The Sofa & the Ghost of Christmas Past

Sometimes, you know, church can be uncomfortable. Oh, I don’t mean the pews: Calvinists are genetically adapted to fit those. If anything, the addition of those pesky cushions has interfered with nature. No, I mean more of a spiritual discomfort – the kind of thing that starts like a niggling little itch, but finally develops into a full-blown ache.

We like being uplifted by the preaching. Then, we can sing the psalms with gusto and pray fervently along with whoever is leading. And we go home feeling good and optimistic. When everything comes together and reaffirms that Jesus is everything and you are His, yes, of course, who wouldn’t be happy? Sometimes, you can actually see on people’s faces – their eyes shine – that this has worked on their hearts.

Other times, though, the sermon can prick your conscience. I had one of those moments this week when the minister accused me of worldliness, right in front of everyone.

Now, in case you’re imagining this is some archaic Wee Free thing where the black clad and be-collared minister fixes you with a fiery glare, and shouts, ‘woman, ye are a worldly sinner’, think again. That isn’t how it works in the real church, only in films and newspaper articles by people who have never actually been inside one.

In fact, when a minister is preaching, we are not really hearing the man. Yes, it is his physical voice, and words that he has chosen, but we are to believe that this is God speaking through them. Faith comes by hearing the Word preached and, as the Bible itself tells us repeatedly, faith is not of ourselves.

For me, a warning against worldliness was very timely. I cannot do the whole sermon justice here, but the counsel was not to become too attached to the things of this world, as John warned in his first letter. These things are, as we know, transient, and it’s a very bad idea to tether your life and soul to them.

Now, don’t laugh, but the reason I squirmed at this was because of my sofa. It’s a chestnut brown, soft leather chesterfield. I have had it two years and I have been very careful of it, gently vacuuming it each week, and wincing at the mere sight of people actually sitting in it.

Well, I don’t know who would want to sit in it now. Last Saturday, I trustingly and naively, left Mr Roy in his basket in the sitting room while I went to church. I came home, made a big fuss of how good he’d been, fed him a steak bake and then actually went into the room. There was a large puddle on the seat. Oh, he’d very thoughtfully chucked the cushions onto the floor (presumably so as not to ruin them), before urinating on the one seat in the room least able to cope with such an assault.

And I was livid. You know, in that unreasonable way that disregards the fact you’re addressing a dog and not a person who has done this to annoy you. I told him it was no wonder he’d had so many different homes, that he was unloveable, ungrateful, smelly, thoughtless (!) and even, with unwarranted hyperbole, that he was a ‘menace to society’.

It was several days before I could bear to look at him. I forced myself to pat him and speak civilly, because deep down I knew he had no idea what was wrong, but I was still very upset.

About a sofa. Yes, I do realise how shallow that makes me sound. By Wednesday, I had actually got over it, more or less, having started enquiries about getting it professionally cleaned. I knew that once it was clean again, I could forgive Mr Roy.

That’s why, on Wednesday evening, God accused me of worldliness. Well, not just because of the sofa, but it serves to represent everything else that gets too much place in my life. I recalled what Thomas a Kempis said in a book that has been a favourite since my teenage years, ‘The Imitation of Christ’:

‘To triumph over self is the perfect victory. For whoever so controls himself that his passions are subject to his reason, and his reason wholly subject to Me, is master both of himself and of the world’.

There is no one harder to conquer than yourself because there is no one more likely to allow you moral latitude. But I have begun an important lesson. Perhaps I need to see Mr Roy’s intervention like the visit of Scrooge’s first ghost who, frustrated with the old miser’s lifestyle, called him, ‘man of the worldly mind’.

It is fine to have nice things. And, it is good to take care of those things, being grateful to God for providing them. I do thank him for my comfortable home, and more so when I read of the destitution often faced by widows in the past. But, there is a disconnect between my thanksgiving and my attitude. My house, my furniture, my possessions . . . none of those should come before obedience to God, and trying sincerely to imitate Christ in a life of holiness.

Besides, I love Mr Roy for himself, as much as for the fact that he was Donnie’s faithful companion till the end. He is irreplaceable. And his little misdemeanour reminds me of something I must never lose sight of:

God loved me, even before the stain had been cleansed. If His forgiveness had been predicated on my being clean, I would have been beyond hope forever.

 

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.