Whose providence have we inherited?

Working in the College, which is situated right in the grounds of Lews Castle, I have always been aware of the legacy left by Lord Leverhulme to this island. It has been on my mind rather more this week, however, as I continue in my quest to be elected onto the Stornoway Trust – the body which administers the estate he gifted to the community.

I wish I could say I’m surprised at how little people seem to know of the history associated with the Leverhulme era, but it is one of the greatest frustrations of my professional life. The Gaels are generally ignorant of their own past: that is why it has been possible for many of the wrongs of history to be replicated in the present day. Those who do not learn those lessons are doomed to repeat their mistakes.

That is not what shocked me at all, then, but the response to what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment, left by an outgoing Trustee on my campaign page. He was echoing my endorsement of another candidate, and made reference to the importance of having a ‘God-honouring Trust’.

Cue shrieks and howls of derision. But – honestly – what did people think Christians were going to want, if not that? After all, if an organisation is not honouring God, where does it stand in relation to Him? Our nihilistic friends would probably say ‘nowhere’, but that is a child’s answer; God does not leave us that option. We are, quite simply, with Him, or against Him. And that’s fine, that’s free will; you make your choice, and you take the consequences, as with anything else.

So, you are – as an individual, God-honouring, or God-denying. And, as an organisation, the same is true.

Honouring God, for the Christian, is the foundation and framework of their life. It is their first thought and their best hope. I am a poor example of this, but I do try. When I remember, I ask Him that anything I do would be to His glory and not mine; I ask Him to keep me humble. Clearly, I do a very bad job because there are those in our midst who accuse me of thinking I’m ‘the new Messiah’.

Like we need another one.

So, I don’t make a great job of humility. But I know this, and I work on it, and with His help, I will be kept where I belong. And even when I am making a mess of it, and thinking that anything I’m doing is of myself, in my soul I know it’s Him – it’s all Him.

Which is why I do not understand why this man’s comment caused such outrage, even amongst some Christians. There was one suggestion that it was ‘undemocratic’ to define the Trust this way because Leverhulme’s deed establishing the body which would have oversight of the estate, made no mention of honouring God.

I think, in a week of reading and hearing some pretty astounding points of view, that one knocked the wind out of me most – like a punch in the stomach. Are we, honestly, at this stage, when we need a legal document to permit us to honour God? Do we really think that democracy – a manmade system necessary to mitigate against our sinful tendencies to exploit and bully one another – sits in superiority over the Creator of all things?

In His own providence, I had heard a sermon on our relationship with human authority, just last Sunday evening. Christians have a dual citizenship – in Heaven, in the highest sense, but also in this world. We are required to submit to rightful authority, as long as it does not lead us to sin against God.

The best way of ensuring this is to elect godly people into authority. And the best way of ensuring that we do, is to be a prayerful people. Our voting, our decision-making, our every action must be clothed in prayer that God will guide us to honour Him.

All of this, I realise, reads for those who suspect me of having a Messiah complex, as being a plea for ‘the church’ to hang onto ‘power’. No matter what I say, or how I couch it, my words will be warped and twisted and I will be described as a hateful and bitter killjoy.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that every Christian wants God to be honoured in all that they do. Therefore, in standing for, or serving on the Trust, in doing your day job – whatever that might be – in bringing up your family, in speaking with your friends, in living your life, that is what must come first.

I am still naive enough to hope that people reading this will understand, therefore, that this is how Christians approach service. They wish to honour God first and foremost; and so they should. Far from meaning, however, that they will neglect their duties to the people they are supposed to serve, the opposite should be true. Enemies of Christianity shout, ‘keep them out of government; sweep them off every committee’.

And, as in so many other circumstances of unbelieving life, there is no thought to the long-term consequences of a world without God. People are free to create power structures without Him – but there is a question that remains unasked by many, perhaps because it is too frightening even to contemplate:

If we remove God from every corner of public life, what manner of thing will fill the void?


Forgetting the Sabbath Day

Last weekend, I had to confront the idea that perhaps my teaching ability is not, as the Americans say, ‘all that’, when we had a quiz about Moses in Sunday School. Asked which two foods the Israelites had enjoyed in the wilderness, one team confidently wrote, ‘pigeons and napalm’.

Ah, yes, the diet of champions.

However, they did exceptionally well on the Ten Commandments, both teams recalling nine correctly.

They each listed the same nine. And they each missed out the same one.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

We joked afterwards amongst ourselves that we must be terrible teachers if none of the children remembered the fundamental rule of our faith. You would think, we said, sitting in a Sunday School, discussing the commandments, that’s the one they WOULD remember.

But, then, reflecting upon it afterwards,
I thought that maybe the kids had demonstrated something very valuable. Christ has told us we must be as childlike as them in our faith and in this, as in so many other of His teachings, I have not paid enough heed.

After all, there in our classroom, talking about the things of God, praying and singing Psalms of praise, and enjoying one another’s company, were we not living the very essence of the missing commandment? Was it necessary to remember the words when we were doing what they asked?

It actually crystallised for me where we are at locally with ‘the Sunday issue’. I have come to despise the word, ‘Sabbatarian’, which is invariably used pejoratively. It is not we Christians who believe that keeping the Sabbath is the fundamental tenet of our faith, but those who wilfully misunderstand what we are all about.

