unparalleled truth, the soaring wonder. He became one of us in order to show how we should live. And to die so that we would not.

We eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of Him. It is not a forlorn ritual, but a meaningful act which brings before us the always remarkable fact that He was perfect, and sacrificed Himself for sinners because He was perfect. Everything about Him is eternal, an unbroken circle without end or beginning .

So, because that is true, we have to look at communion as more than just an act of remembrance . He did not stop at dying, so we should not stop at commemorating His death. We are to mark His death only until He comes again.

It is fitting, then, is it not, that we should partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of Advent? We are remembering, but we are also waiting. This is not a counting down to the lowly birth in a stable which ends in the horror and ignominy of crucifixion: no,it is something far more wonderful.

Christmas is not something we have traditionally marked in the Free Church. At home, yes, but not in church, not the way other denominations might. Historically, there were no hymns sung, and so no carols either. We do not light candles, nor bring greenery in from outdoors, nor set up nativity scenes in front of the suidheachan mòr.

These, though, are only the outward trappings of Advent. They make a pretty enough show, but are not in themselves Christmas. It may be a festival of tinsel and lights and ‘tissued fripperies’ as John Betjeman put it, but if it is to have any meaning for us, it is not to be found in any of those details.

Bring together, though, the remembering of the Lord’s Supper and the waiting of Advent; then you have something.

Remember Jesus, the baby born into a world already unwilling to accommodate Him. Think of the danger this tiny, helpless child was in. Imagine the hope vested in that infant Jesus, and the wonder of those wise men from the East.

It is lovely to dwell on that Christmas long ago because the people who were walking in darkness suddenly saw a great light. There were angels, hosannas and everything was suffused with hope.

We love that, as human beings – a happy, hopeful story. No one wants to see the dark figure lurking, just in the edge of the frame. Our world has captured the baby Jesus and placed Him in amber, forever a golden hope for mankind.

Remember, though, that He came to die. Remember that first Christmas as something which was always destined to culminate in crucifixion thirty-three years later.

But remember also, that was not the end. In fact, for believers, that was the real beginning in many ways.

So, we should certainly look forward to Jesus. When He comes again, it will not be as a powerless infant. All of that, pretty though it is, is done with. This time, we await our King.

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine