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

 

Pan pipes in the pulpit and Wee Free Flower Power

An alternative lifestyle is not the kind of thing one expects to hear advocated from the pulpit of Stornoway Free Church. You imagine that, suddenly, the sober suits will be swapped for tie-dyed cheesecloth, and vegan sandals; or that there will be crystals hanging on the vestry pegs where once there were Homburg hats. Will the cailleachs be unwrapping pumpkin seeds instead of bachelor buttons? And, rather than a precentor . . . pan pipes?

Well, no. That does tend to be our image of an alternative lifestyle, though, doesn’t it? Something a bit way-out, a bit hippyish? But I can’t see us downsizing from manses to yurts, or getting the ministers to do their pastoral visits in a VW camper van. Changes like that would be – in one sense – easy to make. You just dress differently, adopt a new vocabulary, and affect a laid-back demeanour in your dealings with people. Maybe utter the odd ‘peace’, or ‘far out’. Add a CND badge or two, and a Greenpeace bumper sticker to the VW and people get the message: you are not like everybody else.

The alternative lifestyle that was spoken of is something way more radical than deacons with joss-sticks, or ministers with henna tattoos, however. It is following Christ wherever He leads, whatever He asks you to do, and however that changes your circumstances and priorities.

And the change does not begin with anything as superficial as your clothes, or your diet: it begins with your heart. Christianity does what we used to believe of microwave ovens – it warms you from the inside out.

You don’t pick the Christian life from a catalogue. Whatever right-on secularist parents say about letting children ‘decide for themselves’, that is not how this works. No one is drawn by the clothes and the traditions. This isn’t steampunk, or goth, or hipster. I doubt very much if anyone looking dispassionately on says to themselves, ‘yeah, I was just drawn to the whole culture of, you know, prayer meetings, and soup and puddings’.

You don’t have a change of heart – you have a whole new one created in you by the Holy Spirit.

And then you become one of these peculiar people. From the inside, that means you are united to all the others in unbreakable bonds of love for Christ. You all have this knowledge of what He has done – is doing – for you, not because of any cleverness on your part, but because the Spirit has shown you. What He wrought in your life causes you to adore Him, but seeing Him do as much for others does not cause envy; instead, it makes you love them also.

Christians are commanded to lead a different life in the world, and they do so because they see it differently to everyone else. This world is not the point. Restoration to a right relationship with God for all eternity is. And that relationship begins when you are saved by grace. It changes you, and it turns your life into something lived for the Lord – which makes certain that it will also be something that those outside of Him do not comprehend.

From outside Christ, from that cold, cold place, what must Christians look like? Strange, undoubtedly. Spiritual bonds create friendships which the world finds odd, to say the least – and which some will try to taint by looking through a lens of sin. But the world is not our judge: it made that same mistake with our Saviour two thousand years ago, and has been repeating it ever since.

Yet, we are responsible for our conduct before the world. If I greet another Christian with a holy kiss, I should not care if onlookers try to warp that into something unclean. Much more serious is my being heard to slander other Christians before the world, or my failure to offer them the hand of friendship in their need. That is where I may harm the cause of Christ.

If our behaviour is reprehensible to the world, but defensible before God, there is no charge to answer. But if we fail, as Christians, the least of His, then we have failed Him also. That, then, is where our eye should be: upon Him. As Thomas a Kempis wrote in ‘The Imitation of Christ ‘:

‘If God were our one and only desire we would not be so easily upset when our opinions do not find outside acceptance’.

His life is the pattern for ours. If we follow Him faithfully, doing as He would have us do, the world can lay any charge it wishes; but we will be found righteous in the highest court of all.

 

Hallowe’en is coming, and the Clocks Are Going Back . . .

Someone – and I’m not prepared to say who – created a bit of bother in Stornoway Free Church last weekend. They posted a flippantly captioned meme onto the church Facebook page, featuring a photograph of our two ministers. This flagrant misuse of the image was bad enough, but to compound the felony, it was heavily implied that one of the reverends could not be trusted to put the clocks back.

Which is ironic, really, because we all know that the Free Church has been setting this island back centuries since its foundation in 1843. What would one hour more have mattered?

I am a little bit obsessed with time myself. In the normal course of things, I like to be early. Sometimes ridiculously early. This is why I don’t like going to things with my less punctual friends and relatives. Walking into an early morning prayer-meeting once, after the door had been shut almost caused me a nose-bleed. It is my uptight side coming out. And there’s not a lot I can do about it.

On Hallowe’en night, I was due to give a talk on the Otherworld. So, I duly press-ganged my sister into accompanying me, and she wrong-footed me by being at our appointed meeting place early. We both arrived at the Leurbost Community Centre a good forty minutes before I was expected to utter a single word about witches. As we sat in the car park until a more respectable hour, hordes of children dressed as ghosts and witches (well, I assume they were children) rushed past. It brought back many happy memories of similarly dark and cold evenings, when a crowd of us would go from door to door, singing for a donation to the party fund.

And nostalgia was the tone for the whole evening. There was something about it . . . talking, as people did long ago, about superstitions, about mysterious lights and unexplained noises, and women who were suspected of being a bit uncanny. Woven into it was Gaelic, and genealogy, and laughter, and scones. My more eccentric granny was from Achmore, and the previous generation from (inevitably) Ranish. All North Lochie genes seem to emanate from Ranish. And there were lovely ladies there who had worked with my parents in the Old County Hospital, or knew my mother, or were related to a neighbour.

It was an old-fashioned evening. People wanted to ‘place’ me, and I in my turn had to figure them out. There was darkness, cold and an atmospherically howling wind outside. Inside, though, I felt like some magic had indeed taken place, and that, in talking about the tales of da-shealladh and taibhsean, I had unwittingly conjured up the past.

The tea and baking that followed my rambling was preceded by a grace. It makes me glad to know that some communities still continue with this, and some still open all their meetings with prayer.

But it makes me sad to think of the people who would see this humble gratefulness to God for His unwarranted goodness to us as just so much more superstition. There are those who would place the dignified words of blessing and thanks in the same category as charms to ward off the evil eye, or rituals to protect a child from felonious elves.

People are interested enough to come and hear about Hallowe’en, and the things that our ancestors believed. They were, I think, afraid of what might come out of the darkness to harm them. It wasn’t really spirits of the dead, or witches bent on evil that threatened them at all, but the nameless fear of things they could not comprehend. Illness, infant death, loss of all kinds . . . if these come at you unexpectedly and without explanation, perhaps you just have to create your own framework in which to understand them.

And people who dismiss God as superstition are just the same. They have built up their own version of the Otherworld, just a lot less plausible than the one populated with fairies and witches.

Their imaginary realm is the one they inhabit now. And they think it is all there is. The atheist thinks that when he closes his eyes on this world, he simply ceases to be. They do not waste time speaking to an imaginary deity now, because they do not expect to meet him later.

But they will. We all will.

I don’t like to dismiss the beliefs of our forefathers as mere superstition. They believed the things that they did in good faith, but also at times out of ignorance. Some of our good old Highland ministers (not at all the sort to forget to wind the clocks) believed that second sight may have been an example of hierophany – God communicating directly with a rural population which was largely illiterate and unable to read Scripture for itself.

The truth is, however, we don’t know. There are indeed, as the Bard (nope, not Murdo MacFarlane, the other cove) once said, ‘more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.

‘Philosophy’ here might well refer to all of learning – whether that is astronomy, biology, or some daft creutair from the local college who has learned a few things about witches and wise women.

But the really wise women are not waiting for revelation in dreams or visions. They are setting their clocks to spend time with the Lord. His book is better than magic, and in His presence you will find more things than are dreamt of in any philosophy, I’m sure – even in the fondest prayers of the Christian.

 

Status: in a relationship – and this one’s for keeps

I am hoping to be busy this Hallowe’en, if I’m spared, speaking in North Lochs about the supernatural world. It is an engagement which was made on the very doorstep of the manse, though I should stress that neither the Rev nor the First Lady had any knowledge of it. Nor do I regularly meet Lochies in the manse garden to discuss things that go bump in the night.

Not that I think we should fear the night. It certainly doesn’t bother me that, after an evening spent talking to – let’s just assume there will be an audience – folk about ghosts and witches, I have to drive back to North Tolsta. In the night. In the dark. Through the glen. Alone.

Gulp.

Except, not really on my own, of course. The Christian is never truly alone. Christ experienced that complete desolation so that we wouldn’t have to. Without doubt, the greatest privilege of my life is to be able to say that He has never left me, nor forsaken me. I cannot actually recall what it feels like to be alone.

