Back in February I met, for the first time, Catriona Murray from North Tolsta. It is always good to meet another Murray (there is rarely a gap in conversation) but I was delighted to meet Catriona because I had read her testimony in the Stornoway Free Church Newsletter a few days earlier. I asked if I could re-publish her testimony on my blog and in only 8 weeks it has been read by 1200 people around the world. You can read it by clicking here. Since then Catriona has become a prolific blogger and we have agreed to occasionally write for each other. We share an interest in the 'radical roots' of the Free Church and we both hope to blog on this subject in the future. This is her latest excellent contribution - enjoy!
'Radical' is probably not the first word most people would choose to describe the Free Church of Scotland. That, however, is probably because of a double misunderstanding: a failure to grasp what 'radical' means; and a failure to comprehend what the Free Church is.
Last summer, Stornoway Free Church did something which some probably saw as radical. I mean, it's all relative, but I'm fairly sure that Sy FC is not known for its 'out-there' approach to life. However, like a lot of dear old things that are written off as set in their ways, it surprised everyone - twice over.
First of all, it opened its doors to visitors - tourists and islanders alike were invited to simply come in and look around. Still a relatively new member, I volunteered to be a 'greeter'. No actual weeping was involved, though I did do some gnashing of teeth beforehand. After all, what would we talk about to visitors? I feverishly imagined myself, for want of anything better to say, pointing out the years of varnish build-up on the pews, or offering such gems as, 'if we had an organ, it would probably be in that corner'. Oh, me of little faith. That's not how it was at all. It turned out, as I should have realised, that a warm welcome and sharing our love of Christ was enough. Of course it was.
Secondly, on the busiest Sunday of the Stornoway calendar - Hebridean Celtic Festival weekend - the church hall was open, offering free Sunday breakfast. People stumbled, bleary-eyed and stiff, out of their tents and caravans, into a drizzly, grey morning. Their day was cheered considerably by an invitation to come and eat with the Stornoway congregation, in the warmth and comfort of the MA Macleod Memorial Hall. The thing is, as quite a few people told me, they didn't expect this sort of thing from the Free Church. Surely, instead of sharing bacon rolls and coffee with them, the minister ought to have been living up to the Calvinist stereotype and denouncing their music and dancing from the pulpit? 'When I heard that a church was doing breakfast today, I assumed it was Martin's Memorial', one local told me, alluding to our more down with the kids C of S neighbour. And, I have to admit, I would probably have made the same assumption, had I been in their wellies.
Being radical in this way isn't just about quashing the tired old image of nay-saying Wee Frees, though. In fact, it's not remotely about that - seeing the surprised delight on people's faces is just an added bonus - but it is about fulfilling what Christ requires of us. Something which is radical is simply that which has roots, and the Free Church was founded on that highest principle of all: refusal to submit to any headship except that of the Lord Jesus Christ. His words in the Gospel of Matthew affirm that what Stornoway Free Church did last summer was nothing less than obedience to Christ's example:
'For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.'
The only reward that Christians seek in doing as their Lord bids is the increase of His kingdom and glory. Sometimes, they have to be content with obedience and trust the rest to Him, that He will bless the effort made - but sometimes, they have the encouragement of seeing fruit for their labours.
In a curious sequence of events, I have met two different visitors who took breakfast with us on that Sunday last July. Both were affected by the simple, Christian love demonstrated, and by the worship in which they shared afterwards. And both are now in a relationship with Christ that is changing their lives.
In 1846, three years after the establishment of the Free Church, it was the first agency to respond to famine in the Highlands. The collection of funds called for by Rev. Thomas Chalmers was one of the single largest collections ever made by a Scottish church, for any purpose. There is, of course, still literal hunger in our midst, which must be met. Spiritual hunger too stalks our land. If we are prepared, the two can be sated, for 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God'. Our duty, our radical calling, is surely to bring the stranger in to sit at our table, and offer him both.