Spiritual Journey to a Destination Unknown

In a couple of weeks, I plan to visit Ness, to speak to the ladies of the WFM there. Believe it or not, I rarely address any group without having put some thought into what I will be saying. I have a technique which works reasonably well for me in this respect and I started to put it into practice this week, while driving my car.

Actually, a lot of my spiritual journey centres on the car and it was only while sitting in it, thinking about Ness, that I realised just how long this has been true for me.

Life became frantically busy last year, and each day I spend at least 50 minutes just driving to and from work. On the mornings when I am pushed for time, I wait until I am underway before speaking to God as I drive. At first, I felt guilty about doing this, as though I was being disrespectful. But then it dawned on me that I had always spoken to Him on car journeys . . . just that I was now doing it out loud, and calling it ‘prayer’.

And, this year, I have taken things a step further. I am following a plan which allows me to listen to the Bible being read over the course of a year. As soon as I start the engine each morning, therefore, David Suchet’s calm voice reads to me a portion from the New Testament, followed by a reading from the Old.

When I worked in Ness, I drove back and forth across the moor every day. I was single and living with my parents, and enjoying life. There was nothing to trouble my mind. To while away the miles, I began to listen to recordings of sermons our own minister had preached. This being well before the digital revolution, I was limited to the cassettes that were available to me and so I listened to some of these sermons repeatedly, and two in particular.

One spoke of God as a refiner of silver, retrieving the object from the fire only when it was finished, and the Maker could see in it His own image. The other favourite was on Paul’s famous utterance about God’s strength being made perfect in weakness. I loved these – yet if anyone had asked me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell why.

But I know now. Reflecting on it as I prayed over what to say to the ladies of Ness, I realised that all those years ago, God was preparing me. I was not in the midst of troubled waters yet, but I stored up the precious truths in my heart against a time when I would be. This was not because of my far-sightedness, but because of His.

When the man I had not yet met was taken from me, I would fall back on these precious words and the reassurance that they convey: God is not punishing you; He is drawing you closer to Himself.

That our eternal God plays the long game should not surprise us, but it should certainly give us comfort. We often speak about the difficult providences which we encounter, and the fact that we often cannot comprehend their meaning. I think it’s important to remember something else, though: God equips us for the journey He has set before us; not the one we think lies ahead.

I didn’t know why I was listening to those sermons repeatedly back then, but God was working in me the faith that would hold me to Himself when that was all I had.

It was sitting in my office in Ness that I enrolled on the very first Free Church Saturday course in theology. This was an uncharacteristically bold move on my part, because I was terrified that I would be the only non-Christian (I was) and possibly the only non-elder (I wasn’t) in the class.

By the time the Ness chapter of my life had closed, I found myself no closer to being a Christian. Although I had found happiness with my husband, and a new job, everything else seemed to have been a waste of time. The theology books I had bought sat in the bookcase, mocking me – reminding me of that other sermon message which replayed in my memory: do not begin building the tower, unless you are sure you have the tools to finish the job.

But that was just spiritual myopia, and a failure of faith on my part. I didn’t start the job – God did, and when He begins a good work in us, He will see it through.

Perhaps you are reading this, feeling discouraged, thinking you are no nearer to Him than you were many years ago. It’s just possible you feel that way because you don’t see what He sees: this is a journey, and He knows what you will need along the way. God is making sure that you are trained and equipped as you need to be for all that providence has in store.

It was because of this period in my life that I knew there was Someone there to catch me when I fell. There is no wasted time with God: He knows the plans He has for us, and every breath we take builds towards the moment when He calls us by name.

 

 

Promise Postponed – But Unbroken

I didn’t know Rev Kenny MacDonald but, somehow, everyone knew him. He was well-kent for the saddest of reasons – because his teenage daughter, Alison, had gone off to Kashmir in 1981 . . . and vanished. But Kenny never gave up his belief that he would see her again.

