But if not . . .

I was set a challenge this week, by one of the overbearing blokes of Stornoway Free Church. ‘Shut up, woman’, he ordered, ‘your blog titles are too long-winded – and who permitted you to have ideas, anyway?’ Or words to that effect; no doubt I am paraphrasing somewhat. ‘Write about this, and stay out of trouble’, he said finally, firing a Biblical reference at me and departing.

He had quoted Daniel 3: 18 and, specifically, these seemingly negative, doubting words: ‘but if not’, uttered by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, when King Nebuchadnezzar is telling them of their imminent punishment in the fiery furnace. Their answer is along the lines that we always expect from believing people: do what you will, our God will protect us, and pluck us out of the flames.

‘ . . . but if not . . .’

So well-versed in Scripture was the wartime generation that a naval officer at Dunkirk telegraphed only these three words home and had the Allied plight immediately understood. The situation was desperate. Indeed, in the ordinary sense, the situation was hopeless.

Was that officer telling his loved ones to prepare themselves for German invasion, then, for the loss of all Allied hopes of success? Not any more than Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were preparing for the possibility that God might leave them to a fiery death. He was, in fact, telling the people at home that whatever happened, God would be with them.

We have our own ideas about how we would like the Lord to salvage a situation. It may be that we pray for a desperately ill loved one to be cured; it may be that we want him to stop our enemy’s mouths; it may be that we beg him to not send us into a particular situation. These are all prayers I have uttered, some of them many times. And in every significant example I can recall, God gently shook his head, ‘no’.

At this point, the unbeliever scoffs. The book of psalms brims over with examples of the enemy mocking and asking, ‘where is your God now?’ In the world, they see our relationship with the Lord as being similar to that between a small child and Santa Claus, or perhaps Aladdin’s genie. He is not, though, a capricious granter of wishes. God hears my prayers before they leave my heart, before I know them myself. But he is wiser than to let me direct him in how these should be answered.

When I prayed for my husband to be cured, and was comforted by the verse, ‘this sickness is not unto death’, I was hearing only what I wanted. I was stopping short of the next clause  ‘but to the glory of God’. In my understandable human pain, I wanted God to make everything all right, to make it stop hurting there and then. In his infinite goodness and wisdom, though, he took my request and granted it more fully and completely than I would ever have the grace or courage to ask for myself.

In times of sore oppression – verbal, rather than physical, lest anyone feel the need to accuse me of exaggeration – and slander, I prayed that God would silence those who lifted their voices against me in hatred. The chorus only intensified and became nastier and more vitriolic. Far from stopping their mouths, God seemed only to lengthen the lead to give them more latitude. And, in the end, the freedom of that leash became the rope from which their unkindness swung, for all to see. He caused them to stop their own mouths.

There have been situations I wanted no part of and asked God to let me go around. These requests he has also denied. I have lived through confrontations, through spiritual and emotional difficulties that I would have just as soon avoided. More times than I like to admit, I would ask God, ‘why have you put me through this’, and concluding over and over that my soul seems to require an inordinate amount of honing! But hone me he does. Every trial, every mistake, every misunderstanding between me and my brethren, every word I say out of turn, every relationship that I enter into, every partiality I show, every decision I make for good or ill, God is there.

That is what those three little words mean: ‘but if not’. They are immediately followed by an affirmation that, even if God does not deal with them as they have proclaimed, still they won’t turn from him. It is the same submission to his will that caused Christ to ask for the cup to pass from him, and then to add ‘not my will but yours’.

‘But if not’, however it sounds in the mouth of an unbeliever, is the very opposite of doubt. It is faith, born of an intimate knowledge of this God, who does everything perfectly. It is the confident proclamation of the believer who knows that he may not always take them out of the fiery furnace, but neither will he leave them to suffer it alone.

I hope this blog encourages you to believe, or to remember that God is with us always – but, if not, he is, just the same.

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against More Rough Wooing

Were John Knox alive today, I don’t think the Protestant church in Scotland – if such a monolith existed – would be wise to choose him as a spokesperson. He had a somewhat unfortunate way with words, and a bit of an uncompromising manner, particularly when it came to ladies in government. It’s not that he was sexist, just that he believed female rulers were an abomination and ought to stay at home having babies.

And, like an awful lot of people – to be fair not all of them men – once Knox had said a thing, that was it. He was not a fan of taking back ill-chosen words, nor of admitting when he’d been a bit of an insensitive twit.

He even managed to contradict Calvin. Pause for dramatic effect. Yes, THAT Calvin – the one who gets the blame for the unfortunate personality traits of dour Wee Frees, Wee Wee Frees, and Wee Wee Frees to the Power of Three. Calvin had used biblical examples, such as Deborah, to demonstrate God’s willingness to raise up female leaders. Knox wasn’t having any of it, though and maintained that women ruling was a breach of the God-given order.

He inadvertently annoyed Queen Elizabeth I of England, and steadfastly refused to apologise. In typically winning fashion, he corresponded instead with her (male) adviser, Sir William Cecil . . . but, let’s just say, he didn’t win any prizes for diplomacy there either.

