Image is Everything

Returning to work after the summer break, I was intrigued to see that one of the in-service sessions on offer was ‘Initiating Difficult Conversations’. Life can be full of those, I have found. Just last week, I felt the need to explain to everyone I met on my way in and out of the prayer-meeting how I came to be dressed like a female Johnnie Cash, instead of the usual picture of demure Calvinist womanhood I like to present. No one actually cared what I was wearing, however, so all the awkwardness there was in my own head.

But, then, awkwardness often is.

I have often agonised over broaching certain topics of conversation, composing emails, or even – believe it or not – writing blogs. When my blog led to an invitation from the Free Church’s monthly magazine, ‘The Record’, to submit a regular column, I was delighted. It quickly became apparent, however, that I couldn’t approach this with the same freedom that I allow myself in the blog. Don’t misunderstand me, this was not because of the editor imposing some draconian rules on me, but because of some psychology within myself. When you are perceived as speaking on behalf of an organisation, or a cause, then you do need to be more circumspect.

What I am appalled by is that my own concern for the public image of the Free Church probably exceeds my care about misrepresenting the cause of Christ. At a recent Bible study session, where we discussed James’s assertion that faith without works is dead, I was misunderstood by another group member, when I mused upon whether people would be able to tell we were Christians, if they didn’t know it. ‘I don’t think we’re supposed to shout about it’, she chided, regarding me as though I were a suspect package (which I probably am). This was not even remotely what I meant, which I tried (unsuccessfully) to explain.

Do I ever think about how I am coming across to people who know I’m a Christian? Am I sufficiently attentive to avoiding being that person who provokes others to say, ‘some Christian – if that’s what they’re like, they can keep it.

There are instances in the Bible of the unrighteous behaving in a more moral manner than their righteous counterparts. And, if they are there in Scripture, we are certainly here in life. I have said and done some quite unlovely things in my time. There are many moments in my everyday life that, were they captured for posterity, would provide an unbelieving world with every excuse to shun my company.

Listening to our midweek sermon on the sixth commandment, quite a number of the difficult things the minister had to communicate resonated with me. I have never slain anyone nor, I hope, caused them injury. But Christians can’t cop out on ‘do not kill’, ticking the box and smugly assuming it’s one we’ll keep in perpetuity. For, if you’re anything like me, you will have breached it many times.

In Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, a collection of the hymns, blessings and incantations of the Gaels, there is a fascinating account of how the bean-glùine, or village midwife, would baptise a newborn infant prior to the rite being carried out by clergy. She begins her description of what she would do, with these words: ‘When the image of the God of life is born into the world . . .’

The essence of the sixth commandment is in her words – that we should regard one another in this manner throughout our lifetime: each one of us, as James said (3: 9) ‘made in the likeness of God’. When we look at our fellow human beings, we ought, as we would with a valuable piece of jewellery or porcelain, to seek the Maker’s mark because it is certainly there. His thumbprint is on each one of us, including those that you and I find it difficult to love. Our prisons are filled to the brim with God’s creatures, just as are our churches.

And our schools are where we send these images of God to be educated. Yet, nowadays, there is no certainty that your child will hear the name of his Maker spoken in that place, except possibly as an oath. Parents who have sought to eradicate Him from their own lives, are busily turning God out of schools, so that no one dare mention His name there. We take away moral authority, and then we throw our hands up in the air in wonder when it all goes wrong.

The commandments are linked to one another. You cannot begin to dilute one without it affecting how another is observed. As a society, we have all but dispensed with the first, foundational requirement: honouring God as God, and placing His wisdom far above our own.

Secularising forces tell us that religious belief is on the decline. Research bears out the truth of what they say. Most people don’t believe in God, so they must be right. That’s a majority of people who think this world is better run by humans, with no reference, and certainly no deference to supernatural agency.

We don’t believe in God, so we don’t defer to His supremacy. And we don’t respect His Creation – the world, or the people in it. Our own wisdom is king. When we die, we die, so we may live as we please ‘as long as it hurts no one else’. But who will decide what hurts others, when all anyone cares about is pleasing themselves?

It’s just not working our way –please, can’t we go back to His?

 

 

 

Gaelic Rock, Gaelic Soil and Community

Next Saturday will be a valedictory one for Gaelic rock, as Runrig perform for the very last time. The week preceding promises to be good for Gaelic soil, marking as it does, the fact that so many acres of this beautiful land are now under the care of those who love them best. This, in case you hadn’t heard, is Community Land Week.

It was probably Runrig who contributed most to the awakening of my consciousness of the land issue. When, at age ten, in the centenary year of the Crofting Act, my eyes were first opened to the fact that I lived at the very edge of political power, I began to see the importance of knowing the hand which history had dealt my people. But my love for the music of this band directed my questions – most of which they had asked before me.

