The Spiritual Journey of Stephen Coldstream
Before today, I did not know that exotic ladies’ undergarments could be offered as a solution to deep spiritual problems. That they can, I learned from our pastor, the Rev Victor Mitchell.
Mr Mitchell abounds in wisdom and godliness and love of the Scriptures. Yet his contemporary approach at first came close to alienating many in our congregation. As earlier pages of this journal record, I had had my own doubts at first. He is some years older than I am, but in his company I always feel like some awkward, clumsy relic from an earlier age. However, his modern speech and manners and mode of dress cannot disguise qualities that speak beyond mere appearances. We have all learned to trust and value his work and words.
I phoned him at lunchtime to arrange the meeting and went to the Manse on the way home from work. Mr Mitchell’s wife, Lorraine, showed me into the little parlour reserved for meetings and consultations. The rest of the Manse is now redecorated in a bright, modern fashion, but this one remains in its working clothes, so to speak: it reminds me of an old-fashioned doctor’s waiting room. Not inappropriate, perhaps, for someone charged with the health of souls.
Mr Mitchell backed into the room bearing a tray of coffee things and turned to deposit it on a battered old coffee table. ‘So, what can I do you for today, Steve?’ he asked as he poured me a cup from a large cafetière (I prefer instant).
‘It’s a personal matter, Mr Mitchell. It’s about Sheona and me.’
His face assumed a serious look. He poured his own cup, sat in a squeaky basket chair, and invited me to continue.
I told him that I had recently read Building and Balancing the Spirit-filled Christian Life and its sequel Building and Balancing the Spirit-filled Christian Marriage by Oswald J Pederson of the Ulquahanna Bible School. At the mention of these works, Mr Mitchell gave the brief eyes-to-the-ceiling glance that always indicates his exasperation.
‘Every authority seems to stress that married couples must to talk to one another, communicate at a deep level, stay close…’
‘And aren’t you and Sheona close? Don’t you talk?’
‘Well, yes. About where the children are, or about our day at work or home. And as part of our daily prayer times. But there is no deep, intimate communication of the kind advised by Dr Pederson…’
‘How does Sheona feel about this?’
‘I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to her about it.’
Again the ceiling-ward glance.
‘How long have you worked in insurance, Steve?’
‘Twenty years.’ I didn’t see how this could be relevant. I had expected Mr Mitchell to lead me through helpful and appropriate passages in Proverbs, perhaps, or some of Paul’s teaching in the epistles. Instead, his words became disturbing.
‘Are the two of you still active, sexually?’
‘What? Well, er, the boys are 9 and 7 so we only have limited opportunities…’
Mr Mitchell cupped his hands to his chin and stared thoughtfully at the linoleum for a minute or two, and then spoke without looking me in the eye.
‘Married couples have to find ways of letting each other know that they’re still special to each other. Of course, such feelings can be difficult to express in words if you’re not used to it.’ He looked up with mild accusation before continuing, ‘When is Sheona’s birthday?’
This puzzled me. ‘Actually it’s this Monday. The 22nd.’
‘And have you a gift in mind?’
‘Yes, and I have already bought it.’ I was sure this would impress him, ‘It’s a new leather-bound edition of Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible.’
In fact, all I got was the upward lift of the eyes again.
‘And will that make Sheona feel unique and valued and loved?’
‘Well, there’s surely no greater gift than to encourage her Christian growth?’
Mr Mitchell drained his coffee cup, rose, turned, and walked over to the window. Without turning to face me, he said, ‘What I’m about to suggest might surprise or even shock you, but have you considered buying Sheona some silk lingerie?’
I stayed silent for nearly a minute. It was an outrageous suggestion, improper. Finally, I gasped, ‘Lingerie? Silk underwear? But we’re Christians, Mr Mitchell! Surely we are warned against such shows of vanity?’
‘It’s only a show of vanity if she shows it off in public, Steve. This is something private, for the two of you, to strengthen and invigorate your marriage.’
‘I expected you would just show me some Bible verses…’
Again the upraised eyes. ‘Steve! You already know all the possible verses I could show you! But since you ask, try the Song of Songs and tell me that it’s wrong to focus on the physical side of the relationship!’ (Indeed, that is a book whose presence in the Scriptures often troubles me.)
A period of silence, and then Mr Mitchell went on, more quietly, ‘You wouldn’t be the first member of this church to come here and be given this advice and you wouldn’t be the first to take it. The results so far have been encouraging. What do you think, Steve?’
I really do strongly dislike being called ‘Steve’.
I rose early for prayer and Bible study and felt led to agree with Mr Mitchell. If the undergarments promote affection and warmth within marriage, then the Christian life and witness of the believing couple are upheld. I am not, however, looking forward to the business of actually acquiring the clothing in question.
Nor can I help but wonder: who are the other church members Mr Mitchell has advised to purchase the items? Who has bought them? Who has been wearing them?
I will look at my fellow-Christians with different eyes this Sunday.