The worrying thing for me is that I’m not entirely persuaded that our church WOULD keep Knox away from the microphone. I can almost hear the arguments in his favour: ‘oh, but he’s so godly’; ‘oh, but his theology is sound’; ‘oh but he’s not afraid to speak the truth’. Knox would undoubtedly possess the courage and the drive to speak for the church in Scotland: but are those the only qualifications?

Let me circumvent any misunderstanding. I’m not referring to ‘the church’ in terms of an institution, or as a specific denomination. What I’m speaking about is Christianity, the cause of Christ. There are many in Scotland who love the Lord and who wish to see some restoration of truth to public life. But if we’re ever going to get there, we need a wee bit of the ‘s’-word: strategy. Strategy backed up by prayer and trusting to God, absolutely, but still, a strategy.

First up on my planner, therefore, is ‘silence all the would-be Knoxes’.

Knox was all kinds of things: courageous, straight-talking, and a champion of Christ. We have people like that, though obviously not of his stature, today. And sometimes, I’m afraid that when they speak, I cringe.

It isn’t that I usually disagree with the fundamentals of their message; how could l? Nor do I belong to that camp which feels that Christians need to water down the challenge of the Gospel. God IS love, indeed, but we also have to preach about sin and hell and judgment, and the danger of not accepting his free offer of salvation.

No, it’s about presentation. It’s about the fact that there is no use in battering unsaved sinners over the head with the fact of their sin. I cannot show them their sin and neither can you. Why? Because we’re sinners ourselves. They need the mirror of God’s perfection to see themselves in that light.

So, when Christians speak on moral issues, we do not need a John Knox to remonstrate with people for their sin. We need those who are gifted with diplomacy and, yes, the wisdom of serpents, tempered with the gentility of doves. Every man or woman who professes faith is not destined to champion it effectively in the public arena, and we have to find ways to channel gifts prudently.

I would like to see, for example, more female Christians being encouraged to speak on issues like abortion. It sits uneasily with me when the pro-life lobby is represented by men. Yes, they have as much concern and as much right to a view; but that’s not the point. Knox, no doubt, would be very willing to speak on ‘Reporting Scotland’ about protecting the unborn child – but that doesn’t mean that he would be the best person for the job. Whether we like it or not, perception is important, and we do nothing to win over the hearts of a hostile world by playing up to the stereotypes.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not actually talking about gender. This is not me saying, ‘shut up, men, and let the girls talk’. What I’m trying to say is that we need to get better at representing our cause, by equipping our people to speak. There has got to be love, grace, intelligence and common sense. And, yes, there has got to be strategy.

The church needs people who walk with God, who pursue a holy life, and who are chiefly concerned with glorifying him. However, the world needs a church that can speak comfortably to it, in ways and words it will understand.

We are not going to win Scotland’s soul back with another rough wooing.

And the prisoners heard

Sunday afternoon sunshine lured me outside to sit on my recently-painted decking to read, write and contemplate. There were birds singing in the trees and lambs bleating in the croft beyond, but not a sound other than that to pierce the stillness. I had recently risen from morning worship with my congregation, and was in exactly the right frame of mind for a bit of contemplation.

I was also filled with an enormous sense of wellbeing. These are days filled with uncertainty, trepidation and, for many, grief. None of us knows when it may be our turn to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet, we know that God is with us, and that ,while a shadow may well encroach, it can never devour.

So, while the world’s media is talking in terms of a global crisis, of catastrophe and lockdown, God is enabling me – and many more besides, I think – to experience this as the day of small things which we are warned not to despise.  As I sat in the warmth of this early spring day, I thought about the week just gone by, and the ways in which I have met with Christ in the long hours of solitude.

There is his word, of course, and prayer. These are constants. Normally, though, they are the launchpad for what Lady Bracknell disparagingly referred to as ‘a life crowded with incident’.

I am rediscovering my inner introvert, however. This week, I have  delivered a number of lectures and tutorials, spoken on the radio about my favourite Scottish novels, attended a meeting of the Stornoway Trust, and participated in a whisky tasting – all without budging from my dining table. In between, I walk, cook, clean, read and write. In the evenings, I chat to friends and family, listen to music, and catch up on television programmes, films and podcasts that I’ve missed.

Friday was glorious. I finished classes, and took the dog for a long ramble on the machair. Confusedly dressed in wellies, linen trousers and a cashmere hoody (I like to acknowledge all seasons in one outfit), I got spectacularly rained on. Showered and pyjama-clad, I lit the wood burner and laid out my various samples of Jura whisky and wild water from the Stornoway Trust Estate in time for the Instagram tasting event.

It was not, I am quite certain, the 46.7% ABV 21-year-old malt that gave me the feeling of complete serenity, but the sense that this was a day of privileges, dispensed by the hand of a gracious God. He has enabled me to continue doing my job, and fulfill other obligations while remaining safe and not feeling isolated in the least.