In the song, ‘Fichead Bliadhna’, we have the very real anger of young Gaels, demanding to know why they had learned the history of every civilization on earth but the one to which they belonged. Nothing else Runrig has done, however, compares to the album, ‘Recovery’, for making this very valid point. It is filled with an awareness of how much land and crofting have shaped who the Gaels are.

When I was a teenager, still in school, I used to have to purchase the ‘West Highland Free Press’ in secret, and smuggle it into the house. My father had not outright banned it, but he disapproved of its (Labour) editorial bias. I didn’t exactly love it for that myself, but I adored the opinion columns, and the feeling that even local politics here in the island were important.

And now, in this one week, it feels as though all those strands are somehow weaving back together. While I was thinking about this blog, and letting the ideas percolate in my brain, I listened again to ‘Recovery’. It is just as I remember it, raising past wrongs and the small acts of heroism which brought about change. Its closing track, ‘Dust’, brought something else to mind as well, particularly the line that runs, ‘Oh deep the faith and pure the light that shines inside and guides your people’.

You see, my upbringing wasn’t just one of social politics and the plight of the Gael. I, like everyone else of my generation, was steeped in the history of another people whose relationship with land was also a bit complicated: the children of Israel.

It was in connection with them that I was startled to hear the minister use the term ‘security of tenure’ in church recently. Being the central plank of the 1886 Crofting Act, it brought the horror of eviction without just cause to an end. We can scarcely appreciate its importance today, however, if we do not know what went before. That was very much the point that Runrig made so well.

The children of Israel received security of tenure in their covenant with God. Land apportioned to them as part of this was a blessing and only became otherwise whenever the fifth commandment was breached. In other words, when familial relationships broke down, that land of promise became nothing more than a mere commodity to be fought over.

Land is frequently the focus of division – challenged wills, unseemly squabbling over croft tenancies, sibling rivalry carried to the extent of litigation. It is no coincidence that, when you look at the archaeological record, fortifications developed very swiftly after man ceased to be a wanderer on the face of the earth, and began to lay claim to particular territories. Homes were reinforced against marauding intruders; smiths fashioned swords as well as ploughshares.

We are fortunate in Lewis to have so much control over our land, and it is appropriate to celebrate that fact with a special week of events. It would be quite wrong to take the blessing for granted because it is not actually ours by right, but by providence.

Stewardship of God’s providence is not a task to be undertaken lightly, and it is reassuring that it is being done more and more by people who are well-informed, and who genuinely care for the land.

My only worry is when I see attitudes manifest that would suggest land somehow takes precedence over people, which it ought not. Conservationists wish to protect the wildlife and its habitat, even at the expense of human society. Crofting has done much to shape who we are – it has formed the landscape, to an extent, and it has maintained a population where there might otherwise be only ruins and cold hearths. And, in its turn, crofting has been afforded legal protections which allowed a little security, a little breathing space and, eventually, the chance to develop and grow.

I want what is best for the place in which I live. Most of the people here do. We may differ in our opinion on what that is, or how to get there, but we ought to be able to do that respectfully, and without malice.

It was Runrig, channeling the prophet, Isaiah who said it best, I think, in the one song of theirs that I never really liked – ‘Alba’. They sang the prophet’s words in Gaelic, about the accumulation of wealth which so often comes in the form of land:

‘Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.’

This week, and all the time, community is every bit as important as land.

 

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Casting Providence on the Minch

I was sitting in church a couple of weeks ago when one of the elders came in with a mixing bowl on his head. Not balanced on his head either, like a graceful woman of Biblical times heading to the well, but worn like a tin hat, as though auditioning for a budget version of ‘Dad’s Army’.

Now, in case you’re thinking our services must be very visually entertaining in the Free Church, I should clarify something. This was a weekday, and the church was empty. The gentleman in question was running a pop-up charity cafe in the Hall next door, and I was there to welcome visitors and show them around our place of worship. None of which really tells you why he was wearing a bowl on his head, I confess. It was mine and had, originally, contained potato salad. He was, I can only assume, trying to be creative in his manner of returning it. These arty types are all the same, and we must simply let them have their wee foibles. Although I’m not sure that’s what the Blue Book has to say on the matter.

We may make allowances for it being a busy time, the weather being warm, and even sensible folk going a bit . . . well, doolally.

When the Hebridean Celtic Festival is on, the population of Stornoway doubles. That is, the town which is the catchment area for our church, becomes even larger. A few years ago, this was not an issue for us: what did a music festival on the Castle green have to do with Stornoway Free – or any other – Church? Now, however, it has become very much a matter for our consideration. This year, we opened our church every single day of the Festival week, we had the two-day cafe (where most people managed to resist wearing the crockery), and, on the Sunday, we had our annual Free Breakfast @ The Free Church.