In fact, what we are – or should be – all about is John 3:16. Christ is the centre of our faith. We should be showing people Him, His perfect love and, yes, His authority.

I was not a Sabbath-keeper until I loved Christ. Even now, I am an imperfect keeper of the Sabbath by any human standard. But I love Him unwaveringly. And though my neighbours might judge me as falling far short because of my outward conduct, that is not how He operates.

My involvement, through this blog, and on social media more generally, in speaking up for the traditional Hebridean Sunday, has caused no end of misunderstanding. There have been times when I do not recognise myself from the descriptions of others. Surely, as I remarked to friends this week, that’s Ian Paisley they’re talking about.

Or, perhaps I have fallen into the same communication trap as the late Reverend. Have I been substituting noise and repetition for clarity? When I should be telling folk of quail and manna, are they just getting pigeons and napalm?

I know that there is a prevailing view among some in the online community that I am a hardliner. Sssshhhh. If you listen very carefully, you can almost hear the Free Church fathers laughing.

Right now, because there’s an election going on, there are efforts being made to portray some candidates – myself among them – as single-issue Sabbatarians.

Not only am I not a single-issue Sabbatarian, I am not a Sabbatarian at all. Certainly not the way the secularist lobby means it. And I would be very surprised indeed if any of my fellow Christian candidates see themselves as such.

As I said in the previous blog, I observe Sunday as a day of worship and devotion because I love the Lord. Before that, I appreciated a quiet Sunday because I loved and respected my heritage as an islander.

Different working-out; same answer.

It is not the day itself which matters, but people. God made the Sabbath for man, not the converse. He did it intentionally, though – and God’s intention always comes back to the one thing: the benefit of our souls.

Our souls are in need of rest and refreshing. Without Him, we try to find ways of achieving this. I know, because I speak from experience. Reading. Walking. Films. Time with friends. Sleep. And then, always that Sunday evening realisation that another week of work is about to begin and there will be no rest for five days.

With Him, though, it is different. There is no need for me to achieve that rest and refreshing because I receive it from, and in, Him. Constantly, though – every day. It is a well that never runs dry.

I am grateful for that every day and never more so than this week. It has been a time of cumulative stresses – a very intense situation at work; the inevitable (and increasingly creative) online abuse; and in the background, the knowledge that, three years ago this coming Tuesday, I was sitting by my husband’s bedside, watching his life draw to a close.

But I am a very blessed woman. None of these burdens are mine to carry alone. Every pressure and pain brings Him closer and, if He doesn’t come Himself, He sends others. His peace springs up from within to water the driest days.

And His commandments are no longer written on tablets of stone, but the heart of flesh He has given me.


How many Lewismen does it take to change my mind?

On Sunday morning, the message from the pulpit caused a wry smile from me – ‘following the Lord is an exciting adventure’. Hard on the heels of my reading at home (‘walk by faith, not by sight’) I felt like turning to the Lord and saying, ‘okay, I hear you’. And the thing is, you can speak to Him that way; He wants you to take absolutely everything to Him, to pour your heart and all its cares into His. He wants to hear from us, and He wants us to hear Him.

So, I heard Him. He had been speaking to me for a while on one particular subject. And this was Him, I felt, on Sunday saying, ‘you were right to listen, even if it took you a while’.

I am a stubborn individual who always thinks she knows the right way to do things. It physically pains me to watch other people struggling with just about anything – not because I’m kind or empathetic, but because I am always itching to take it from them and do it myself. Unless they’re doing equations, or changing a wheel. Or icing a cake.

So, I struggle with relinquishing control, even to the Lord. I am getting better at it, but it is inconsistent progress, and He has to keep pausing to wait for me.

For the last couple of years, I have been aware – as have many others – of a growing agenda in public life here in the islands. Anything that relates to the ‘typically island’ manner of doing things has been steadily inferiorised. There are those who seem to think that the way to a Lewisman’s heart is by criticising his culture. Those are people who do not understand Lewismen.

Then again, I also have my moments of that too.

See, God can use any manner of weak vessel to do His work – even the Leòdhasach male. He tried His best to speak to me through them, but He had worked His way through five coves before I eventually got the message. This is not because of their inability to communicate, but my reluctance to hear what they were saying.

And also, at least one of them was a bit of a mumbler.

When the first one suggested that I should consider standing for the Stornoway Trust, I told him that I had no time, reeling off a list of all the other commitments in my life. He’s a reasonable guy so, having planted the seed, he sauntered away. The second one to mention it got much the same excuse. And the third.

But, I was getting no peace about it. All the time I was resisting the very idea, the thought would not go away that it is not enough for us to be watchmen on the wall, alerting others to the danger; we have to be prepared to get our hands dirty in preserving what we value. What is the point in talking – or writing – while the thing you’re talking about saving is being dismantled about your ears.

They used to call it fiddling while Rome burns.

Those who have a secularising agenda have made no bones about the fact that they seek to impose change upon the island by getting themselves appointed or elected onto all the strategic decision-making bodies. And that is absolutely fine – it’s democracy in action; it’s legal; it’s strategic thinking.