Discussing this with a Christian friend on Sunday evening, she said that she was concerned by the number of people – believing people – who are not doing so well. She hears from folk who say that lockdown is beginning to pall on them, who say they miss the human interaction of church. These are by no means all people who live alone either.

All of which set me wondering what’s wrong with me that, six weekends in, I am still only able to see the positives.

I have come to a number of conclusions. Ultimately, I don’t go to church for the social aspect. In fact, quietly and without anyone else noticing, I ceased attending organised fellowships of any kind more than a year ago. Church has been a place of worship for me, and that continues to be possible by God’s grace through the technology which it is our privilege to access and enjoy. Yes, there are people whose society I miss, and I will be glad to see them when we are once more able to share a pew. Until then, however, I am getting the essential parts of the church experience at home.

Like many others, I am gratified by the way in which being a church quite literally without walls has enabled new people to join us for worship. An open door may theoretically be welcoming, but there is still a threshold to cross which can seem like a journey of a thousand miles to the stranger. Online worship presents no such barrier.

A lot of Christians are invoking the image of Israel’s captivity to describe where we are at. I don’t disparage other people’s feelings or experiences, however, when I say that this is not my view of things at all.

Christ has freed his people, and we do him no justice if we consider ourselves captive still. We ought to be like Paul and Silas who sang and prayed in their cell at midnight. The walls could not contain them because their hearts were fixed upon worshipping God. He was there with them, he is here in my house too; and he is with all his people wherever they are. Ask the suffering and persecuted church if you can’t believe a Wee Free woman.

My favourite part of that account, though, is the following four words: ‘and the prisoners heard’.

Those who are still enslaved, not by government lockdown, but the bonds of sin – what is our witness to them? Perhaps he has brought us out of our comfortable churches into the information super-highway so that they will hear us, not weeping and complaining, but lifting up our voices in praise of the Christ who will never leave nor forsake us.

Churches, caravans and being apart

It is not untypical of either Lewis or social media that the weekend just past fairly bubbled with two controversies: the persistent influx of visitors to the islands, and the failure of some churches to heed government guidance on social distancing. These, of course, are not two issues, but one. The reason for both is simply that we have been spoilt, we have been used to everything turning out okay without much inconvenience to ourselves.

We humans, on some deep level, believe ourselves to be invincible. Bad things happen to others, not us.

A generation untouched by war or privation of any kind, we have grown hard-hearted. Oh, yes, we speak of social justice and helping the poor; we appease our own consciences with donations and sponsorships – but it is, too often, a cold charity. All this time we have been thinking our duty dispensed with a standing order here, and a retiring collection there.

Witness, though, how we conducted ourselves in the early days of impending crisis. A mad dash for food and soap, for toilet paper and anti-bacterial spray. Ransacking shops and leaving little for those who live from week to week. Retail assistants have been verbally abused, and even threatened; the elderly and poor abandoned to fend for themselves.

Whither now the social media virtue signallers or the ‘be kind’ brigade?

This disease is a great leveller. We are all at risk, and any one of us might die. Shame on us all, therefore, that the response has been so selfish. Not by everyone, of course, but by many. It is hardly surprising. Be in no doubt: here, we are reaping the foolishness we have sown. Like no previous generation, ours is drunk on the rights of the individual. When life was bumping along as normal, this meant that the poor and the elderly were trampled over, but no one noticed.

Now, the selfishness affects us all, and we are concerned. But we cannot figure out what to do.

Just as well there is an answer. There is even an example we can look to.

King Nebuchadnezzar famously hit a bit of a problem. He was, like ourselves, persuaded of his own sovereignty. Other people – his subjects – were equally sold on it. But then his sense of power kept smacking up against the true omnipotence of the God of Israel.

So do we. Only the most determined atheist can deny that God is speaking to us in a clear voice. Are we going to heed it?

Nebuchadnezzar was like us before Corona Virus hit. He walked on his palace ramparts and congratulated himself as the author of his own greatness and wealth. No sooner were the sinful words uttered than God spoke to him. The King would descend into mental illness and lose the kingdom for a period of seven years, at the end of which he would acknowledge God’s sovereignty.

We were walking in arrogance and pride until now. The world seemed inebriated with its own stolen power. Our first parents ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil – and since that day we have persistently chosen evil. All that he gave us, including our very own selves, we have warped and sullied with sin.

Where, even, to begin? Rampant consumerism, yet homelessness. The power to end life when it becomes inconvenient. God removed from public life, from education, and even from some of our churches. Unbridled reinterpretation of his ordinances. Truth made a lie, and lies accepted – enforced, indeed – as truth.

And, yes, a faithless, cold church. We have been too comfortable for too long, islands of complacency set amidst a sea of sin. We don’t love one another as we ought, and therefore, have nothing to offer the poor, lost world by way of a compass.

We have this providence now that surely will turn us back to the Lord. He has scattered his church, but then, his people were always thus. Occupying the same building is not what makes us a church, and perhaps he has removed that comfort blanket so that we will truly seek out what binds us – fellowship in him, strengthened by worship in spirit and in truth.