There are still, however, some things which frighten me more than they should. Spiders. Mice. Exam boards. The minister’s wife when she’s recruiting for the soup and pudding. Or when she finds out I’ve been making odd arrangements with Lochies outside her front door. .

But other fears, I’ve left behind. One, fortunately, is public speaking. It used to terrify me; the very thought of getting up and talking in front of people gave me a dry mouth and a blank mind. Everything had to be written down, just in case all I’d ever known flew out of my head.

Recently, I feel I’ve been doing my best to scunner the Wee Frees of Lewis with my ubiquitous presence, answering questions about my experience of coming to faith. It’s a tough gig to get right – a bit like writing your testimony, where it’s an account from your point of view, but you’re not actually the main character.

And the fabulous Mairiann, who questioned me on behalf of our own congregation, has a great way of putting you at ease. She exudes calmness, which makes you calm. Because she was relaxed, I relaxed. Then, she utterly flummoxed me.

‘God has a particular heart for widows’, she said, ‘what could we, as a church, be doing, to fulfil His desire that we should care for them?’ It’s incredible how much ground your mind can cover in a few seconds. I glanced at the assembled people. How to answer that question? What advice could I give; what request should I make on behalf of the widows among our number?

I believe my poorly expressed response was something like, ‘keep doing what you’re doing’. This is surely not the answer anyone was looking for. Nor, in fact, was that the answer they deserved. Not from me.

The day my husband was buried, the presiding minister prayed that the church would now be a husband to me. Donnie was not a tall man, but, nonetheless, these were big shoes to fill. How could an institution like the church ever hope to be what he was to me? One of my friends, an atheist, actually repeated this sentiment afterwards, and laughed. In that strange fog, which accompanies bereavement, I registered her scorn, but had no reply.

Now I do, though – for her, if she chooses, and for the congregation who got no very adequate response to a reasonable question.

Love. Safety. Friendship. Care. Compassion. Identity. Closeness. Laughter. Acceptance. Freedom. Respect. Generosity. Trust. Protection.

These are the gifts I got from Donnie, as his wife. Since becoming his widow, I have felt moments of fear, of vulnerability, of pain that is almost physical, of lostness, of loneliness. I am no longer one half of a couple; I am simply one half. In the weeks and months that followed his death, I’m sure that was writ large on my countenance.

But always, Christ was at my shoulder. He never left me; He never will.

And listening to His voice always, His bride. Not that I’m suggesting for one minute that Stornoway Free Church is the whole church of Christ; just that it is one lovely limb. It has accepted me, flaws and all; it has supplied all that I need and more.

A church is made up of God’s people. Why should anyone mock the notion that they could be a husband to me? They are in-dwelt by the Spirit, and are moved by grace. To be a widow in their midst is a privilege not afforded to everyone. Unlike Donnie, wonderful though he was, Christ’s church does not love me for who I am, but for who He is.

And that, I am certain, is a love that will not let me go.

 

Fiery Crosses and Rightful Kings

If you wanted to foment a rebellion today, it would be a simple matter of texting all your supporters the where, when and why. ‘C u @ Gfinnan – B there or die.Charlie x’ . The Jacobites didn’t have Vodafone though, so their technology was rather more primitive, and quite possibly a lot more reliable – the crann-tàra. This was a cross of wood which had been partially burnt and then dipped in blood before being passed from person to person in a kind of relay until all had been rallied.

A scattered population has always presented a challenge to any cause. It was difficult to provide a uniform education system, or equal access to healthcare in all the corners of the Highlands and Islands. And it was difficult to evangelise those who did not live in or near a large centre of population.

That is certainly one of the reasons why the Reformation arrived so late in our neck of the mòinteach. Keeping the effects of the Reformation alive is proving to be an equally great challenge in the present day.

People do not come to church if they don’t want to and, increasingly, they don’t want to. Attendance at the means of grace has dwindled alarmingly across the country and even here in the islands.

There is still a thing or two that we could learn from the Jacobites. They did not sit around waiting for their supporters to show up – they went and demanded loyalty from each one. The symbolism of the crann-tara was that anyone who did not respond accordingly could expect to meet with fire and blood. It was quite literally a life or death proposition.

That, I think, is how the Gospel has to be presented – urgently. All who hear His call must know the truth, that it is a straight choice between falling in with Christ, or dying eternally.