So, if we don’t like what they are planning, it is clear that moaning about it is not the way forward. They have stopped making the numbers argument ever since a little Facebook group proved to everyone looking on that the heritage of Lewis and Harris means a lot to more than just the Christians in our midst. Keeping Sunday special for the 2000+ members of that group means just that. It does not mean foisting the will of church elders on the oppressed majority, or denying families the right to be together. We do not tend to be ashamed of those aspects of our own culture which mark us out; if we are ashamed, then perhaps we need to look at ourselves for the reason behind that feeling of inferiority.

The ‘oppressed majority’ have realised that they are not a majority at all. So now, in order to beat their oppressors, they are seeking public office every which way they can. They are prepared to serve because they believe in nothing, and want the rest of us to live our lives according to that.

How much more, then, should those of us who believe in something – in the greatest something of all – be prepared to serve our cause? Its very essence is service. Christ came to serve, and we are to be as like Him as possible in promoting His message to others. It does not matter if we are busy, or we are tired, or we feel inadequate to the task, because He is not actually asking anything of us that requires our strength. If we have that spirit of service, if we are burdened for His cause, then we trust in Him for the rest.

It’s a challenge, but it is one that the Christian can no longer afford to resist.

So, by the time the fourth fellow made his case, I was already beginning to wonder if it wasn’t the right thing to do. The fifth Lewisman called after I had prayed and come to a decision.

That is why I am standing for the Stornoway Trust. I am proud of my upbringing, of my Gaelic, crofting, Free Church, island heritage. For all my joking about the Achmore granny, and the Doune granny, and the Harris connections; for all my gentle irony about the foibles of the Wee Frees and a people sometimes ‘out both ends’, I love this place. There is not a lot wrong with it, and I’m tired of hearing that there is.

This is not a plea for votes, but a reflection on the fact that God sometimes inconveniences us by having a different idea of what we should be doing with our time.  Maybe it will only be for a fortnight, but as always when you listen to Him, it won’t be boring, and I am bound to learn something valuable along the way.

Dear Younger Me

In the last blog, I mentioned in passing my ongoing education in spiritual music. Although it was certainly a revelation to be told last weekend that there is no scriptural reason why I might not precent in church, there remain several very good musical (and, indeed, social) reasons why this would not work. I am in this, as in everything else, a follower and not a leader.

Of course, I was brought up in a tradition of singing Psalms. I love them for their sustaining wisdom, for their ability to speak to me in all circumstances. They have the power to heal and, just sometimes, the power to wound. If I am feeling vulnerable, Psalm 100 can tip me over into lip-trembling wobbliness, simply because it was sung at our wedding and . . . well, I’m only human.

There is, however, more to spiritual music than psalms. I have, by virtue of living in the world and having a mother who grew up in the Church of Scotland, some idea of popular hymns. Once, as a child, I surprised my mother by quoting ‘Blessed Assurance’, probably to help me win an argument.

A couple of years ago, I went to a women’s conference where, on the programme, the – to me – mysterious word ‘praise’ was printed at various intervals. I glanced about me, mildly nonplussed as to who would precent in a room full of dames.

Imagine, then, my surprise at what ensued. Musical accompaniment, and something calling itself ’10, 000 Reasons’. Not a clue. I scanned the song selection. Nope, nothing familiar here. A Christian gathering consisting only of women and no psalms, with added music.  To say that I had been catapulted out of my comfort zone would not be an exaggeration.

The women thing, I realised, was just a blip. Once the Session got to hear about it, I was certain that those responsible would be punished and normal services would resume. But, my eyes – and ears – were opened to the possibility that there was another kind of music out there; that there were ways of singing your faith that didn’t have to be metrical.

My exploration of the possibilities turned up a few singers that I could get along with. There is, after all, absolutely no excuse for bad Christian music. Who has got more reason to sing than us? Like the hymn says, ‘I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free’.

Yes, I’m still quoting hymns. Old habits die hard. But I am also having my musical horizons broadened.

A friend supplies me with seemingly random links to songs he likes, sometimes when I least expect. During a recent public trial by secularist hate mob, he sent Matthew West’s ‘Grace Wins’ – ‘Take a breath smile and say: Right here right now I’m ok because the cross was enough’.

The best songs will do that, just like the word in season, the shared reading: God speaks through it, reminding you who He is and that nothing will overwhelm the person who puts their whole life in His hands.

But then there was the intriguingly-titled, ‘Dear Younger Me’. This is something different because it explores what we might say if we could go back and speak to a younger version of ourselves. The dilemma, of course, is whether you would warn the young you about the pitfalls that lie ahead; whether you would try to head yourself away from dangers and bad experiences. Would you not try to spare yourself pain?

Perhaps there was a time when I would have answered that question very quickly in the affirmative. Why would you not want to spare yourself suffering? It is, after all, how we are expected to behave towards others; why would we not want to do ourselves the same kindness?

Is it a kindness, though? Yes, if you look on that span of life between cradle and grave as what concerns us most. But for the Christian, that can never be the case. The journey we are on here is towards a destination in heaven, yet we are not simply plodding, there, head down; we are being equipped for it as we go.

Not a day passes without me thinking of my late husband, and missing him in countless ways. This time of year, though, I think of how hard it was to fear losing him, to be told I would lose him, and to watch him die. And how much easier it was to know he had gone, and to Whom he had gone.