If he has to break us somewhat, it is only to build up his own church again. And that light, set upon a hill, should be a lamp to the feet of those who have wandered far from him, to bring them home.

Then, all this generation might say with Nebuchadnezzar that the Almighty is God indeed, ‘and none can stay his hand or say to him, “what have you done”?’

What he has done – is doing – ought to call us all to prayer. There is still time. 

God for one, God for all

Five years ago tomorrow, I felt that my world was ending. Everything I knew and had anchored my hope to was gone. My husband slipped away quietly in his sleep, and nothing would ever be the same again.

Unbelievers who have heard this story before are variously appalled or patronising about my assertion that this was a necessary change. I have been asked how the death of my husband could possibly be a reason for rejoicing (it wasn’t, and I have never said so), or told ‘it’s nice you have your faith’. Either way, they don’t quite get what I’m saying, but I’m going to try again, because I believe that providences like mine were made for situations where people feel that their world is indeed ending. Just like now.

What we are seeing is a large-scale loss of control. Suddenly, none of what we previously took for granted is available to us. Here in Lewis, as elsewhere, frightened people are emptying the shelves of food and toilet paper. Events that have been planned years in advance – the Olympic Games, Euro 2020, the Chelsea Flower Show, the Eurovision Song Contest – are all mothballed. Schools and offices are closing their doors, and now churches too. We are distancing ourselves socially from one another, more distance, even, than social media and an addiction to screens has already accomplished.

Life is uncertain. We are fearful for loved ones, for the elderly, and for those weakest in our society.

It is the end of the world as we know it . . . and our behaviour must change. Not just for now, though, not just until the crisis – hopefully – passes.

When I knew my husband was dying, I was privileged to be able to draw on a lesson I had received many years before, at a time when I had no thought of marrying, let alone being widowed. My learning came from a sermon on the Apostle Paul’s moment of revelation: ‘When I am weak, then I am strong’. I thought that these words, and the message behind them, were so beautiful that I stored them up in my heart against a pain I could not even have imagined at that moment.

The wound to my heart could be perceived as a point of weakness, I suppose. Certainly I was more vulnerable to the cruelty and thoughtlessness of others in the months that followed Donnie’s death. But in these things, I have tried to remember Paul’s words, and appreciate the fact that all the hardships I have gone through –mercifully few – are to a greater purpose. God hones us and refines us with heat and friction, only so that we will do the one thing that he has ever asked of us: trust in him.

When I have managed to do that, I have experienced fully what it is to lean on his strength, to be sustained by his courage, and to act in his wisdom. Of course, there have been times when I haven’t, when I have been disobedient, or tried to be self-sufficient – and brought unnecessary suffering upon myself as a result.

God blessed me in the midst of a devastating loss, because I was dependent upon him. In the disorientating bewilderment that followed the news that Donnie was going to die imminently, I instinctively turned to my heavenly Father, and he caught me up in his loving arms.

That is the reality we all have to embrace now. God is speaking to his whole Creation, just as he addressed himself to me in my own providence five years ago.

We have turned away from him, and wandered far from the precepts he gave us to live by. In our misguided arrogance, we have convinced ourselves that we are God. From the moment that Adam and Eve ate of the knowledge of good and evil, mankind has tended towards the latter. What the Creator made and labelled ‘very good’, we have renamed to suit our own purposes. In every conceivable way, we have mocked and insulted our Maker.

God has been patient, and slow to anger. But he has warned us repeatedly that he cannot look upon sin. Instead of repenting, however, and holding our arms up to him, we deny that we have done wrong and try to cover our misdemeanours, calling them by other names. In his love and mercy, he is speaking to us now in the most serious of terms. He is showing us that we are not the authors of our own destiny, and that our ability to create problems far outweighs our capacity for resolution.

Are we going to listen to him, or are we going to persist in the mistaken belief that this is something we can solve for ourselves? Surely humanity is now at a point where it has to confront its own weakness.

I speak from personal experience, and I speak in love, when I entreat everyone to realise that there is only one place to go in our frailty. There has to be a turning back to God. We must learn how to speak to him, how to confide in him, how to ask for his help in all that we do. Not for one second since I did this for myself has he ever let me down. Though I do not deny that I’ve gone through deep waters, I can say with confidence that he led me and held me up so that the storm would never overwhelm.

God doesn’t inflict suffering without reason: he is speaking to us in every providence. CS Lewis called pain ‘God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world’. He has used it to good effect in my experience. And what he does for one, he can do for all.

But first we must humble ourselves, and ask him to be our God again.

 

 

Politics, prayer and my inner Pharisee

Last Saturday, I had coffee  with an incredible young Christian who, less than a week later, would find herself presenting the Scottish budget to Parliament at very short notice. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman and all that.

We talked about the challenge of being female and Christian in any kind of public role. I think it’s safe to say that she has demonstrated that these need not be obstacles to acquitting yourself well. While the jury (including the one in my own head) is still out on me, even in my much more local role, I struggle with the big questions, so any believing politician of national stature certainly has my sympathy and – much more usefully- my prayers.