I don’t feel the need to explain any of this as I did a year ago. Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, getting alongside people where they are . . . these are surely well-understood facets of the Christian faith. But I will say this: it was an absolute privilege to be involved, and I gained a new perspective during all this activity.

On the Friday following the Celtic Festival, a couple who had come to Lewis for the whole fortnight, accompanied me to an outdoor service in Uig. For me, this was a refreshing in the midst of what had become a tremendously busy time. To sit on that beautiful hillside and be reminded of God’s promises in the context of our own island history, well, that was something special. I love Lewis, I love my church, I love our heritage.

And that was when it dawned on me.

Those summer weeks of sharing who we are, and what we believe, had taught me something. This is not just for us. So many visitors to the church had said to me that Lewis ‘still has something special’. They urged us to hang onto it. ‘Don’t make the same mistakes we did’, one lovely lady from Suffolk urged, ‘don’t let them chip away at what you’ve got here’.

She’s right; we mustn’t. For whatever reason, God has given us a precious heritage here in Lewis (and Harris). Every summer, He brings visitors to our shores. Those two facts are not, I believe, unconnected. I have long been convinced that our personal providences are not merely for ourselves. My experiences of grief and of secret discipleship and of spiritual attack, I share, because they may profit more than me. Likewise, then, our corporate providence, surely?

This is why we must, as Christians, be more open. It is why our churches have to be more welcoming. And – contrary to popular opinion – it is why we must resist the drive to make places like Lewis and Harris carbon copies of everywhere else. We are not a reservation, we should not live for tourists. Going on valuing God’s providence, however, and casting our precious bread upon the water, I think we will have something to offer our visitors all the more worth having.

Just because there has been a little time of apparent calm, however, please don’t think our island slumbers in peaceful waters. The eyes of the enemy are still upon us. This heritage we have from God, the evil one covets for himself – and he will use, indeed IS using, whatever means at his disposal to destroy it. We must be in prayer, not only for revival, but that we ourselves would not be the instrument by which, nor the generation in which, Satan achieves his goal.

Casting Providence on the Minch

I was sitting in church a couple of weeks ago when one of the elders came in with a mixing bowl on his head. Not balanced on his head either, like a graceful woman of Biblical times heading to the well, but worn like a tin hat, as though auditioning for a budget version of ‘Dad’s Army’.

Now, in case you’re thinking our services must be very visually entertaining in the Free Church, I should clarify something. This was a weekday, and the church was empty. The gentleman in question was running a pop-up charity cafe in the Hall next door, and I was there to welcome visitors and show them around our place of worship. None of which really tells you why he was wearing a bowl on his head, I confess. It was mine and had, originally, contained potato salad. He was, I can only assume, trying to be creative in his manner of returning it. These arty types are all the same, and we must simply let them have their wee foibles. Although I’m not sure that’s what the Blue Book has to say on the matter.

We may make allowances for it being a busy time, the weather being warm, and even sensible folk going a bit . . . well, doolally.

When the Hebridean Celtic Festival is on, the population of Stornoway doubles. That is, the town which is the catchment area for our church, becomes even larger. A few years ago, this was not an issue for us: what did a music festival on the Castle green have to do with Stornoway Free – or any other – Church? Now, however, it has become very much a matter for our consideration. This year, we opened our church every single day of the Festival week, we had the two-day cafe (where most people managed to resist wearing the crockery), and, on the Sunday, we had our annual Free Breakfast @ The Free Church.

I don’t feel the need to explain any of this as I did a year ago. Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, getting alongside people where they are . . . these are surely well-understood facets of the Christian faith. But I will say this: it was an absolute privilege to be involved, and I gained a new perspective during all this activity.

On the Friday following the Celtic Festival, a couple who had come to Lewis for the whole fortnight, accompanied me to an outdoor service in Uig. For me, this was a refreshing in the midst of what had become a tremendously busy time. To sit on that beautiful hillside and be reminded of God’s promises in the context of our own island history, well, that was something special. I love Lewis, I love my church, I love our heritage.

And that was when it dawned on me.

Those summer weeks of sharing who we are, and what we believe, had taught me something. This is not just for us. So many visitors to the church had said to me that Lewis ‘still has something special’. They urged us to hang onto it. ‘Don’t make the same mistakes we did’, one lovely lady from Suffolk urged, ‘don’t let them chip away at what you’ve got here’.

She’s right; we mustn’t. For whatever reason, God has given us a precious heritage here in Lewis (and Harris). Every summer, He brings visitors to our shores. Those two facts are not, I believe, unconnected. I have long been convinced that our personal providences are not merely for ourselves. My experiences of grief and of secret discipleship and of spiritual attack, I share, because they may profit more than me. Likewise, then, our corporate providence, surely?

This is why we must, as Christians, be more open. It is why our churches have to be more welcoming. And – contrary to popular opinion – it is why we must resist the drive to make places like Lewis and Harris carbon copies of everywhere else. We are not a reservation, we should not live for tourists. Going on valuing God’s providence, however, and casting our precious bread upon the water, I think we will have something to offer our visitors all the more worth having.