Sometime in the nineties, a television programme was made. A teenager myself at the time of its broadcast, I cannot forget the unbearably poignant image of Kenny on a hillside in Sonamarg, spelling out her name in large, white stones. What pain, what bravery, what faith. Older now, I still cannot begin to imagine what it must have cost him to leave that place again, without his girl.

And then, the realisation that he was losing his sight. Oh, I remember thinking, how awful if he goes blind before Alison comes back. Then all his assertions that he would see her again will come to nothing. I thought.

Their story had become such a part of Highland and Island consciousness. Now and again, a wee ripple, a rumour that she had been found. These always came to nothing, though. Kenny and his wife, Reta, were always left empty-handed. Everyone willed the story to end happily, for Alison to just turn up – perhaps married, a mother; but just to turn up and give him peace.

As I say, I never met him, but you didn’t actually feel that he lacked peace, as such. Every interview I ever saw or read just showed me again how much faith it was possible for one person to have. And how much love, as a father. He remained convinced that his daughter was alive and, in one of the truest examples of what fatherhood surely ought to be, he never stopped trying to reach her.

I remember that documentary and thinking how incredible it would be if Alison should actually find those stones spelling out her name across the hillside. After nearly twenty years of separation, to know that her father still remembered, and was still looking for her, would surely mean everything.

We cannot know why God permitted any of this: Alison’s disappearance, the long years without answers, or – perhaps most difficult of all – Kenny’s relentless conviction that she was still alive. There were certainly times when it seemed awfully cruel that a man of faith should believe in something he did not see fulfilled.

Of course, other men of faith, even more famous than Kenny MacDonald, have walked that path before. Moses, despite all that he did in faithfully leading the children of Israel, did not himself enter the promised land. He believed in it, he strove for it, and he inspired others to believe in it also but, at the last, he was not to experience it for himself.

Who would say that Moses’ faith was in vain, though? It was because of his faith that so many others would enter the land of promise; it was his steadfast following of God that had enabled him to lead them out of danger so many times.

And Kenny’s faith teaches me something as well. His unswerving belief, and his love for his Lord enabled him to serve Christ while never letting down the burden of fatherhood laid upon him. What we all marvelled at was his devotion; the devotion to his family, to Alison, was part of his devotion to the God who had set him free. For him, I think, it was simple, though it cannot ever have been easy.

God doesn’t promise ease to His people here in this vale of tears. But He does promise an eternity that cannot be described.

Moses reappears in the New Testament, in Matthew 17, standing upon the mount of Transfiguration. Many Biblical scholars say that this mountain was likely to have been in the Promised Land. If so, then Moses did finally stand there, though not in the way he may have thought.

God’s ways and plans are not ours. That much is beyond debate. His timescales are not ours either.

Though Kenny MacDonald has gone to be with his Lord, our hopes that Alison will be restored to her family do not dim.

And because Kenny has gone to be with her Lord, we are certain he will enjoy that reunion with Alison he so desired to see. But it will be much more perfect than the one we all imagined.

Always Darkest Just Before Dawn

There is something about a brand new year that is like a clean sheet of paper, waiting to be written on. For some, there is the irresistible lure of the resolution, the resolve to be a better version of themselves in the next twelve months than they were in the previous. Few of these outlast January.

It is a time of renewal, of hope; a time when whatever mistakes were made in the old year can be crossed out in the new. But it is also a time for evaluating how those aspirations that were so fresh last New Year have fared.

I was asked this week which of my prayers have gone unanswered. The question really unsettled me. It has always been my belief that God does not let sincere prayer go unanswered. Sometimes He might say, ‘wait a while’, or ‘no, that’s not best for you’, but I don’t think He ever ignores our petitions. For one thing, they are too precious to Him.

But I do have things which I bring before Him continually, as we all do. For most Christians, the first thing on that list would be for their loved ones to know Jesus as their Saviour. And for many, spiritual revival will also be a priority. Most Ch

ristians pray for those things . . . but I wonder whether we have artificially separated them in our hearts, as well as in our supplication to God.