The Bible is full of people in leadership roles who walked with God and still went wrong. So, if Solomon in all his wisdom could have his heart turned to idolatry, then I’m pretty sure that should serve as a warning to all Christians in public office today. How much easier, indeed, for the devil to get his way when believing leaders are in the minority, and apostasy is the norm. Anyone might succumb to following that particular crowd with the greatest of ease.

And how do you avoid the pitfalls of being a Christian in a democratically-elected position? Here in Lewis, organisations like the Comhairle and the Stornoway Trust customarily open their meetings with prayer. Whenever this comes up in conversation with other believers, they react positively. For the Christian, there is a view that anything of the slightest importance should be put in God’s hands, where all things rightfully belong. Beginning the business of local government in this way, therefore, reassures them that leadership is as it should be, deferring to the Lord.

So, local Christians breathe a little more easily.

Except, I’m a local Christian and it doesn’t do a whole lot to reassure me. Not even considering my own position as an elected member of one such group.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I am not opposed to prayer in the Trust or anywhere else. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I DO worry that those of us who are Christians in elected office, and those of us who are voting Christians, tend to content ourselves with very little. ‘Prayer’ can end up being as formulaic as any other standing item on the agenda.

And the prayerfulness often ends with ‘amen’. I speak from personal experience here. There have been many occasions where I have gone seamlessly from bowing my head in contemplation, to venting my spleen in exasperation. My thoughts, my utterances, my conduct, my motivation often fall short of what they should be.

But never mind: at least we’ve said the words. Who’s to notice when they get stuck on the ceiling and rise no further?

I am not criticising the people who pray; not at all. What I’m saying is that we cannot content ourselves with opening petitions, if our subsequent conduct doesn’t testify to our faith. We cannot keep on expecting God to bless our endeavours if we aren’t really giving them into his keeping at all.

Recently, I was party to a conversation about a public servant whose conduct had been dubious to say the least. ‘But he’s a Christian’, someone protested. Their subtext was not that we should, therefore, expect better of him, but that he was actually beyond reproach.

There is a real danger here, that Christians will fall into a trap of thinking their faith guarantees all their actions to be righteous. We are at risk of the arrogance displayed – albeit to fictional extremes- in James Hogg’s ‘justified sinner’. If I call myself a Christian, if I pray in public and speak out for Sabbath observance, well, I’m doing my bit for the cause.

And that’s my challenge. I worry about becoming a Pharisee if I haven’t already. Many people voted for me in the Trust election, I am quite sure, purely because they knew where I stood on ‘The Sunday Issue’.

Here’s the thing, though: I want to keep the Lord’s Day myself because I love him. I want other people to want to keep it for the same reason. Is it the role of Christian trustees, councillors, MSPs or MPs to impose such things on an unbelieving people? Or is it our responsibility to earnestly pray for guidance ourselves, to show forth the love of Christ in everything that we do, and give it all to God?

We often hear complaints that there are too few Christians in public life. That may well be true, but God has placed some there. Instead of worrying about packing the debating chambers with more believers, let’s pray for those who are already in place, that they would learn to act in his wisdom and in his guiding. And God, I am sure, will give the increase.

Storm-proof Your Heart

Lewis has been battered by gales over the past week. Even as I write this, snug in my bed, the wind is raging around the house. Up until a few years ago, I would have slept on, oblivious – but this has woken me and will not let me sleep. You see, I am the householder now, with all the responsibility that entails. If a slate goes, or a window comes in (it’s late, I’m a bit hysterical), I’ll be the one looking for a tradesman.

Yet, I cannot really claim any anxiety. In fact, in the last few weeks, I have been experiencing a period of unexpected and – it rather goes without saying – undeserved blessing.

And that also began with something of a storm.

It isn’t something I want to go into too much, because to do so might draw the wrong kind of attention. Sufficient to say that I experienced a cowardly and insidious attack on my beliefs at the end of last year, days before Christmas. Someone, masquerading as a proponent of tolerance, sought to undermine my peace and my reputation with lies. Nevertheless, while I continue to live rent-free and, indeed, Wee Free, in their troubled head, I am enjoying a tranquility that can only have one source.

Initially, and for a short time after learning of this latest onslaught, I was troubled. But, God bless that anonymous stranger, because what they intended to harm me actually brought me ever closer to the throne of grace.

See, like every Christian, I imagine, I pray not to be a conduit for evil. I don’t want to be the door by which the enemy enters the sheepfold. Every time I suffer these attacks, however, I wonder whether I am doing more harm than good. Sometimes what keeps me wakeful is not the weather outside, but the storm of doubt in my heart.

The days following this latest were no exception. Prayer was giving me no peace either way. Finally, exhausted by my own feelings, I decided to do serious business with God. I prayed in a way that I always think of as ‘putting my shoulder to the wheel’. Was I, I asked him, misguided in my attempts at witnessing. If he willed it, I told him, I would put down my pen forever. All I wanted was for him to be glorified; and this just didn’t feel like a great stride towards that aim, I said.