Just because there has been a little time of apparent calm, however, please don’t think our island slumbers in peaceful waters. The eyes of the enemy are still upon us. This heritage we have from God, the evil one covets for himself – and he will use, indeed IS using, whatever means at his disposal to destroy it. We must be in prayer, not only for revival, but that we ourselves would not be the instrument by which, nor the generation in which, Satan achieves his goal.

Revving Reverends and Remembering Revival

Being a Wee Free from Lewis, I am much more at home in the 19th century. So, it was in this spirit I pointed my car towards Uig on Friday evening, bringing two Baptist friends along for ballast. Not fast enough for our minister, as it turns out, because he overtook me in the Valtos glen. Then again, he was preaching, and needed to get into his frock coat and pince-nez before 7pm. His mission was to preach in the glebe at Baile na Cille, the site of the spiritual revival of the 1820s.

When the Apostle of the North addressed the congregation there in 1827, he reckoned their number was more than 7000. On Friday night, we were not 150. In the world’s eyes, this is evidence only of decline, of the irrelevance of the Gospel for our age.

The world, as I am fast learning, does not understand the way that God works. Even His own people do not understand everything He does – but we do trust Him, with very good reason. Down through the ages, He has been consistently faithful, and consistently God. We do not have to second-guess Him the way we do people, because He is not fickle; He is unchanging.

The God who presided over the Apostle of the North’s communion service in 1827, was also present on Friday, as Rev.James MacIver preached in that same glebe, from Psalm 126.

But, the world says, your numbers are so diminished: is your God losing His grip on power?

Psalm 126 is, appropriately, a psalm of revival. God’s people, in Babylonian captivity, struggled to maintain their faith. It is indeed hard to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Even here in Lewis, still so blessed by the Gospel message, people have tried to unseat God. There are days when we lose heart.

I have read accounts of revival, over and over. Times when God’s spirit came down in power are writ large upon our folk histories. Christians cling to those tales, holding them close, poring over them. And we have all wept, remembering this Zion.

But something I heard in Baile na Cille glebe encouraged me , even before the service began: the corncrake. It is a sound so reminiscent of my childhood that one crake and I am back in my too-hot summer bedroom in Newmarket, trying to sleep while these exasperating birds scrape out their song. And then, for years after that, there was silence; the corncrake was gone because the grassland was no longer managed as it had been. There was no safe nesting-ground, so these shy birds simply did not come.

But suddenly, one late summer, I heard the craking again. They had returned after years of absence. The conditions were right once more and they, it seemed, had not forgotten their former nesting ground. One wonders whether they had found it hard to crake so blithely in other lands.

In the glebe at Baile na Cille, the echoing and unmistakeable call of the corncrake chimed so well with the preacher’s message. God may seem to be inactive, to be silent, to be deaf – but this is the same God who brought the Israelites home from exile, who revived the spiritual deadness of Lewis, and who brought that little knot of people together on Friday evening. We were there, like the psalmist said, to remember God’s goodness in past times, and to pray – believing – that He would bring that miracle again.

Revival seems like a miracle from another age. There is something beguiling in the stories of people so in love with their Saviour that they would walk any distance to hear of Him. And the tales of their fellowship – not polite gatherings around home baking, but the kind of attachment that saw them unable to bear parting from one another, no matter how late the hour.

But I also wonder at times if my own attraction to the idea of revival is not a kind of spiritual laziness. You know, ‘please, God, convert all these people and fill all these pews because I just want to see instant results’. Am I praying for revival because I think nothing is happening? And do I think nothing is happening because I am not tuned in to the right channel?

God is not a cheap side-show magician. I do not believe He will simply gift us revival, or the presence of the Holy Spirit in such power, unless we strive for it. And I don’t think He wants to play a numbers game with us. It cannot be all about filling empty churches, just to satisfy denominational targets. We have to be hungry for it.

As I sat on a hillock on Friday (early, of course), watching other worshippers arriving in twos and threes, I felt that sadness, knowing we would not be seven thousand. But I was looking at things the wrong way.

God revives us spiritually, whatever the environment, whatever the outward appearance, just as he always has – one sinful heart at a time.

So, we have to do what we did for the corncrake – create the right conditions for growth, believing that He will send the Holy Spirit.

Just because something seems to be threatened almost to the point of extinction does not mean we should lose hope. Not when that something depends entirely upon the God who has been faithful always, and will remain so to the end of the age.

Blood Brothers are Watching You

Coming towards the Free Church Seminary on a Sunday morning recently, I fell into step with the minister. He opted to walk through the vehicular access gate, which is broad, while I used the narrower, pedestrian gate. We don’t deal in symbolism in this neck of the eaglais, however, so I’ll just leave that there.