Of course, you have to know where the people are. Otherwise, how can you obey the great commission and ‘go’? We don’t have to trudge across the region, or gallop on horseback, though, to go where the people are.

They’re right here: online.

We can’t assume that methods of communication which don’t work in the real world are going to be any more successful on the internet, however. If people don’t want to walk into our churches, then, why are they going to follow us on Twitter, or click on our Facebook posts?

At Stornoway Free Church we have recently been stepping up our use of social media. This is not in some painful effort to make ourselves cool. (Mo chreach, I’m just not sure we’d know where to start).
We simply recognise two things: Jesus wanted us to go to where the people were with His message; and where the people are, the Devil is always prowling. It is incumbent upon the church, therefore, to bring light into the darkness that can sometimes exist online just as it does offline.

Christ’s church exists to glorify Him, which I think we can sometimes forget, even with the best of intentions. We think it’s up to us to devise the initiative that will be the golden key, the thing that brings people flocking to us.

What will bring people to us, actually, is grace and that is not within the gift of the Free – or any other – Church. We must surely accept the Holy Spirit’s divine authority. So, we ask for God’s guidance, and we continue worshipping and spreading the Good News.

And, we show forth who Christ is, and what He has done on our behalf. That is sufficient. Using social media is just another way of ensuring that people know the truth. We don’t have to do anything more: there isn’t anything more to be done.

If God becoming man, God suffering and hanging on a cross to die for us is not enough; if His defeat of death is not enough, then we are not people who can be satisfied. Gimmickry and hashtags will certainly not impress if His name leaves you cold. But then, if His name fails to rally our heart to His cause, we must be prepared for the consequences.

Like the Jacobites, we should use every means at our disposal to spread the news. But in passing this fiery cross to others, we have to let them see that its terrible beauty and power lie in something not unlike the original crann-tara.

The cross we hold up before them is dipped in the blood of the Saviour, and fired with the power of His salvation offer. How we pass it on hardly matters. He is not willing that any should perish, and so we may be quite sure that it will reach all those who belong beneath His royal standard.

A Silent Voice And The Stronghold Of My Life

Three months after my husband died, I was mildly surprised to find myself sitting under a tree in the grounds of the Cabarfeidh Hotel, meditating upon Psalm 27. It was an unexpectedly special moment in the midst of what was an awful time.

I hadn’t just randomly decided to do this – whatever else I may be, I am still a strait-laced Wee Free. It was an activity in the program of events at a Christian conference for women. And I think those thirty minutes of peaceful contemplation did more for me than the rest of the day put together.

It was against my better judgment I was there at all. Closed in with Christ, but not yet ‘out’ as a Christian, I had been persuaded into it by a lovely friend who has done more for me than she can ever know. She has been to me what her namesake was to Mary: a trusted and comforting presence in a time of change and new life.

When I arrived at the hotel in the morning, feeling like a fraud, the first people I saw were nurses from the hospital. I wanted to turn and run. It had not been long enough. The wound still felt raw and I was vulnerable.

But then, there was psalm 27, and silence.

It was already my special text. God is the stronghold of my life, He is my light and my salvation. How often I had prayed those words, knowing in the midst of my grief that this much was true.

And then, it was as if He had reached down and placed a comforting hand upon my shoulder. Here was my psalm; our psalm. In the midst of all these women, here I was with my Father.

Silence. I needed it and had not realised. The long battle with cancer does not make room for this kind of silence. There are so many words you do not want to hear. And when there are no words, there is no peace – just anxious waiting and that knot of foreboding. And then, after death, a different kind of silence. It is an absence of something in your home and in your heart. For years, I had lived for Donnie. And for months, I had willed Donnie just to live.

In the last week of his life, I spent every night on a recliner by his bedside. I wanted to hear his breathing and I wanted to be there if it should stop. Nothing could make me go down the corridor to the room that was ready for me. My mind recoiled from the idea of leaving him, and even more from the thought of being sent for.

That last silence came gently. He was just no longer there. It was many things, but it was – most of all – an end to his pain, and if not exactly the beginning of mine, a step-change in it.

Sometimes, I feel my widowhood most in the evening when I wish he was here to read and pray with me. I don’t want to be the head, and the whole household too. In my darker moments, I have ceased praying because I am fed-up of my own voice.