That is the difference, I think, between wanting to spare yourself burdens, and knowing what pain and loss and thoroughly unwanted providence can do for you in the longer-run.

The song says, ‘every moment brings you closer to who you were meant to be’. I know that if I could go back to Christmas 2000, to that person I used to be, I would not say, ‘See the man you met the other night, maybe don’t meet him for that drink. It doesn’t end well’.

In fact, if I was forced to meet her, 25 year-old Catriona, I would tell her two things you will also find in the song. First, I would tell her that life will bring sadness and joy, but that the deeper peace in her soul has nothing to do with either of those; and then I would tell her that whatever challenges come, she was never meant to carry them beyond the cross.

And if she asked me about the man she had just met. I would smile, and nod, and she would do it all exactly like I already have.

Other Christians I know, too, are a bit battle-scarred, and wondering the same sort of thing – trying to make sense of what they have gone through. If I had the courage, I would tell them the precious truth I have learned:

The roadmap may be hidden from my sight, but it’s hidden in God’s hand. He’s got this, dear younger me. And I would not have Him change a thing.





A Servant is for Life, Not Just Sundays

Last Sunday I was arrested in church. Before you imagine a group of burly policemen pushing past the elders – who would undoubtedly have tried to stop them – in order to cart me off, I didn’t mean it like that. In fact, I mean I heard something which struck me in its beauty and truth; something, believe it or not, about the deacons. Or, more specifically, about the duty of deacons.

It was this: deacons bring the love of Christ to the church in a practical way.

Yes, deacons – those guys who, in our tradition anyway, are seen as the money men, the fellows who hold the purse-strings and authorise paint jobs for the church vestibule. They are the ones who ‘do’. And their office is all too easily dismissed as being a bit, well, mundane.

Put it this way, if you were writing a novel about the Free Church (and, believe me, I’ve considered it), your hero probably wouldn’t be a deacon. They’d be there alright, but only in a supporting role.

Well, I say ‘only’ but, in Christian terms, a supporting role is the best kind. The main part has already been fulfilled.

There’s a song I love, (introduced to me by someone who has somehow ended up being responsible for my spiritual music education) in which Jesus is resembled to a hero who takes the stage when everything looks hopeless. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what He did.

Historically, He did. Spiritually, He does.

Almost three years ago, I thought my life was over. The person on whom I thought my world depended died. He left our home for what we thought might be an overnight in hospital; a week later I returned there, a widow at the age of thirty-nine, and wondering how many years I might have to get through alone.

The answer? None.

I was not alone, because Christ was there, waiting for me to notice Him. Christ had been there a long time. Maybe even since, as a child of nine, I asked Him into my heart simply because I couldn’t bear to think of Him knocking and not being heard.

He is the main event, the all in all, the ultimate star billing. Yet, He waits in the wings like a supporting actor, and appears to take His cues from us. Only when I turned my grieving heart towards His did I even know He was there.

That was when He took centre stage in my life. Just when I thought everything was finished, He walked on.

So, the bit-parts are for the rest of us. He is the hero; we are the supporting cast, as Christians. Deacons bring His love to the church in a practical way . . . but what are deacons? Yes, I know I said they’re the money men, the guys with the chequebook. But, in a wider sense, what?

Well, ‘deacon’ comes from the Greek, ‘diakonos’, meaning ‘servant’. And all Christians are called upon to have a spirit of service. That is why, in the best sense, we are, all of us, deacons. Yes, even the women. It isn’t about status, or titles – service never is – but about the satisfaction of serving a worthy Master.

This is an unusual Master, though. He is the starring role content to wait for a cue from the support act; and He is the Master who willingly became a servant. It is from Him we learn how to be the walk-on actors in our own lives, and the servants to the King.

Rendering service to Christ is not going to win you any of this world’s accolades. Even in the church, you may feel that the hours you put in, and the time that you give go unnoticed. And perhaps they do – by people. But you’re not working for people, are you? One lady I know who works hardest for Christ’s church has the truest servant heart, and never complains, or expects for herself.

Servants are often overlooked, or even despised. They may have their good name besmirched, their reputation degraded, and their heart bruised and beaten. But never, ever by Him.

He knows, you see, what it is to be a servant. We can only try at all because He first showed us how:

He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

This is the humble servant upon whom we are to pattern our behaviour. Our men who are deacons should follow Him in showing His love to the church in practical ways. Love is practical, after all: it changes lives.

But beyond the official designation of ‘deacon’, there is a whole church which ought to be showing Christ’s love to the world. Just as the deacons distribute the wealth of the church in the service of the Lord, we ought to follow their example in following His.

I can’t help reflect upon our own mission-field locally, and all the strife there has been recently between secularism and Christianity. The unbelievers, in their ignorance, think it’s all about Sundays. It troubles me that some Christians seem to think so too.

Our starting point with the world cannot be this. A servant does not seek to impose his own will, but, rather, to do his master’s. We will win no hearts for Christ by telling people what they must do and must not. No one will ever desire God’s law without first knowing His love.

And, if this community does not know His love, have I failed in my servant’s duty, to show what it is? Have I said too many words, and not demonstrated enough humility? Did I forget, somewhere along the line, to withdraw and let the spotlight fall on Him?