I was going to the Gaelic service, something I’ve been doing, off and on, all my life. For that reason and more, it holds many pleasant associations for me. It was certainly in that building the Gospel first touched my needy heart, and it was there, in the packed Session room at the back, I first professed faith.

Just this week, I was discussing with one of the elders what an ordeal it can be, contemplating an appearance before such a large assembly. ‘I don’t think you were there the night I went forward’, I said, which he contradicted. Hours later, I recalled our conversation, and thought, ‘yes, of course he was there – right in my line of sight, smiling and nodding encouragement’. How on earth could I have forgotten that? Because, I think, my mind was in such turmoil before, during and after.

Needlessly, I might add. Because there is one other nugget which has remained in my mind from that evening. It was the minister, telling me how I belonged to the fellowship of God’s people, and how these men were now my brothers.

Of course, I already had brothers – two, to be exact – and a sister. So, I know what family is. It is, and always has been, an enormous blessing to me; a place of safety and support. But, in the interests of absolute honesty, I must add that we have the capacity to get on one another’s nerves, to have misunderstandings, and differences of opinion.

We could attribute our awkwardness to that unfortunate cocktail of Doune/Achmore/Ardhasaig/Newmarket genes. But the main reason for it is that we’re human, with all the selfishness, sin and ego that entails.

And so are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Because, although we are in Christ, we are also still sinners; works in progress.

There is a tendency to criticise unfortunate conduct in the church – ‘Christians squabbling/holding grudges/cheating/lying’. But take that word, ‘Christians’ away, and substitute ‘people’. Everything that is levelled at Christians is also true of the world.

The principal differences are that Christians should be more troubled by their own bad behaviour, and work to remedy it; and Christians are aware that they are being sanctified – it is, though, a process, and not an event.

This is largely a word  to myself, because I have struggled to hang onto these truths lately. In the midst of feeling a bit hard done by, I failed to subdue self, and I failed to judge myself quite as harshly as others. Or, rather, I wasn’t as magnanimous to them as I would be to me. And, as ever, I nursed my hurt to keep it warm.

But, just like my literal family, my spiritual brothers helped me get back a sense of proportion.

One or two of them dispensed sage advice, and more than a little laughter. They encouraged me to loosen my grip on grievance. And then, another provided me with a really humbling moment in a totally unexpected way. It was a song he shared, sung from the point of view of someone worried they had sinned once too often and that this would be the one where God turned His back.

I was cleaning the window as I listened, and the thought made me stop in my tracks. Imagine if I was in God’s place, with that power over people, and refusing to forgive. The idea made me shudder, picturing myself asking such a cold and unrelenting Lord for forgiveness myself. In that moment, knowing what my own heart is like, and how much I’ve been forgiven already, I did indeed start to relent.

God wasn’t quite finished, though. There was the other brother – the one perceptive enough to recognise that I needed support. No fuss, no fanfare, just what I have always had from him: quiet, steady and strong back-up. I know that I can turn to him when, as he puts it, ‘things get really rough’. And things will. The Christian life seems to be about riding out one storm, only to find yourself launched headlong into another. You might be sparring with secularists one minute, and slighted by Christians the next.

No matter: God has made provision for us against those days. He has given us a spiritual family. We will misunderstand one another, we will squabble, and irritate our brothers and sisters because we are human.

When the chips are down, though, as I have found, the family comes together. That the Church family is not perfect should surprise ourselves least of all – we can expect no such thing in this world. What does that actually matter, though, over against the eternity of blessedness awaiting all the children of the King?

Hold Your Tongue and Shame the Devil?

I have loved my denomination with an irrational affection which mimics what I feel for many human beings. Overlooking obvious faults, chuckling at foibles which irritate others, and even adoring the very character flaws which may repulse less tender onlookers,it’s only ever been the Free Church for me. Give me psalm singing, give me the blue book, give me the envelopes for the collection plate, and give me 1843.

But, my goodness, give me also a mind open enough to admit that NONE of those things are a substitute for a right relationship with Christ. And to admit that nothing is more important than that His salvation should reach the lost – by whatever means He chooses. It is, after all, in His hands, and by His design; not ours.

Last week, while I was halfway across Europe, a dream came to fruition on the lawn in front of Lews Castle. It was not my dream to begin with, but the vision of somebody who loves music, and who loves the Lord. When he first painted a word picture of how this evening would unfold, I was captivated by it – ‘people gathered together for praise . . . a single voice singing ‘Amazing Grace’ . . . hymns . . . praise bands . . . and the crowd dissipating to the strains of a lone piper, playing again, ‘I once was lost, but now am found’ – the heart’s cry of every saved soul, and their deepest desire for those they love.