But He is the stronghold of my life and, somehow, even when I’m by myself, I am not alone.

There is silence, though not because I feel that God has gone away. In fact, I am aware of His presence constantly in my home. If He is silent, it is because He is waiting for me, or because He is drawing breath, about to speak. And I have learned to let Him.

It is always in my expectant quietness that He has spoken. And when He speaks, He speaks peace. Hearing His voice only deepens my desire not to utter a word, but just to listen. This, I always feel, is real prayer: His heart speaking directly into mine.

That is one of the reasons that I do not, as a Wee Free woman, feel deprived that I cannot pray aloud at public worship. What can I ever say with my lips that my heart cannot tell Him more honestly?

Last year, the Free Church held a national day of prayer. It remains a special memory for two reasons.

The day began for us in Stornoway with an early prayer meeting. For me, to share my morning devotions with others was beyond beautiful. There is something about the morning and prayer, anyway, but this was so lovely.

Our evening meeting closed with five minutes of communal prayer. I don’t know how many of us there were, but to have every heart joined in that way was moving and powerful. And it was silent.

I have come to the realisation that God does not need to hear our voices, or the words we try to say. We, on the other hand, should learn to simply be quiet sometimes, and let Him speak to us.

Only in the stillness can we hear Him.

Silence for the believer is not mere absence of noise; it is the presence of God.

 

Adoption, supper and the empty chairs

Although my mother repeatedly told me that I had been left on their door-step by some passing tinkers, I always knew I was a MacLean by birth. There is my more than passing resemblance to the said lady, and that hereditary seam of cynicism, sarcasm and general badness which has come down through many generations (on both sides, alas). But, when I made my profession of faith for the first time, I developed a new awareness of what the word, ‘adoption’ truly means.

On the dread night of ‘going forward’, the minister said to me that I was now part of the family of God. Then, he corrected himself, ‘in fact, you were before now’. You are, of course, adopted when you give your heart to the One who created it anew within you, not when you tell everyone else. But I feel he was, in some ways, right the first time.

I think something important happens when you make your love for Christ known to other believers.

The first time I went to the Lord’s table, I was accompanied by another woman’s husband. Despite the fact that he is a deacon in our church, he was not actually some Kirk Session-issued escort, there to keep me in check; he was a friend, making sure that I did not have to take this momentous step alone. While I waited for him at the church door on Sunday morning, knots of people – twos and threes – I didn’t even know, approached to say how pleased they were. A lovely group of ladies asked if I wanted to come in with them.

The previous day, after the service where communion tokens are given out, I was met outside church by hugs, kisses and handshakes. There was real, open joy on the faces of these men and women.

We know that there is much rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents. Here on Earth, though, there is also much gladness among God’s children when another joins their ranks. It is like a second layer of adoption. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not suggesting that there is any deficiency in spiritual adoption. However, for myself, I feel that the Lord has heaped extra blessing upon me by placing me into such a wonderful spiritual family.

This family – like any other – can only truly be understood from the inside. What the world may see as odd, eccentric, or downright bizarre, makes perfect sense to us. It creates bonds which are completely pure, between people of the opposite sex; between people of different ages and backgrounds. In meeting together, there is real affection, and genuine enjoyment in one another’s company.

We may greet one another with the holy kiss mentioned by Paul in four of his letters, or we may opt for a hug, a handshake, or a smile. These things signify our delight in each other. The original holy kiss is reckoned to have been especially valued by believers who had been cast out by their people as a consequence of following Christ; it represented belonging to the family of believers.

I have experienced the warmth of that acceptance. One precious relationship in this life ended for me, but He replaced it with many more.

All of this enhances, but does not supplant, what God has done in adopting us to Himself. We love Him, but also each other, because He first loved us. He is the great Father, who adopts us and who in making us ‘joint heirs’ ensures that we have the comfort of fellowship with one another, in addition to the indescribable gift that He has already bestowed upon us.

When I sit at His table, it is because I need Him: His grace, His mercy, His love. I remember His sacrifice in the person of my Saviour. And when I look at my brothers and sisters in Christ, I give thanks for them too.

We are His family. There is joy, love, laughter. And there are tears sometimes too. We may weep a little because we miss those who have left the earthly table and gone on ahead.
But the sorest weeping of all is reserved for those who will not sit with us. We want them here, but they prefer not to come. It isn’t about numbers, or filling empty seats. It’s just that, when we are fed, we want those we love to share it with us. And when He feeds you, those you love are not just those you know.