What I’m saying is that when we pray for our family to be saved, we don’t mean them exclusively; we probably just mean them particularly. In reality, a general spiritual awakening which would include those we know and care for, well, that would be better still, surely. How much more generous are prayers which are expansive in their concern? What largeness of heart it takes to pray for salvation in those we do not know, or perhaps especially those with whom we are acquainted, but do not yet love.

The Rev John Morrison of Petty, a man reputed to possess the gift of second sight, once caught up with a member of his congregation, a young woman, on a stormy night. She was concealing her newborn – and illegitimate – infant beneath her cloak, and was making her way to a nearby loch to drown the child. Instead of remonstrating with her, he simply told her that before letting the baby go she should kiss it and ask a blessing on it. This she did, and – as the wise old minister knew would happen – she could not go through with her desperate plan.

Once you have prayed for someone, there is a bond created. I think that is how the Lord strengthens the love His people have, one for the other. He moves us to pray for each other and, once we have, that kind concern is marked indelibly on our hearts.

Revival for our community, for our country, for our world, has to be willed by God. But we surely have a part to play in readying ourselves for it. It is not a small thing we are asking for, and so we should not behave as though it is. God has shown us, I believe, that He is listening. The waiting is not a divine refusal, but evidence that He hears, and wants to hear more.
Words are easily spent. I have prayed for revival, really meaning it, but more often than not I have prayed the words to fill a silence. That isn’t what God wants; and it shames me to admit that’s what I give Him. He wants the earnestness of heart I bring to supplication which directly affects me.

How I prayed when I feared my husband might die is how I should be petitioning the Lord for our community.

It’s exhausting being concerned for people who have no thought of their own spiritual welfare. A few months ago, I heard this mentioned in a sermon as one of the things which can wear the Christian down in their own walk. And it’s true. I can testify to the frustration and even heartbreak of trying to bring Christ before people who still want to spit in His face.
They pretend it’s all part of this relentless march towards freedom and tolerance; but it’s really their own bigotry got up in fancy clothes. That’s why they’re so delighted about going to see a critically-panned ‘Star Wars’ film at An Lanntair on a Sunday afternoon; that’s why the deck of the first ferry to cross the Minch on the Lord’s Day was thronged with people: ugly triumphalism.

You see, they’ve lost any sense of community they may once have had. It’s all become lost in the morass of selfishness and hatred born of fear.

You can become so acquainted with that mindset as to despair that revival is even possible when no one will have this Jesus to be king over them. But that’s no attitude for a Christian. He wants us to be community-minded, and to pray and pray and pray for these people until all hope is gone.

Jesus is the ultimate lesson in hoping against hope. When the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were filled with despair because the man they thought would be the Redeemer had died a common criminal’s death, what happened? He himself appeared and reminded them how essential all those hardships had been to the fulfilment of His plan.

And His resurrection surely reminds us that He is hope in a hopeless situation.

My resolution for 2018 is to find that fear for others, that comes so easily where I’m concerned myself; and to give it all to God in prayer. He understands loss of hope. And He restores it like no one else can.

 

 

 

 

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

 

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.

 

Collars, Cappuccinos and Change for Change’s Sake

The light above the pulpit in Stornoway Free Church has hung there so long that it’s in danger of becoming fashionable again. I know that it’s been there a while because my granny (who died some time ago) disparaged the new fitting as resembling an old tin can. She, being from Carloway, was used to the finer things, you will understand. It is said that their tobar boasted a Dresden china cover. Nevertheless, the old tin hangs there still, shedding its light unchangingly. Where I sit, on the balcony, it is right in my field of vision, the same metal shade at which my granny used to frown.

I like that. Oh, not the light fitting – retro urban chic has never really been my kind of thing. No, but I like the sense of continuity with the past. Somewhere along the way, though, ‘traditional’ has become an insulting term, even within the church. This is now, and we have to assert our modernity and break with the things of yesteryear. Just because.