That this idea came from  someone who thought that ‘Bangor’ begins, ‘oh, didn’t we have a lovely time the day we went to . . . ‘ just made it all the more winning. We are not all the same, and we do not all value the same things; but we are one in Christ, who loves us equally, and who gave Himself for the strummers of guitars, as much as for the hummers of psalms.

An old minister once, saying grace before a meal, was almost inaudible to his companions. ‘I didn’t hear a word of that’, one of them complained when he had concluded. ‘It wasn’t to you I was speaking’, came the swift reply. And so it is with worship- it’s for God, and Him alone.

Except, that’s not entirely true. It is also for us to find pleasure in worshipping Him. What does psalm 100 say – ‘enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise’ – but come to Him with that joy already in your heart and upon your lips. Glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. Anywhere and everywhere.

The more I go on in the Christian life, the more I realise its semi-solitary nature. Yes, the fellowship of God’s people is there as an encouragement but, I am bound to say that it can be equally dispiriting at times.

If I listened to the criticism, to the whispers, I would be far from lifted up by my fellow Christians. I have recently joined those legions who must be pilloried by their own for committing the heinous crime of organising worship in a tent. Faith Mission, Billy Graham, Grace on the Green – you name it, if it’s happening under canvas, these folk are opposed to it. And not so mindful of my feelings as a fellow Christian – a relatively new one at that – that they are prepared to pull their punches.

Some, recently, did not want people praising God in a tent when they could (should?) have been doing it in a church. Personally, I think He can receive all manner of worship simultaneously, wherever it emanates from – a cathedral, a marquee, a hovel, a ditch, a hospital toilet.

That last one, I can testify to. Let anyone – deacon, elder, minister, even – tell me that God grades our petitions according to where we are, or what we’re wearing, and I will call them false. I prayed more fervently in the Bethesda Hospice shower cubicle than ever I have in the Free Church. God met me there too, without a doubt – and yes, He answered my prayers.

This week, I have had to ask Him to answer prayer again – and it’s not so very different. I need grace not to say what’s on my mind, not to walk away from the whole sad and sorry denominational mess that we’ve created. Novice I may be, and whipping-boy for all the more ‘seasoned’ Christians, but I am going to stop the self-censorship right here, and ask my questions. How else is a new girl to learn, after all ?

Why is a prayer meeting in a church better than praise in a tent? How is it folk can come together to worship in the town hall, but not in one another’s churches?

And, doesn’t your Bible teach you about dying to self? Mine does. I’d rather hold my tongue than hurt another Christian, or harm the cause. Maybe I’ll grow out of that, though. One day, when I find where in the Apocrypha they’ve hidden the Book of Denominations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birds who Pray and Birds of Prey

Etiquette in Lewis is not like it is anywhere else. One knows, almost instinctively, for example, not to bring up a person’s Balallan connections in polite company. And we don’t need a manual to dress appropriately (no wellies after Ness Gala Day), or which implement to use first when lifting the potatoes.

It is possible, as it turns out, to know all that and yet, still commit a great social taboo. I know, because I did it myself.

‘Will you speak at our fellowship in Kinloch?’ I was asked, an invitation which I happily accepted. But in the breathtaking arrogance of the lifelong Wee Free, I forgot to check which denomination . . . for there are two.

‘Two!’ I hear your exclaim in disbelief. Yes, well, I mean in Laxay. Obviously we have others throughout Lewis – we are Presbyterians after all.

Anyway, I discovered the daftness of my assumption in time and set off with friends for an evening service in the Kirk. Or so I thought.

In another colossal breach of island etiquette, we actually went to the Free Church next door. Such is our indoctrination, and our fear of the Session, that we thought we’d better, or risk censure on our return.

No, not really. In fact, the Church of Scotland notice board declared that they would be having a Gaelic service, and my pal is a monoglot, so . . .

Eventually, we did make it to the Aonadh fellowship. A lifetime of ribbing my mother about her ‘inferior’ CofS upbringing, of questioning the validity of her own and my father’s marriage (it having been Kirk-rendered) . . . all words I’d have to eat, along with some excellent pancakes. Because – and nobody tell the Session I said so – they were a lovely congregation. Aside from some native character flaw which makes them all turn up at the last minute for things, they are a warm, genuine and welcoming branch of God’s family.

I knew they would be. It’s not simply that one or two of them were known to me before, nor my natural Lochie bias, what with the Achmore genes, but something else altogether.

It was God’s timing, and His hand I could discern. My visit to ‘the Lake District’ of Lewis had been planned for a couple of weeks, and it was a standard, share-your-testimony kind of plan. But, I knew, a couple of days before that, whoever else might derive benefit from hearing me, one person really needed to hear that testimony again: myself.

I was running, if not quite on empty, very close to it. Physically, emotionally and even spiritually. End of term, end of tether.