That is the spirit of adoption brought to life in us all. If you are reading this and you don’t understand ‘Bible-bashers’ or ‘God-botherers’, that is the closest I can get to explaining it.

He brought me in out of the cold and He feeds me; but my adoption is not diminished by multitudes more receiving the same gift. In fact, the joy and benefit is multiplied to His glory with every one who pulls up a chair, sits, and remembers that God so loved the world.

 

Don’t Be Backward At Going Forward

There is very little about Stornoway Free Church which could accurately be described as mysterious . Unless you count the way that the preacher seems to suddenly materialise in the Seminary pulpit, that is. Or the perfect roundness of the pancakes produced by the lady of the manse ‘without a mould’.

It is a definite case of what you see is what you get. Any passer-by who cared to peep round the front door would see at a glance what the building is all about. It is self-evidently not a library, or a nightclub, or a doctor’s waiting-room, but a place of worship.

It isn’t secret, it isn’t an impenetrable fortress – it is a solid, no-nonsense Victorian pile, and anyone who wants to can stroll through its front door.

But, as I may have mentioned before, it does have its wee codes. We need not revisit the inelegant language used to describe regular church attendance, nor the ambiguous way that one’s first appearance at the prayer meeting is described. We have a committee of politically-correct elders (yes, they’ve been on a course and now we don’t have ‘bachelor buttons’, we have ‘happily unattached genderless clothing fasteners’) and they’re working on creating new, acceptable terminology.

Meantime, though, what about ‘going forward’?

Susan Parman, an anthropologist who visited Shawbost in the 1970s, described the orduighean as ‘a dominant symbol’ in our communities. And so, I think they are – but one that is terribly misunderstood, and still shrouded in mystery.

People outside of the church think that going forward is for those who have attained an impossibly high standard of conduct in their lives. I believe that they have the impression that only when a Christian is ‘finished’ can they consider such a move.

But here’s how it really is. Or how it really was for me. I was NEVER going to do it. Believe it or not, I’m pretty shy, and the thought of going to that room filled me with horror. Wall-to-wall men in suits catechising me to the point where I probably wouldn’t even remember how many persons are in the godhead, never mind what man’s chief end is.

Besides, once I realised that I was relying on Christ and had been for quite some time, I didn’t think it was necessarily anyone else’s business. My relationship with Him had been secret for so long, I saw no reason why it shouldn’t go on that way forever.

And so it did, for a while. Just myself and Himself, no need for anyone else. But then there were people in my life who were in various kinds of need – illness, bereavement . . . I remember writing a sympathy card and really wanting to encourage the recipient as I had been encouraged. I wanted to tell people I was praying for them. Seeing real emotional pain, I wanted to be able to say, ‘There’s a way through, there’s someone who understands, who will always be with you, even when He goes ahead of you.’ But I couldn’t do that, because no one knew that I loved Him.

The comfort I had found in God was becoming a burden. Following Christ, after all, wasn’t about making me feel warm and fuzzy. And He bore with me for a time, gently allowing the truth to dawn.

There was a sermon which spoke irresistibly to me. I walked out of church that night having tried with limited success to push the tears back into my eyes: it isn’t enough to be healed, you have to tell who has healed you. And I was determined to tell.

Satan had other plans. He always does, of course, and will often use the most unexpected means to execute them. I went to the meeting where our congregation would sign the call for our new minister. Communicant and non-communicant members of the congregation were seated separately. As I looked around at the other adherents (which always makes me think of ‘there’s Klingons on the starboard bow’), I realised something. Older, better, far godlier people than me had not gone forward. Who did I think I was? Five minutes after coming back to this church, was I going to leapfrog these good people, and barge my way into the Session room, declaring my perfection?

No, indeed, I agreed with Satan: that would be arrogance of the most unforgivable kind.

I still went to the opening meeting of the communion. I felt a little flat and distracted. And then, the minister spoke the familiar words of 1 Peter 3:15 – ‘but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you’. There it was again: Christ, my hope.

It isn’t about being ‘good’, it’s about knowing that you are not good, and that the only place you can go for that kind of healing is Christ. He takes us as we are and ultimately makes us as He is. If only perfect people went forward, the cobwebs would have grown across that Session room door long ago.