The Real Lewis & Harris

The minister crept up behind me and took the bottle out of my hand. ‘You’re going to need water in this’, he lectured, ‘or this stuff will burn right through’.  I was caught off guard.

It’s not that my fondness for the Laphroaig has got the better of me, in case you’re wondering. No, it was screen wash. And before you think, ‘mo chreach, how far she’s fallen’, it actually was intended for the reservoir under my car bonnet. Not to be trusted with such a masculine endeavour, though, I was rapidly surrounded by a quorum of the Session, and the task taken out of my daft wee hands. They probably thought I wouldn’t manage the child-proof lid.

Sometimes, though, I have to admit that it’s nice when someone comes along and says, ‘shift, you handless clown, I’ll do it’. Not that I’m suggesting for one minute that those were the minister’s words. (Actually, I believe his exact opener was – in Gaelic – ‘what are you up to now?’). That other kind of impatient takeover was more the style adopted by my brother two weeks before when, on communion Sunday, heading to church, my tyre blew out.

It was good to have someone capable – though crabbit- to sort it out, to hand me the keys of his car and to save the day. And it was good to see the minister pour an entire bottle of concentrated screenwash into the windscreen washers because if, as he suggested, it destroys the rubber on my wiper blades, I can blame him. Sort of.

But then there are those things which we have to do ourselves, which no one else can do for us.

I have been to many wakes and funerals simply because, although no one would have missed me if I hadn’t been there, I needed to do it for someone else’s sake. Friends, colleagues, neighbours who have all done as much for me too. Life teems with obligations that we don’t want to fulfil, but are constrained to. We do these things because they are the right things to do, because they are part of life in a community like ours.

A community like ours. Lately, I have been wondering what that is. If you are to believe half of what you read about it in the press, it’s the kind of place where ministers creeping up behind you are most likely planning to influence your vote. Or intimidate you into standing for council.

I have been speaking to a growing number of people who feel that something very precious to them has been trampled underfoot by a vocal minority making this kind of claim. There are, I appreciate, those living in Lewis who do not necessarily share my love for the culture, nor indeed my positive experiences of being an islander where, every six days, the pace is dialled right back.

This, it has been widely suggested, is old-fashioned, embarrassing, anachronistic, a disgrace, and an all-round poor show. Those of us who value all aspects of our heritage have been mocked or lambasted by turns and  told repeatedly that there is nothing so very unique about this island.

Oh, but yes, there is.


This island – the Long Island of Lewis and Harris, that is – when the chips are down, will never cease to amaze. It is a community with a mind of its own and a fierce pride in its identity. Don’t ever try to second-guess what we islanders will do because we sometimes don’t know ourselves until we’ve done it.

I did not know what the reaction would be to the creation of a pro-Sunday group on social media. Three of us had spoken about it before, but during my lunch-break on Wednesday, I had one of those dangerous, ‘what the heck are we waiting for?’ moments.

I had just re-read a ludicrous interview in a national newspaper in which one resident compares life in the islands to the experience of those under Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps it was an off-the-cuff comment, exaggerated by a canny journalist; I don’t know. But, if people are going to persist in the fiction that says this island is under an oppressive regime run by men in black suits who rig elections, but are still not too big on it to notice whether you’ve left a blouse on the line on Sundays, well, there has to be a counter-narrative.

It hardly needs saying that there is a world of difference between an existence under the Sharia regime and the maintenance of a much-loved traditional way of life, which contributes greatly to the winsome character of Lewis and Harris.

But ‘hardly needs saying’ can no longer equate to us remaining quiet. If we value it, if we want to keep it, we have to be prepared to say so.

Our group has started off well and, within 48 hours, had a membership of 1700 and rising. People are sharing reminiscences, photographs, gentle jibes; the group has Christians and those who are not; there are island-dwellers, island-lovers, and emigrants; there are born and breds and here by choices. It is, in short, a microcosm of the Lewis and Harris we recognise and love.

And it has done something that we have not been able to say in a long while – it has united this community behind a common purpose.

That common purpose is, itself, unity.

Standing up for what we believe, and for what we hold in high regard, is a duty that no one else can fulfil on our behalf. But, as I always knew they would, the islanders have risen to their obligation admirably.

This, I can say with some confidence, is the Lewis and Harris we want the world to see.

Men in Black and Other Legends

There was a loch in the moor near where I grew up, and it held a strange fascination for us.  Quiet Sunday walks with my siblings often drew us in that direction. But we always went with warnings from our parents ringing in our ears, regarding mysterious lights and a certain eeriness about the place. My grandfather had warned my mother of its uncanny nature, and she, in turn, was warning us of the same.

Stories abounded throughout the islands, of the each-uisge, the water horse. This mythical creature could assume the form of a handsome man, to entice an unwary maiden, and once she was totally taken in by this charming stranger, he would assume the form of a horse and carry her back into the depths of his watery home.

It is not difficult to understand what the true social function of the each-uisge story was – it performed the dual role of warning children against lurking strangers, and of hanging about near water.

The each-uisge belongs to a world of Gaelic folklore which has largely been consigned to books and the archives of local historical societies. It is part of that great corpus of ‘dualchas’ which the Calvinists destroyed in a rush of evangelistic fervour. St Patrick may have banished the snakes from Ireland, but John Knox went one better and drove the eich-uisge out of the Highlands.