There have been difficult conversations around differences of opinion with other Christians. Not everyone sees Grace on the Green as what we intended it to be: an open-air act of public worship, and a nod to the place Christianity has in our culture, all to glorify God. Nonetheless, I appreciate those who addressed their disquiet directly to me, and who did so privately, as Scripture prescribes. No difference of opinion between Christians should result in public displays of pique. And, I might venture, no one should assume they know the heart of another, nor the prayers that have gone out from that heart. God knows, and He deals accordingly.

It has been predictable, but dispiriting. On top of everything else, it gave me a quick flash of ‘why do I bother?’ which, after prayer, dissipated. The freedom I enjoy in Christ is not going to be bound up by anyone else’s idea of conscience. Otherwise, are we really free?

God had prepared the remedy for me last Sunday, however. It was not the good Laxay air, nor the copious amounts of baking, nor even the warmth of the lovely fellowship. No, it was my own testimony.

What is testimony, after all, but evidence – an eye-witness account – of God’s goodness to us? This same God who took my time of unspeakable sorrow and raised it up as immeasurable blessing. It is to Him I pray, to Him I commit every day of my life, and to Him I look for guidance. My faith is sure because of Him, not because of me. And so, I know in whom I have believed. That is more than sufficient for my peace of mind. Remembering His goodness to me reaffirmed that; I rest on Him, and He is enough.

The doubting – and sometimes unpleasantness- of others can shake your confidence. You can begin to question your own judgment and even your own motives. But whatever is anchored in Him is sure and unshakeable. Sometimes you need to remember that all over again.

As I left Kinloch, one of the congregation stood at the door of the church with me, and pointed out two birds of prey flying overhead. Hen harriers, he thought, and I marvelled how he could tell from that distance.

And then I realised that his confidence came from knowledge and a practiced eye. I think we Christians would also know each other better if we spent more time getting acquainted spiritually, and remembering our unity in Christ.

Even from this distance, we should all be able to discern His marks on our brothers and sisters, and them on us.

Community – We’re All In It Together

North Tolsta is seriously lacking in celebrities and, so, they asked me to be the guest at this year’s school prize giving. My duties were to hand out certificates and trophies to the winners, and address all the children for five minutes or so, preferably without boring or frightening them – two things I struggle to avoid with most adults, let alone anyone smaller.

Co-dhiù, despite having been somewhat rudely referred to as ‘z-list’ by one of our councillors, I was still sensible of the honour bestowed upon me. I even had a few Princess Michael of Kent moments, placing medals around necks and handing over cups that were bigger than some of the worthy recipients.

I was also supposed to say something inspirational to the kids. Not really being that type, I decided instead to opt for saying something not too depressing. I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a more realistic goal for a gloomy Wee Free. After all, reared myself on a diet of loch an teine for heinous crimes like picking flowers on a Sunday, I have to be careful not to go too old school with my advice.

In the end, I went for something I feel strongly about – our community, and the need to put something back. It would be easy to forget the adage that it takes a village to raise a child, especially nowadays, when every man seems indeed to be an island. Children may not be as aware of the fact that they are part of something beyond themselves as once was the case, and it really doesn’t hurt to remind them.

Someone beat me to the punch, though, and far more effectively than my five-minute ramble ever could.

Willie Campbell and the school choir performed his lovely composition, ‘Innse Gall’, a tribute to the children’s island identity. It was so good to hear their young voices united in praise of home. There hasn’t been a lot of that lately. From where I’m standing, there seems to have been a storm of criticism, of complaining, of belittling. But precious little of the praise that is due.

Our home is beautiful. No controversy there. However, that isn’t really what I was trying to say to the kids, and I don’t think it was the message of Willie’s song either.

Personal achievement is a good thing, and much to be lauded when it is the fruit of hard work and dedication. No one makes the grade by themselves, though. Behind them are parents, families, teachers . . . a whole community, even. I have always relied upon the support of others, and have been peculiarly blessed by encouragers throughout my life. Sometimes these were teachers, sometimes family members, sometimes colleagues, sometimes friends. We all need that. It doesn’t matter how confident or ‘together’ a person seems to be, they will always benefit from a kind word, and to know that someone believes in them.

It works the other way too, however. Those of us who have benefitted from that kind of help have to be prepared to pay it back. Not out of obligation to those who have supported us, but out of a desire to please God, by whose grace we receive all that we have. The great encouragers of my life are all gifts from Him to me. And His placement of me in this unique and wonderful community, that also is His gift.

Community is a wonderful providence, bestowed in Eden when Adam was given a companion so that he would not be alone. We are meant to work together, and to do for one another, as well as for ourselves. But, there is one fatal flaw in all of us which makes it very difficult to act in this way. We can only do our best by others. How that is received is certainly not something we can control.

And you cannot legislate for opinion. You know, sometimes we will disagree about what is best for the place that we love. A few days before the prizegiving, that same community hall was the scene of some heated debate regarding proposed development for the village. Such plans are frequently controversial – but only because we leap to ascribe motive to others that would offend us if levelled at ourselves.