Going there, you are not claiming anything for yourself except the free gift of salvation. And the people who meet you there are kind beyond words because of two things: they know what it is to come in fear and trembling; and they are pleased to hear another’s love for Jesus.

This public profession, this nailing your colours to the cross, is all you can do for Him, and it’s all He asks. But if you love the Lord, and want to follow Him, that’s all there is. You don’t have to be a great speaker. I’m normally reasonably articulate, but I believe my tongue actually stuck fast to the roof of my mouth that evening. It didn’t matter. He was with me there too.

Besides, you aren’t required to make a great speech, just to trust in the one that He made on your behalf a long time ago:

‘It is finished’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Corncrake, the Medium and the Message

I have a lot of sympathy for the corncrake. For years and years, it was just there, rasping its way through hot summer nights. If I was sleepless, I harboured mildly hostile thoughts towards it which were always forgotten by morning, but otherwise, it was just part of the soundscape of my youth.

And, now, the corncrake is endangered, and needs to be protected. Changes were proposed which would make it feel more welcome in the Outer Hebrides. Bewildered crofters agreed, although it required little or no actual alteration to their traditional practices anyway. Now the corncrake is scrutinised, discussed, counted.

Like the Gael, in a way. I don’t remember having any real concept of myself as part of a Gaelic-speaking family, or a Gaelic-speaking community growing up. We just were. But, like the corncrake, unbeknownst to some of us anyway, we were in serious danger of extinction.

The reason, in both cases, is more or less the same: our habitats had altered and become hostile. A language is not, in and of itself, a terribly precious thing. It only makes sense within a particular set of circumstances, and this is especially true of a minority language. Gaelic worked when there was a Gaelic community to speak it.

This is where the conservationists got it right and the linguists got it wrong: preserve the habitat so that the way of life and everything else falls into place.

The schools, at one time, were bent on homogenising the Gael: making him an English-speaker and a useful member of society. They desired, in short, to destroy his habitat. In church, however, it was the message that counted. They were communicating the Good News in a language that the people could fully understand: their own.

Church was simply reflecting the community in the language that it employed because, ultimately, the medium used is a matter of little importance, as long as the message is faithfully delivered and clearly received.

That community has now changed. Fewer and fewer people are opting to worship in Gaelic; consequently, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so.

Even more worryingly, though, fewer and fewer people are worshiping at all. Christ’s name is not revered in our midst as it once was, and that makes me much sadder than any decline in the language through which I first heard His name.

If Christians too are an endangered species, then, perhaps we could learn from what was done for the corncrake.

The needs of that bird centre around two essential elements: it requires a safe resting-place, and something to screen it from harm.

Not unlike the Christian.

Our resting-place is in Christ, and it is Christ who will also cover us when there is danger abroad. That is how it has always been.

The corncrake likes a managed habitat, where it can safely nest, but where there is also tall vegetation in which it can hide. Those have always been its conditions. When crofting declined – and with it the traditional management of grassland – the corncrake began to retreat also. When the habitat was restored, however, the corncrake began to return.

Success in the world of conservation is frequently governed by statistics, and the world equally loves to crow over the declining percentages of church attendance. What they don’t seem to understand is that it was never about numbers.

It has always been about the glory of God. The church I go to has not lost sight of that fact. At every assembly there, the Lord is front and centre. I have heard preaching in Gaelic and English, I have participated in praise and prayer in Gaelic and English, but His glory is in it all, shining through.

Like the church of the Disruption and beyond, which faithfully spoke to the people in a tongue they would understand, ours must also adapt the habitat somewhat to the species it hopes to attract. Then, it was, Gaelic-speaking crofters and their families; now it is the digital generation of (mostly) English-speaking but frequently Biblically unaware people.

This might mean that our habitat will include more than just our lovely 19th century church; it may mean that Stornoway Free Church – amongst others – has to expand into cyberspace, out into the digital highways and byways, where the people are. What must change was never that important in the first place; what stays the same is Christ because He is foundational to it all.

After all, let’s not forget that where the people are, that great predator, Satan, also will be prowling.

Surely, then, it falls to us to tell them of a safe habitat, one where there is cover more secure than they can imagine, and a resting-place so safe they can never be plucked from it. And we must tell them of its complete suitability for their needs.

What does it matter what our habitat has or lacks, what it encompasses or excludes, as long as it has at its very heart the covering shelter of Christ in all His glory?