All my life I have been hearing that the Free Church did away with our colourful traditions – our ghosts, and our fairies, our witches, our evil eye and our eich-uisge.  Then again, I have also been hearing how it oppresses women and no one has put a gag on me . . . yet.

It amuses me to think that, if it were not for the Disruption of 1843, and all the hard-line fellows in black hats and collars, we would all still be putting out a dish of milk for the fairies before going to bed. Perhaps the local secularists would be mocking us for pouring our beer into the Minch to appease the sea-god, Seonaidh, instead of deriding us for our Christian beliefs. They might even be calling for the closure of pubs on Sundays to prevent us from indulging the superstition.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Free Church was born out of a great act of faith. Ministers and congregations turned their backs on the security of manses and stipends for the uncertainty of a new denomination, loosed from the bonds of patronage which had so stifled their spiritual freedom.

Of course, it was not uncertainty as the world knows uncertainty: they had put their trust in God and knew that He would prosper their endeavours for the furtherance of His kingdom.

This church taught a people hungry for the good news of the Gospel how they might be set at liberty. In the context of forced eviction, of emigration, of famine, of grinding poverty and of disease, the Gaels were hearing something that really does change lives. It was this: none of those things, no earthly suffering, can actually steal the peace from your soul that comes from placing your faith in the risen Christ.

And sometimes, I think we see Him most clearly against a backdrop of fire and pain.

Fire and pain, of course, are not things we desire for ourselves or our loved ones. And atheists will tell you that the idea of suffering outside of Christ is just a story invented by theologians to keep us all under control.

Hell is the Calvinist each-uisge, a story told by ministers so that they can keep the population subdued.

To what end, though? Ministers trudge up the pulpit steps in order to rain down fire and brimstone on the heads of their congregations, threatening them with hell and damnation so that . . . what? So that they can keep their unearned reputations as control-freaks? So that they can be caricatured and vilified by turns? Or, is it really as the more hysterical elements in our midst suggest, all about the fact that they are in a secret pact with the Comhairle to ensure that no one enjoys themselves more than is strictly necessary?

Of course, it isn’t any of those things, as even the people saying them surely know deep down.

The Gaelic folktales warned of theft by the fairies, or drowning by water-horses because people could not see past the threat of sudden death. This is why Christianity displaced superstition, because once people had their eyes lifted to the true horizon, they would never again be in thrall to a fable.

And the only fable we have left is the one which tells people that the Wee Frees are angry and narrow-minded men in black, oppressing the daft women who follow along in their wake.

Saying it over and over does not make it true; telling it to the gawping national media does not make it true. Unlike the traditional tales, this one loses something with every retelling.

Meanwhile, those who think themselves simultaneously wiser than, as well as put-upon by, the power-hungry Calvinists, are at risk of being borne away by a legend of their own making.








Outwards and Upwards

My late husband used to carry a photo in his wallet – just one, mind you. It wasn’t a picture of me, however, but of another young lady entirely, one he loved with his whole heart.

She is his niece, Joanne – beautiful to look at, and one of the most consistently happy people that I have ever known. To hear Joanne laugh is to have your day brightened unexpectedly.

She was born very early and, as a consequence, has faced many challenges in life – her vision and hearing are both limited; she cannot walk or speak; she is fed via a peg in her stomach. Joanne has spent a lot of her life in and out of hospitals, and she has been a worry to her family and friends on many an occasion. This week alone, she has been staying in hospital suffering from – amongst other complications – pneumonia.

Her parents are an inspiration. Not because they are remarkable in any way that is outwardly obvious, but because of their commitment to her. They would not want to be portrayed as heroic because they are not: they are simply loving their daughter; it just happens that loving Joanne requires more practical application than it might if she did not have so many health problems. The crucial thing is that Joanne has problems; she is not, herself, a problem; she is a blessing from God.

Those who are unbelievers struggle with the idea of children suffering under the eye of a benevolent and loving God. I understand their confusion; we think that if God loves, then He will not permit it.
But, the evidence of our own experience teaches us that this is not so. There is suffering. Many of God’s own people go through unimaginable hardships.

So did God Himself, though.

He knows what it is better than any of us, and so He does not shrug His shoulders and walk away from the person who is afflicted – God is NOT watching us from a distance. Scripture even tells us that He hovers over us like a broody hen.

Donnie once asked me why I thought Joanne had to bear so much in her young life if there really is a loving God. I don’t know what I said at the time – my answer would have been wholly inadequate anyway.
He had the most compassionate heart of any person I have ever known – Donnie came closer than anyone to actually being able to feel other people’s suffering. There were many occasions when I told him that his conscience was far too active, and that he could not take on the problems of the whole world. His reaction to every crisis was automatically, ‘what can I do in this?’ It took me sometimes to point out that not everything was his responsibility.

His mother, by the time I first met her, was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. Donnie’s patience and care of her spoke volumes about the kind of person he was.

One Christmas, after washing up the dinner dishes, we went for a short walk in the early evening, leaving her at home for just half an hour. When we came back, she had emptied the cupboards of every single item of crockery. In a worried voice, her big, dark eyes full of concern, she told us, ‘There’s a child missing, and everyone is out looking. I’m making tea for them’.

And it’s actually now, writing this, that I realise who he took his enormous empathy from.