Years of active political campaigning has taught me the futility of this kind of attitude. I remember, as an eleven year old, my parents returning from a public hustings, and speaking of the hostile atmosphere and of verbal exchanges across the floor. Last week, I heard the same kind of thing again from my own family and neighbours, who had been at the meeting in Tolsta.

We can, all of us, get carried away by our love for the place that made us. It can make us strident, defensive, and even devious. But if we are truthfully going to teach these children what it is to love your community, and how rewarding it is to give something back, our example is going to have to be as good as our word.

In striving to make the place that we care for as good as it can be, are we really prepared to lose touch with the most important thing of all? By God’s grace, we live in an area of outstanding beauty, of unparalleled peace, and of almost total security. He put us all here to look after it, and to look out for one another. If we do it properly and with good conscience, we glorify Him.

That’s the example of community we need to be setting our young people. Nothing matters more.

 

 

 

No Nudity Please, We’re Leòdhasaich

Accompanying six Lewismen on a road trip this week, I met a work colleague at the airport. She said she had been trying to work out what manner of group we were. I could see her point. Too late for the General Assembly, too early for the AGM of the Crofters’ Union, and altogether unlikely that they were mature students on a field trip . . .
It was actually a delegation from the Stornoway Trust, heading for the mainland as fast as Loganair’s usual two-hour delay would allow.

We were going to be spending the best part of two days together in a car, and so I had a stack of questions ready, designed to flatter the Leòdhasach male ego, and based around what I assumed to be their main interests. Can you explain the offside rule? Which is your favourite brand of sheep drench? Have you really got your own tractor?

But, on the very first day, the unprecedented levels of nudity drove all such conversational niceties out of my head . . .

Returning to the hotel to change for dinner, I discovered my bed to be occupied by a scantily clad (well, naked) couple. The hotel had somehow managed to check me and them into the same room, and it seemed we had radically different plans for how to spend the evening.

As I explained my predicament to the horrified and ashen—faced receptionist, she offered me all manner of restitution. A room upgrade, free drinks, a unicorn . . . anything and everything to provide metaphorical bleach for my eyes.

Because that’s what we do with mistakes, isn’t it? If we can make everything look the way it should, and if we can make everyone happy again, somehow the bad events can be swept away, as though they never were at all.

In this case, my part in the whole business was sorted very quickly. A much nicer room, in a better location and with a prettier view, bought my silence. Well, not silence, exactly – what’s a blogger to do – but my temporary contentment, at any rate. Not so my roommates, I would imagine. Their grievance is greater than mine, after all.

They had their privacy breached, and I suppose, they feel some sense of shame. The grovelling required from management towards them must have been quite spectacular. Perhaps they will never feel secure in a hotel again. Indeed, I took a deep breath before entering my own replacement accommodation, lest there should be a family of gipsies encamped there. But it was fine.

Mistakes happen, and no one – not even this sensitive Wee Free widow – was materially harmed. The Trust has, of course, offered me counselling, but I don’t think I will accept. Not every mistake is so very easily swabbed away, though.

As fallible human beings, we can all too easily make the wrong choices, and be in a position where it is we who have to make restitution. Some good friends will forgive our worst excesses, whereas others will hold it all to our account. We are not, as a species, terribly forgiving.

Yet, we except to be forgiven. Nothing we do is ever so bad in our own eyes that we should be made to pay.

And I’m not talking now about the sort of professional lapse committed by the hotel management. I am talking about being at odds with our Creator.

The day after the debauchery, I stood on a hill with a quite breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside, including a large herd of red deer. All that, the work of His hand. And, all that in the hollow of His hand.

He made it, and He made us. No, correction: He made it, including us. We tend to see ourselves as something apart, something above. Even those of us who know that a Divine hand created the world and everything in it, we still see ourselves as being distinct from His other handiwork. And we see ourselves in that light, not because we actually are superior, or special, but because we’re out of sync. We fail to realise that God made everything as one functioning system. It was not the hills, or the trees, or the birds that caused the perfection to stall; it was us.

In fact, we failed far more catastrophically than any hotel booking system ever could. That glitch, however humiliating for several of the parties involved, was easily smoothed over. For us as a species, however, the perfect Son of God had to die. Nothing less would do.

Yet, we act, in all manner of petty situations, as though we’re something special. We withhold forgiveness from our fellow creatures – as if it was ever ours to give in the first place. I am not good at letting go of grudges, and my displeasure, once provoked, is hard to turn away. But, turn it I must.

Just as I reassured the tearful hotel receptionist that there was no real harm done, I need to look to the pet grievances that I harbour. I have been forgiven everything that ever mattered by the only One who could truly be hurt by my sin; who am I to stand on my injured pride?