 

 

 

Who Stands at the Door and Knocks?

As I ascended into the pulpit, I wondered nervously whether anyone would come through the door today. Turning, I looked across the expanse of empty pews. Not one solitary soul. And no bodies either. Still, it was early.

So early, surely – you’re thinking – that I was still asleep and dreaming. What was a woman doing in the pulpit of Stornoway Free Church, if she didn’t have a can of polish and a duster in hand? Well, the truth is that I was taking a photo from the finest vantage-point in the building. It was the first of many times throughout the day when I would stand there. We have opened our doors to visitors this weekend again, inviting them to come and see the building and learn about the history of the congregation and its mode of worship.

Even the visitors were a little taken aback when offered the opportunity to stand in the pulpit. One lovely Danish lady gasped, putting her hand to her chest, and asked, ‘Really?’ Mo chreach, I thought, maybe she misunderstood and thinks I’ve offered her some sort of permanent post. But no, it’s just that she was making the same mistake that we are all inclined to – thinking of the bricks, mortar, wood and glass as sacrosanct; thinking of them as the church.

Culturally, we have been long attuned to the idea that worship can take place anywhere. One does not need to be in a church to pray. Church buildings are wonderful for corporate worship, but private devotions are just that. When the Lord was instructing His disciples how to pray, after all, He said they were to go into their room ‘and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who is in secret will reward you.’ Yet, throughout our programme of open days, I have witnessed the way in which people interact with our building, and it has been very revealing.

So many comment on the simplicity and the absence of distraction. This being the work of dour Wee Frees, there is no gilding, no ornamentation, lest we lose our heads and give our lives over to the worship of idols.

Others have remarked on the cleanliness, which shows how well cared for the space is. And now that we have interpretive boards, the questions about our history have become more challenging. My favourite so far this summer was, ‘So you guys believe that salvation is by faith, it says here, not by works – but you’ve got a cafe raising money for charity next door, so how come?’

It was a better question than ‘when was the church built?’ because it allowed me to talk about not only the Christian hope of salvation, but about the transforming power of the Spirit, who motivates good works.

Many of those who come, though, simply want to sit in a pew and listen to the recording of Gaelic psalm singing, which we have on a loop. Some stay only a few moments, others a bit longer. Perhaps they pray, or contemplate God; it is hard not to when the place is so . . . expectant.

On Friday morning, I entered through the side door and into the church. There in the loveliness of a July morning, this was a place of tranquility. It made me want to linger, to be in God’s presence, just myself and Himself, for a wee while.

Good Calvinists have not traditionally venerated buildings. But that isn’t what I mean, anyway. Think of the generations of worship which these walls have witnessed, the souls moved for Christ in that place. Sit there in the beautiful stillness of the morning, and the very air seems to whisper His name.

I did stop to contemplate. How many prayers had been uttered here, how many verses of psalm? The very grain of the wood must have been nourished with tears: tears of sorrow at times, but so many tears of joy too as the Saviour’s incomparable love became real to one soul after another down through the decades.

The Lord brought people to us this weekend who had need of kindness. This is not an advert for Stornoway Free Church, nor a boast of any kind. It was His work that they came, His provision which supplied their needs – it is all of Him. But He wasn’t, I believe, just speaking to them.

Even as we hold our broken world up to God in prayer, I think He sometimes confronts us with it too. Today, I met some people who have nothing much to their names. I was glad that our church was not covered in gold and draped in velvet; and I was glad it was open.

The same man who asked me about the relationship between faith and works also asked me about Sunday Christians. You know, the kind who ‘put in the time’ once a week, attending services faithfully, but forgetting all about it in between. As I reflect upon that now, I wonder whether the starting point might be having our doors open a little more often.

We have a lovely, clean building, of which we’re very fond; and we use it to worship God for something over two hours a week. Yet, as soon as we opened up on each of these two days, He sent us strangers in need.

How long might others stand at our door and knock, only to find it firmly shut? And aren’t we worshipping Him by helping the least of these?

This afternoon, an Australian visitor said something quite simple and yet so profound that they might have been Jesus’ own words: ‘I have gone to many churches, hoping to find them open, but I am always disappointed by a locked door.’

Our hearts were locked against the Lord for so long; will we grieve Him more by barring the door to His church on those who need it most?