Finally, it was his own turn to suffer. It is one thing for your heart to be exercised for others in their hardships, but the way you conduct yourself in the midst of personal pain surely speaks volumes about who you are. He never wavered. I didn’t expect that he would.

It is a measure of him that he had far more pity for Joanne, and for his mother, than he ever had for himself. He did not ask ‘why me?’ Not once. In fact, I have often recalled how, many years before, when his friend was terminally ill with cancer, Donnie said to me, ‘imagine if that was one of us, how the other would feel’. His attitude was always , ‘why not me?’

I believe he knew how to conduct himself in the midst of his own suffering because he had gone through it with and for others so many times. He suffered less for himself than he had for those around him. Even the last few entries in his diary are full of compassion for me, not pity for himself.

I understand that aspect of his character better now through closer acquaintance with our Saviour. Sometimes, Christians believe that they are entering the ‘fellowship of His suffering’ by enduring hardships in this world, but I can’t think that this is what Paul meant at all. God does not ask us to suffer in order to enter His fellowship – we identify with Him in His suffering for us.

As ever, it requires nothing from us but our faith.

What our own trials will do, if we allow them, is bring us closer to Him. Like a hurt child, we hold our arms up to the Father who knows how to comfort. It is, in every sense, an inside job for Him: He has been there Himself, and He heals the bruises that the rest of the world simply cannot see.

On February 22nd, 2015, a month before he would pass peacefully from this world, Donnie wrote in his diary of his love and concern for me, and of his gratitude to, and trust in, God.

I thought then that it was a good way to die. But, as I have since learned in facing this journey without my husband, it is also a very good way to live.

Look outwards at others, and upwards to Himself, and your own pain can never overwhelm.

Not to be Read by Unbelievers

We were all gathered together in the church hall, when the minister picked up the microphone, fixed us with his most intimidating gaze, and asked, ‘who reads the Bible on an electronic device?’

There was an awkward silence. People tried to avoid his eye. I sat, rooted to the spot in terror, thinking, ‘so this is how it ends’. In my paranoia, I even wondered whether he would be able to tell me for a Kindle-user, just by looking. ‘Put up your hands if you have the Bible on an electronic device’, he ordered in his most threateningly reasonable tone. Still, no one moved. None dared.

And then it happened. A miracle. In the finest ever ‘I’m Spartacus’ move, his wife raised her hand. The whole atmosphere changed in an instant, and suddenly hands were in the air all over the room.

I held my breath. What would happen? Surely this show of defiance could not go unpunished. Yet, what could he do when his own wife had openly admitted to using modern technology herself?

Finally, he spoke.

‘I see’, was all he said.

And then I also saw. Sitting there, with a wireless microphone in his hand, he could hardly castigate his congregation for indulging in the odd Bible app. Especially when his own household was patently guilty of making forays into the modern age.

I wondered whether this was history in the making, a momentous event that would be recorded forever as the night the Wee Frees in Stornoway were finally forced into the 21st century.

But then I remembered – no, of course, that could not be. It had already happened . . . sometime around the end of 1999, I think.

However, it is important to be fair. People cannot help conceiving ill-informed ideas about an organisation that is secretive, and a closed shop. Besides, if it seeks to exercise power and control over an entire community, surely its leadership could be more transparent, less misogynistic,kinder, less controlling . . .

That same day, the membership had been told not to read anything written by me, and not to show anything written by me to others. The decree was issued online with no right of reply, and with an Orwelllian postscript that it would be removed from view in due course.

Who did this, you ask – the Moderator, surely would be the only one with that level of power. Or maybe the Presbytery – was it them? Surely no individual minister would be so egomaniacal as to exert his authority in this way . . .

Oh, you mistake me; I’m not talking about the Free Church. My local elder used to visit the house once a month to check the contents of my bookcase, right enough, but they’ve reduced the visits now to three-monthly. I cunningly hid all my offensively heretical books behind the Diary of Kenneth MacRae and Leabhar Aithghearr nan Ceist, which seemed to satisfy him.

No, it isn’t the Free Church telling its members what to read and what not to read. The organisation which seeks to ban certain writers, and to control what its membership looks at online is not the repressive Wee Frees; it’s the tolerant, welcoming people ‘of all faiths and none’ Western Isles Secular Society.

Yes, like a tinpot dictator, one of their administrators has prohibited my blog from being read by WISS members, or shared to the group.

The reason, of course, is that the last time it was dragged back there, the unruly hordes picked over it and in a frenzy of hatred, unwittingly revealed their true colours.

I was variously described as ‘disgusting’, ‘rude’, ‘racist’, ‘spiritually immature’, a ‘zealot’, ‘an embarrassment to the fellowship of the church’, and an egomaniac in pursuit of martyrdom.

Officially, they must not read it, speak about it or do so much as coimhead an taobh a tha mi because I am an intransigent troll.

But, in reality, they must not read it because there’s a danger in being exposed to the truth. Some things are only recognised as broken when they are held up against the light.So, it is safer to preserve them in darkness.

The secularist response to that blog has made me pity them more than ever. Though they hissed and spat, and even tried to use Scripture against me, it isn’t me they fear at all; it’s Christ.