Well, my name is Catriona Murray, and I’m a traditionalist. It’s been eight minutes since my last Stroudwater . . . I like pews, pulpits, handshakes, clerical collars, unaccompanied psalm singing, and the sustentation fund. I like these things because I’m used to them, and for a host of other reasons besides.

Don’t get me wrong, if modernity took over and ripped out all the pews, to replace them with bleacher seats, I’d continue coming to church. If the pulpit gives way to a perspex lectern with integrated cappuccino machine, I would still listen to the sermon. Even if the minister opted for full Highland regalia, topped off with the headgear of a Bamangwato tribesman, I might remark on it to my neighbour, but I’m fairly sure his preaching would be unaffected, so I’d stay for that too.

Tradition does not rule me and I am not wedded to it, though I confess to a fondness for it. Besides, the justification I hear from modernisers is always a little inadequate. We need to be more accessible, more approachable, more flexible, more adaptable. Why? So that people will come. This isn’t Field of Dreams, so building it isn’t enough, apparently. Folk won’t come to church just to sit on hard pews, to listen to a man in a collar who stands in a tall wooden box.

Indeed, they will not. But is that why any of us ever went to church, and will it suddenly be different if we give way to gimmickry? We can dress the elders as Morris men and put disco lights in the vestibule for all the difference it will make.

People outside are not actually repelled by the sight of a minister’s collar, or the wooden pews – they are repelled by the gospel.

So, if the priority is boosting attendance at services, let’s by all means have men in surf shorts greeting people at the church door. Frothy coffees can be handed out as they arrive and the pulpit be replaced with a revolving stage. Each minister could, like a boxer entering the ring, have his own theme tune; each already has his own signature ‘move’, a la Mo Farah or Usain Bolt, anyway. Instead of the Mo-bot, or the lightning bolt, we could have the . . . but no, I mustn’t say.

Boosting attendance is not, however, the priority. It’s all wrong to think of the church of Christ – whatever denomination – as a business which needs marketing. Musical pews and scruffy preachers will not bring people in because old, varnished pews and ministers in clerical garb are not, in fact, what keep people out. The message does; and we definitely cannot change the message.

So, what next? Do we just sit where we are and wait for people to come to us, then? Obviously not. We carry on. The preaching, the worship, the outreach, the witness all must go on. Prayer – both corporate and private – must go on.  The great challenge in this, like in every other area of life, is to carry on doing what is asked of us, while trusting that the Spirit will accomplish the rest.

Putting all our efforts into pulling out pews and restyling the minister, therefore, would be an awful lot like fiddling while Rome burns (with apologies to any fellow Wee Frees still offended by the mention of fiddles and/or Rome). After all, we can’t really believe that this is something we could, or should, manage for ourselves.

Of course we mustn’t put up unnecessary barriers, but I think that these kinds of obstacles are more likely to exist in our hearts and in our attitude to others than in any superficial traits we may have as an institution. If you are greeted with a smile and a warm handshake at the church door on Sunday morning, does it matter if the person greeting you is a man in a suit? When you are welcomed, does it signify that it is into a 19th century building with old-fashioned seating arrangements? And, when your heart is moved by the message of salvation in Christ, does it matter what clothes the messenger is wearing? Or are we focusing on these things because WE can change them ourselves?

The light that is shed by Biblical teaching and by the faithful, steadfast witness of God’s people, does not waver. If we wait on it and follow it closely, I firmly believe that it too will come back into style. If we truly commit ourselves into the hands of our Lord, trusting not in what we do, but in what the Holy Spirit is doing, then we must let it be. While the world sees prayer and waiting on the Spirit as doing nothing, the church of Christ surely knows that it is everything.

Silence does not equal inertia in the work of the Spirit; in fact, it often means that He is drawing breath, just about to speak.