This has been a day of trial and embarrassment. I only hope that my suffering affords spiritual profit.
As if it were a normal working day, I rose early and drove to the station. My aim was to avoid the heaviest shopping crowds. Yet on my arrival, I already saw people known to me on the Edinburgh platform. Therefore I purchased a ticket to a town I knew had a large shopping centre, and which lay in the opposite direction. By this means, I hoped to reduce the likelihood of meeting persons known to me.
As I emerged from the train at my destination, however, I heard a voice hailing me. I turned to see Mr James Elliott, one of my fellow-elders, alighting from the other carriage. I had not noticed him on the platform at the start of the journey.
‘Stephen Coldstream! Well, this is just like the elders’ prayer meeting, isn’t it?’
‘Good morning, James.’
‘Just made it in time. Got in just as the doors were closing. I have to see a few of my business clients in the shopping centre today.’ Mr Elliott is a chartered accountant and specialises in small retail outlets.
‘I have merely come here in order to make some purchases.’
‘Oh well, might see you around later.’ And he went off at a near-run, whistling. I shivered. Mr Elliott’s whistling always has an insolent air, as if done on a Sabbath morning.
With a brief but heartfelt prayer of dedication, I began walking towards the shopping centre, attempting to move slowly but purposefully. I fear I looked excessively furtive, like a recalcitrant 16-year-old looking for somewhere to buy strong drink. My feelings of guilt were not eased by some alarming displays of lurid ladies’ underwear in the windows of the first likely shop I came to. I avoided the establishment, because Mr Mitchell had identified its name as that of a national chain of dubious reputation, more akin to what I understand are known as ‘sex shops’ than respectable (if I may use such a word here) lingerie retailers. I hurried past.
Mr Mitchell had advised me that certain of the department stores and general drapery outlets would have sections housing the sought-for items, but that independent specialists might offer a quieter environment (something I desperately longed for) and more personal, sympathetic service. And so it was that I came to a rather small, dimly lit emporium with the name Smooth as Silk. In the window there were mannequins wearing silken underthings and large colour photographs of young ladies ‘modelling’ similar garments. Such representations had, in advance, troubled me, but Mr Mitchell had counselled, ‘Who are we to judge the hearts of others? The models in the pictures may well be your sisters in Christ.’ Behind the counter, two friendly-looking young women were busily folding and stacking other garments. There were, as yet, no customers.
All this I viewed while affecting to browse in the window of the adjacent travel agency (though such deception left me uneasy). As I was about to slip stealthily into Smooth as Silk, a familiar voice hailed me for the second time that day. ‘Oh-ho! Planning a holiday, eh, Stevie? Business must be good!’
I smiled weakly at Mr Elliott. He pointed to the travel agency and to Smooth as Silk, ‘Both of these are mine. Got to be broad-minded these days, eh? Anyway, can’t keep the clients waiting.’ He went, first, into the travel agency.
I felt too much shame to visit Smooth as Silk at that point, for fear that Mr Elliott would breeze in, after a surprisingly short visit to the travel agency, while I was still making my purchases. So I fled to one of the shopping centre cafes and immersed myself in an improving book I had taken with me (Characteristics of the Bible-believing Family Home by Pastor C Roger Steinworthy).
By 11.30am, after four coffees, I decided that it would be safe to return to Smooth as Silk. I made my way inconspicuously towards my goal. The centre no longer wore its early calm. Crowds walked and loitered and hurried in a mass-buying, Mammon-worshipping frenzy. A few shoppers now browsed in Smooth as Silk - women on their own and one or two couples - and I could see only one of the two assistants. She beamed a warm smile at me as I finally entered the place with a prayer in my heart.
At first I was disoriented by such a bewildering array of whites and ivories and reds and blues and purples and pastels. Mr Mitchell had recommended the purchase of matching sets of brassieres and underpants, and I made my way to an appropriate display. Before I could begin to assess properly the options available, I noticed the door to the back of the shop open. The older of the two salespeople (evidently the proprietress) emerged, followed by James Elliott. It appeared that their meeting had only now concluded. I crouched behind the displayed undergarments and waited for them to complete their small talk. Evidently they were well acquainted, for they talked for some time and the other assistant, at one point, came over to ask me if I was all right. I was not, but (the deceitful heart of a sinner!) I still nodded.
Finally, a customer went up to the counter with a handful of underthings and Mr Elliott left the assistant to attend to her. He swiftly made for the exit. I stood upright and breathed a prayer of thanks.
But Mr Elliott did not get far. He stopped at the entrance to talk to two young ladies who were on their way in. With horror I recognised them as Jenni Harvey (daughter of another of my fellow-elders) and Katie Sewell. Katie was converted some years ago at a summer mission and so, at least, has no parents in the church. Both girls are aged 16 or 17. I had no option but to stoop once again behind the display of netherwear.
Jenni and Katie appeared to say goodbye to Mr Elliott (who disappeared very quickly into the bowels of the centre, no doubt heading for yet another meeting with a customer. We must pray that money does not become his god). They entered the shop, glanced briefly and distractedly at some of the displays, and by degrees began to head straight for the display behind which I was hiding.