He is so inconvenient, shaking the foundations of their fictional world. And because they don’t want Him, they attack any who try to speak about who He is and what He’s done. They won’t silence Him, though. If Christ intends that any or all of that Society should hear Him and bend the knee, then hear Him and bend the knee they shall.

It shouldn’t surprise me that the Western Isles secularists have obeyed this edict not to read my work; these are the same people who want their own children ‘protected’ from the Bible because it doesn’t tally with their world view. If they are prepared to attempt silencing the voice of God, I can hardly expect special treatment.

Let me not, though, hear any further suggestions that they are the voice of reason and tolerance, over against the oppression and control of the Free Church.

One has afforded me a voice; one has silenced me. The leaders of one have encouraged me to think for myself; the leaders of the other have suggested that I am incapable of such a thing.

They don’t want Truth. Pilate asked what it was, even as it stood before Him; they are not prepared to risk Christ getting that close.

One day, I hope they’ll be grateful that it was never up to them.





Immovable Object, Irresistible Force?

In his excellent, ‘Lewis: A History of the Island’, the late Donald MacDonald makes the following comment about the churchgoing people of his native land:

‘The religious communities in Lewis are extremely devout. In addition to the two two-hour services held on Sundays, there are midweek prayer meetings. There are also special meetings for communicants and, every year, two communion services are held by each congregation, one in the Spring, and one in the Autumn’.

I would question whether spending six or so hours per week in public worship is any great sign of devotion. It is, rather, indicative of the extent to which other things fill our time – work and family life being the principal distractions when the above was written.

And yet, my own description of church life would be little different today. In a typical week, I attend church twice on Sundays, each service going no more than ten or fifteen minutes over the hour. Mid-week, the prayer meeting lasts for about the same length of time. Our congregation marks the sacrament of communion four times a year, with special preparatory services each time.

We are, as a churchgoing people, more like the world than we used to be, in that we spend less time in community with one another than in years gone by. The spontaneous house gatherings have all but gone, just as the unannounced visitor who would enter your home without knocking is also a thing of the past. In both the Christian community, and the secular world of Lewis, opportunities for the young (in experience, perhaps, as well as years) to learn from their elders have diminished. They come together in neither the taigh-cèilidh nor the taigh-adhraidh.

Our young people are no longer growing up in a secure environment, where God is the acknowledged Creator of all things, in whose hand we rest. They are increasingly encouraged to figure things out for themselves, to look to science – in all things, essentially, to rest on their own wisdom, or the untested wisdom of self-declared wise men.

I am always suspicious of people who admit to there being no higher authority than their own, anyway. Frankly, I don’t know how they can suggest such a thing with a straight face.

But the lack of understanding cuts both ways. I don’t get where they are coming from and they, as is becoming all too apparent, really do not know what Christianity is either.

I don’t want to get into another controversy here. Recent experience has taught me that there is not a lot of secular tolerance of my Christian standpoint; reading and reflection has taught me that this is because the greatest opponents of my faith are people who think they understand it, but don’t.

So, I thought that I would try to lay out, as graciously as may be, what it is I believe, and why.

If there are still any secularists reading my blog after I so offended (and, apparently ‘intimidated’) them with my thoughts on the emptiness of their creed, I would like them to make a bit more effort to understand that my refusal to compromise is not personal; I am not saying, ‘I refuse’, I am saying ‘I cannot’.

A Christian is someone who is persuaded that Christ willingly died for them, and in being resurrected that He defeated death so that it could no longer claim any hold over His followers. The eternal life to which a believer is reborn is spiritual, and it begins the moment they accept Christ as their Saviour. Professing faith – in Lewis, usually ‘going forward’ or becoming a church member – simply means that you are outwardly declaring your oneness with Christ. Inwardly, the believer experiences a deepening spiritual relationship with God through Christ. The more you know Him, the more you want to know Him.

As a Christian, I am aware of God acting in my life – of His interventions on my behalf, of His protection, and of His rebuke. I communicate with Him through prayer; He communicates with me through the Bible and through His providence and, indeed, His people.

Without Christ’s willingness to be the sacrifice for my sin, I would be leading a bleak life in a world without hope. If I had not accepted that same Christ as my Saviour, I would be leading an ultimately meaningless existence with an end destination whose name is desperately unfashionable, but whose reality is undiminished: Hell. Because, despite my inherent unworthiness, He has redeemed me from that eventuality, and because of His gracious dealings with me more generally, I feel immense love towards Him.

I am fully aware that this sounds hilarious to the unbeliever; I was once pretty nonplussed by it all myself.

So, I maintain a position of obedience to Christ, not because I think myself perfect, but because I know that I am not, and never could be. I am obedient to Him because I love Him, and want to please Him. In that light, Sunday is a special day for me because, untramelled by working day cares, I can focus on that relationship with Him, and fellowship with His people. It is God’s gift to us – not a burden to be borne, but a privilege to be enjoyed in the fulfilment of our destiny as people.

That destiny is that we should glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Whether we accept this or not, it is fact. And it is such a relief when we finally accept it, giving up our pointless rebellion that leads nowhere good.

I don’t write what I write, ministers don’t preach what they preach, in order to upset anyone. It really isn’t about power, or control: it’s about love. We have something so wonderful that we want everyone else to share it too.

Not because we’re nice, or good but because He has shown us how to love others, simply by loving us first.