Of course, God doesn’t always answer immediately. He did that night, though. This is the text I got:

‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name’.

And there it was. So much of him in that little verse. He was reassuring me that my liberty comes from him. Yes, he was saying, the enemy could crush you in a heartbeat, he could use you to work his will – but he is not dealing with you; he is dealing with me.

These words are precious, but I believe I already knew their truth.The gold for me was really in those first four: ‘I know your works’.

They have been the balm to my soul in the early days of 2020. If I focus upon glorifying him, then it only matters that he recognises it. Whether my witnessing has any effect is ultimately not my business anyway,  but his. After all, if I do with might what he gives my hand to do, then I am glorifying him in obedience. Results are the department of the Holy Spirit. It is certainly of no consequence that the enemy despises my work. Indeed, it doesn’t even matter that some of the brethren disapprove. What is any of that to me, if I am following him?

He, himself, was able to sleep in a boat at sea in the midst of a storm. That is, God in human form slumbered, while the God of all Creation continued to rule the universe.

When we know with all our hearts that this is the God in whom we trust, what on the earth of his making should ever steal our peace?

I have been feeding this unrivalled sense of calm with his beautiful songs of praise. Every morning of this young year, I have been reading and praying through the psalms. There is nothing, I think, in the whole of Scripture, that comes closer to painting him as he is. As surely as God spoke the world into being, these psalms sing a wonderful image of him.

He is my Father. He is my Lord. He is my hope and confidence. He is the stronghold of my life. He is my high tower. This God knows me, he knows my heart; this God knows my enemy, and yes, he knows my enemy’s heart. He is mercy, grace, love, truth, justice. From him, the Father of Lights, all these blessings – and more – flow down. This is the author of my providence, the keeper of my fate, and there are no safer, surer or better hands than these.

This year, it is my prayer that those who are blind to his beauty would have their own storm stilled. It only takes a moment in his presence to become aware of  your smallness. Yet, when that realisation comes, it is also accompanied by an awareness of his greatness.

His greatness is in his name. And his name conveys all the attributes that make him God. Rest on that, and no night will be too long, no storm too savage.

‘He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler’.

I will never stop witnessing to that.

Religion, politics & doing your bit

If you don’t want to fall out with people in the pub or on the internet, you should steer clear of religion and politics. So, that’s cleared up why I’m so unpopular, then. According to one of my Stornoway Trust colleagues, I actually enjoy getting in the middle of arguments. Although I can see why some people might think that, it isn’t strictly true. Like most non-sociopaths, I certainly do not relish confrontation, but neither am I content to let lies spread unchecked, if they relate to a cause of any importance.

These days, as far as I am concerned, there is only one cause that fits into the aforementioned category, and that is the cause of Christ.

This does not mean, however, that I’m going to restrict myself to reading, speaking and thinking only of theological and spiritual matters. My understanding of what is required of me as a Christian is a little broader than that. In fact – and yes, I know I’ve said it before – I think that believing people have a duty to bring their faith into the orbit of their fellow human beings, whether that is at work, in the community, in public life, or on the internet. Indeed, we cannot leave it behind anyway, even if we wanted to.

At this precise moment in time, I don’t think we can ignore politics either, however much we might wish to. I know that Christians are having a particular difficulty in deciding how to cast their votes, because the reality is that none of the mainstream parties are saying what we would like to hear. If you consider the issues that matter more to believers than to the general public, there is no party out of the big four with policies a believing person can approve. I hear most about the party of which I am a member – the SNP – and their tendency towards support for unbiblical policy.

That is true. But it is also true for the other main parties as well. Neither Labour, the Conservatives nor the Lib-Dems could satisfy scripture in terms of their view on abortion, same-sex marriage, gender reassignment, or LGBT education in schools either.

So, what do we do? Tear up our polling cards and sit at home on December 12th? Or flounce off in high dudgeon and create our own party? That would certainly be in keeping with the Presbyterian way over the last two centuries. We have turned ‘schism’ into a verb, after all.

I have made no secret of the fact that I have wrestled with this issue myself. As a lifelong nationalist and member of the SNP, I have been disheartened by the direction of travel my party has taken of late. Nonetheless, I still believe in self-determination for Scotland and that – regardless of what some of my more overbearing brethren tell me – is not a point of view inconsistent with my adherence to the faith.

The reason, therefore, that I have remained a member of the SNP is that I am still a nationalist. I choose to vote positively, for what I do approve, rather than negatively, against what I do not. Withholding my vote from the SNP because of their stance on abortion, for example, would be somewhat hypocritical if I then put my ‘x’ next to any of the other big hitters – because their record is no better.

More importantly, I do not believe that we can legislate for morality. Nor, really, as Christians, should we want to. Our nation (however you choose to interpret the word) already suffers from the delusion that if people are ‘basically decent, law-abiding citizens’ then they have no need of Christ or his church. What do we achieve by imposing outward morality, then, on a country in state of spiritual decay? I don’t want Scotland to be a whited sepulchre; I want it to obey God’s law because it knows and loves the author.