There was no escape. Suppose they failed to see me until the very last minute, and I had to emerge shamefully from hiding, like an erring schoolboy? So I stood upright, as if naturally doing so having seen them from afar. They stopped, their eyes wide with surprise.
‘Mr Coldstream!’ cried Jenni, ‘What are you doing here?’
I paused awkwardly. There were few options open to me. I reached for honesty.
‘I, er, it’s Sheona’s birthday on Monday…’
‘And so you’re buying her some of this?’ asked Katie, approvingly.
‘That is so cool!’ agreed Jenni. ‘My Dad would never buy anything like that for Mum!’
This was not an observation that I found agreeable.
‘So, what are you going to get her, Mr Coldstream?’ asked Katie.
‘I don’t know,’ I answered truthfully. ‘I’m not familiar with garments of this type.’
‘No problem, Mr Coldstream,’ announced Jenni, with an air of assumed command, ‘We’ll help you. What size is Mrs Coldstream?’
Only a few days earlier, such a question would have defeated me. However, Mr Mitchell had explained to me the measurements that were required. On Friday evening, when Sheona had taken the boys to the swimming pool, I had rummaged in her clothes drawers and scribbled the relevant data into a notebook. This very notebook I now produced. Jenni and Katie began to burrow through the silken displays in a determined manner, proffering combinations of brassieres and underpants for my assessment. Jenni, in particular, displayed all of the qualities I would expect of what I understand are known as ‘personal shoppers’ (Mr Mitchell once mentioned them dismissively in a sermon about consumerism). She kept up a non-stop commentary. ‘These are nice… we want underwired, eh, Mr Coldstream? Oh, look, Mr Coldstream, you can adjust the amount of uplift in this one… I think Mrs Coldstream would really suit this colour…’
Thirty long minutes later, Katie was clutching three underwear combination sets on my behalf. ‘Now let’s find Mrs Coldstream a nice nightie,’ said Jenni. Just then, Katie cried, ‘Look at these, Jenni!’ and thrust her burden into my hands. I must have blushed deepest crimson above my silky bundle as the girls each held up a combination for themselves. ‘What do you think, Mr Coldstream?’ asked Jenni.
Soon, a tiny purple silk creation was added to my purchases. It seemed too brief and flimsy to be of any use in a Scottish winter, and was certainly not suitable for a church residential weekend, but Jenni and Katie goaded me into agreement to purchase.
The salesgirl handed me my purchases in a Smooth as Silk plastic carrier bag bearing a drawing of a young woman in one of their scantiest products. I quickly deposited the package in a Tesco bag I had stowed in a pocket for this purpose. I then waited while the girls purchased their own garments, forbearing to question whether such items were an appropriate disbursement of the funds of young Christian women.
I took the girls to the café where I had promised them lunch. They chatted away to each other as they consumed their burgers. Just as we rose to leave, Jenni looked at me and smiled, ‘Mr Coldstream? I thought you were pure stuffy. But, you know, you’re all right!’
I gained assurance of their secrecy, bade them goodbye, and then proceeded to make the token purchases, which Sheona believed were the real reason for my journey
I sit here at the end of a day which has left me quite exhausted. I can remember little of the day after lunch. The undergarments are stored safely in my locked briefcase. I now commit myself to a time of prayer, praise and thanksgiving for my deliverance.
As usual we attended the 11am service and sat in the balcony opposite the pews where the Youth Fellowship massed. Directly facing us I saw Katie and Jenni, both of whom beamed welcoming smiles at me.
My mind wandered during Mr Mitchell’s sermon (on The Beauty of Holiness, from Hebrews 1), and my eyes flicked across the faces in the congregation. Some of these other saints, their marriages requiring spiritual quickening, had received the same advice as myself and had acted upon it.
And what advice would wives seeking the same help receive? Supposing Sheona had similarly diagnosed our marriage problems and had gone to Mr (or perhaps Mrs) Mitchell. What had she been told? What could I expect formy next birthday?
After the service, I waited outside the main door while Sheona collected the boys from Sunday School. A group of young people came noisily out and continued past me, except for one who detached herself from the group, came over to me and spoke confidingly. ‘Hi, Mr Coldstream!’ said Jenni, ‘I’m wearing my Smooth as Silk stuff right now - it’s brilliant! Mrs Coldstream will totally love hers!’
She smiled broadly, chirped, ‘See you!’ and rejoined the crowd as I laboured under more information than I needed.
It is now 7pm. Sheona has taken the boys to the evening service, and I have just wrapped her gifts for tomorrow. I am not sure how she will respond to them, but surely no collection of ladies’ undergarments has ever been enfolded in such an embrace of believing, effective prayer?
At first I tried to wrap the Matthew Henry commentary in the same parcel as the Smooth as Silk goods, but this seemed disrespectful. I made two separate packages instead.
David lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.