Early on in the pre-election speculation, I am aware that a wee rumour circulated about me standing on a ‘Christian’ ticket. Despite atheist propaganda to the contrary, I didn’t even stand on such a platform for my election to the Stornoway Trust. I happen to think that it is not a ticket upon which a politician at any level should stand. Be a Christian, and let that speak for itself; let it inform your decisions and guide your behaviour, but never expect that anyone will cast their ballot your way simply because you follow Christ.

Far better for Christians to be part of the electable mainstream parties, and to be a force for change within, than impotent protestor without. It is not an easy matter, to be the lone voice for Christ in any situation – and that is why I fundamentally believe that Christians everywhere have to be tuned into the possibility that God may be asking them to serve him in a different way. We are not all bound to be ministers, or elders; they also serve who only stand for council . . . or parliament, or the grazing committee, or the community trust. Imagine these organisations transformed by the presence of genuinely God-fearing people, elected because they are able and conscientious, and for their personal integrity.

Now, stop imagining it. This is one of these situations, I’m afraid, where you have to quit looking around, quit expecting ‘someone to do something’.

Have you ever thought that someone might be you?

 

Wee Free Feminism & Other Legends

Helping out a colleague this week, I agreed to speak to his sociology class about feminism, coloured by my experiences in those twin male bastions: the Free Church and the Stornoway Trust.

Having already denied being a feminist to no less a person than our church Missions Director, I feel this is ground I had better approach carefully.

It’s not a label I’m particularly interested in claiming because I know, for one thing, that radical feminists like Germaine Greer would laugh their socks off at the notion of people like me aligning themselves with the cause. I belong to a church where the leadership is all-male. The image is very much of men leading and women meekly following in their wake, heads bowed and carrying pans of soup and trays of baking. We appear, in the world’s eyes, to be a Stepfordesque nightmare of gender stereotyping.

Addressing this with the students, I tried to introduce the notion of complementarianism. I probably did a bad job and, even though they were bright and articulate, I’m not sure I explained myself well enough. The problem is that, in such a forum, you are not encouraged to talk too much about Scripture and yet, to properly explain my stance on this, I would have to refer to God’s instruction, and his ordaining of two genders, each with its own distinct role.

Even then, people will say that this is all very well, but don’t men just abuse that belief and use it as a way to keep women out of leadership roles?

The Bible is quite clear about spiritual leadership; it is set aside for men. In my view, therefore – despite my allusions to having pulpit ambitions, or an eye on the suidheachan mòr – that is that. God has decreed, and if I were to start reinterpreting it, then I am doing nothing less than replicating the serpent’s, ‘did God really say . . ?’

Other roles, however – including deaconship – I am not so persuaded about. The early church had deaconesses and, given that the diaconate role is one of managing and dispensing funds and other organisational duties, I see no reason why it should be restricted to men. Ditto the doorkeepers: why must we be welcomed to worship services by men? Shy, awkward men are forced to take that responsibility on, when many women with the requisite people skills are available and undeployed.

And then, there are the committees. In local congregations, women are included amongst the membership of various groups. I am on our congregation’s Communication Committee. Others are on the Catering Committee and the Strategy Group. Is this replicated at national level, though?

It’s not entirely clear. There are six standing committees, according to the Free Church website, and the blurb says that these are made up of ‘ministers, elders and advisers’. I’m dimly aware of there being some female input, but couldn’t say how much, or to what extent their influence extends.

And here is where I have to bring in my other experience – that of being one woman on an otherwise all-male board. I don’t claim to be ‘better’ than my colleagues, nor to be wiser. It may well be that my presence has made no overall difference to the operation of Trust concerns at all. Nonetheless, mine is a different perspective and a different approach because I’m a woman. Not superior, nor inferior; just other.

Now, of course there’s a sense in which every individual brings something unique to the table – all men are not exactly the same, nor all women. However, there is a broadly male approach to things (and people) which I have observed, and a corresponding female one also. Men and women, having both been created in God’s own image, NEED to work together in order to reflect that perfection.

If I had my way, therefore, yes, all committees – in and out of the church – would have mixed memberships.

Before this has any of my more conservative friends reaching for the smelling salts, however, I’d add a rider to this.

When I’m on a roundabout, and I have right of way, it sometimes happens that the person on my left will decide just to go for it first. What is the proper response? Do I enforce my privilege and move, knowing I will probably crash into his side? Of course not – as a driver, you also have a duty to prevent accidents as well as not causing any.

Ideally, then, the church would see the wisdom and – I believe – beauty,

of men and women sharing responsibility more. Not, as I said, in spiritual leadership, but in everything else. However, I would not advocate this if it was liable to damage the peace and fellowship of the church. Internal politics should never be allowed to eclipse the cause of Christ. A woman’s equal ability to contribute in certain roles is neither here nor there in comparison to the greater work. Part of our walk is, after all, subduing self. And even if I know women could, and possibly even should, play a greater role . . . well, the church is not the place to play out gender-based games of thrones.

Ultimately, though God created us male and female, each gender with its own attributes, our relationship with him is personal, individual. He doesn’t deal with me as part of a homogeneous mass of women – he deals with me as myself, as Catriona Murray, nee Maclean. Like everyone else, I have been imbued with certain gifts which are meant to be used in his service. It doesn’t require a badge, or a title to serve the Lord, and wasting time, and causing strife in pursuit of recognition from the brethren . . . well, that’s not something that interests me.

So, the world would call me weak and deny me admittance to the throne-room of feminism. I am not prepared to assert myself, because I know what they do not: my ‘rights’ are as nothing compared to his righteousness.

Christ did not subjugate women. Witness how he spoke to the woman at the well. See his love for Mary and Martha. His coming was heralded to a woman, and it was to women the risen Saviour first appeared.

But, in all these accounts, no matter how you read them, he is the main character, the central figure. The Christian walk follows in his footsteps and offers the only equality that matters: salvation in Christ, freely available to both genders. In light of that, nothing else matters much.

Comforting His People

, All summer, the blacker of my two cats – let’s call her ‘Mo’, for that is her name – has been largely absent from the house, except for the occasional visit to fill up on Whiskas and slap the dog. If I petted her, or even addressed a casual remark in her general direction, I was invariably met with a hard stare, or a high-pitched mew of disdain.

The moment, however, the weather turned a little colder, a little wetter and a lot windier, Mo became my best friend again. She can now mostly be found curled up in my wardrobe (don’t ask), or stretched on the radiator in the front hall. Cuddles are welcomed, and she even seeks out my company from time to time. However objectionable my personality and conversation, Mo clearly realises when she’s onto a good thing – I am a warm and cuddly guarantee of food and shelter. In short, I am her source of comfort.

For human beings, there are two levels of comfort. There is the ordinary, everyday kind – or, at least, it’s seen as such by we privileged westerners – which consists of all the things we take for granted: warm, clean clothing, a secure home, income, a steady food supply, good health and good healthcare, relative peace and safety.

I don’t know why, particularly, but this morning I was moved to thank God in prayer for the howling wind and driving rain sounds to which I awoke, to which I often awake. They remind me of my blessedness in living where I do, in a place I love, and in a home which is a stronghold against the elements.

The other level of comfort, though, is a deeper one – it caters to our emotional and spiritual needs. Like Mo, our craving for it can be particularly acute during the onset of a soul-shaking storm.

We heard in church recently how the idea of comfort in the Bible carries with it the sense of getting alongside the person who needs it. It is not unusual, when we anticipate going to the home of a bereaved family, to worry that we will not know what to say, as though the perfect choice of words from us could make any difference at all. The words don’t matter; the being there does. And, comfort comes from knowing that there is solidarity in grief, which is surely the most universal of all human experiences.

This week, two families I have come to know and love in the Lord have parted with loved ones. In their different ways, these deaths have touched the church and wider community in Scotland. It isn’t simply that Anna and Murdo Alex were so young, though that cannot fail to give the hardest of hearts a thought of eternity. I think it is the strength of their faith that compels everyone standing near to confront the fact that this comfort which we get from God, it’s real. There is no quick-fix, this’ll make you feel better for now-ness about it – this is the solid, all-encompassing, unchanging, faithfulness of God writ large across the lives, and deaths, of those who love him and, more crucially, whom he loves.

He has created his church as a body, to experience his providence – easy or challenging – collectively. I tend to think that’s what Ecclesiastes is getting at when it says, ‘in the day of prosperity, rejoice, but in the day of adversity, consider’. We learn something in our own providences, yes, but it is something we were made to share with the rest of God’s people too. I feel able to speak to people who have lost loved ones, from a place of greater understanding because it has been part of my own experience too.

The thing is, though, I hope that what I’m sharing is not so much my experience of death as my receipt of God’s comfort. For me, the miraculous thing is not that I got through the worst thing that has ever happened in my life, but that I was comforted by the presence of my Saviour, and by my knowledge of his sufficiency in that and all things.

That received sense of peace would be meaningless were it not for the complete trustworthiness of the source. A made-up God that I was choosing to believe in would be a thin comfort blanket indeed against the chills of grief. Yet, poor unbelievers persist in the delusion that Christians ‘choose’ to accept the existence of God as a crutch to get them through.

God exists; that is not up for debate. It is not the mere existence of God which keeps his people in their darkest hours, however – it is his provision, through Christ, of a love that will not let them go. Our relationship with him is often at its most beautiful when we need him most. Hardship and trials in this world, even those less painful than bereavement, drive us into his arms.

It does not remove, or even lessen our difficulties in this world, but it does help put them in their proper perspective. We are the body of his church, and what hurts one, should pain all. Equally, the comfort which we individually receive at his hand is for sharing, that we might bear one another’s burdens.

“ ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’, says your God” – not empty words, not a ‘there, there’ pat on the hand, but a prelude to his own coming among us in the person of his Son.

That’s comfort of the most complete, all-encompassing kind. And there is no comfort apart from him. I know, because it is mine, and it is enough.It will  always be enough.