Drawing Out the Poison

I recently gave a talk on the power of words to heal and to harm. It was an exploration of the role played by incantation and charm in the field of folk medicine. This harks back to a time when our forefathers – and, more usually, our foremothers – used all their native wisdom in curing sickness with nothing to hand but nature’s own bounty.

They might chop up the root of lus nan laogh and boil it into a horrible brew which, despite its unbeguiling appearance, could soothe various stomach complaints. The leaves of this common bogbean might, on the other hand, be used to make a poultice for the drawing out of toxins.

I am no wise woman. Although I know a little about the use of plants and seaweeds to cure sickness, my understanding is purely cerebral. There is no instinct, no practical magic. It is possible for me to speak and write about such things because others before me have recorded their wisdom on how to use God’s providence in healing the sick.

God’s providence, as I have frequently observed here, is rarely for the individual alone. He neither gives nor takes spuriously, and we should not see His dealing in our lives as random. 

Right back at the beginning, when I started this blog, I wanted to share my experience of being a young widow in the Free Church in Lewis. Tired of hearing the worn-out, sellotaped together stereotypes of Wee Frees, I have tried to tell it like it is from the inside. I am not an official spokesperson (the men wouldn’t let me) and so I am free to say how things feel from where I stand.

I write for myself first. If I am struck by something, or chastened, or inspired, or filled with righteous indignation (everyone’s favourite), then I pick up a pen. Words are healing for me and it is my prayer every day that mine would never cause harm to others. Many who know me probably won’t believe it, but the last thing I would ever want to do is hurt anybody’s feelings. This is not because I am particularly good, but because I know for myself how the words even of  strangers can cut, and I have no desire to be the one inflicting that pain.

Sometimes, though, my writing seem to act more like a poultice, drawing poison to the surface and revealing just how toxic a situation is. When I have discussed social issues and attitudes which are contrary to Biblical teaching, I have brought the full venom of anti-Christianity down on my head. We live in a society, you see, which is pleased to call itself ‘tolerant’ but has way more rigidity and rules than a Wee Free could dream of in a hundred lifetimes.

I do not presume to pass judgement on lifestyles and experiences which are alien to me. Naturally, when I see something that is evidence of a life lived out of step with God, I am moved to pity. Not condescendingly or patronisingly, I hope, but as the person in the lifeboat spotting a man still drowning.

A lot has been said – much of it unjustly – about Christians and their ‘intolerance’ of anything at odds with how they perceive the world. I would like to see the balance redressed a little, and make a plea here for a bit more respect to be shown towards Christ, and the people who follow Him.

It would do my heart good to go a whole week without being exposed to the phrase ‘so-called Christians’. I received an email recently, peppered with those loathsome inverted commas and all that they imply. Then, there are those casual, yet incredibly arrogant value judgements from non-believers: ‘if you were any kind of Christian’. In the same week that I was threatened with being reported to the minister for being on the Stornoway Trust (he knows, he rigged the vote), I was told that no ‘good Christian’ would be involved in public life.

I wonder what the world thinks a ‘good Christian’ is? One who smiles all the time and helps old ladies cross the road? A bland, simpering person with no opinion on anything? It is my belief that those looking on from outside the resurrection expect their Christian neighbours to be perfect.

But in a world where there are no absolutes of good and bad . . . what does perfect look like? 

Well, I think I know. You are to agree nicely with everyone, even if their words are like shards of metal in your eyes. Never tell anyone they are wrong, or that their actions are an offence to God. In fact, the perfect Christian the world wants to see would never mention God at all. He spoils all the parties, all the marches, all the little lies we tell ourselves in order to make sin acceptable.

That’s why, whenever I write about our sin-sick society, there is a renewed outpouring of venom. It is the reason for the anonymous messages, and the belligerent emails. No one wants to hear that there is another, better way.

But it doesn’t matter. God’s truth has always acted like a poultice on us – as individuals, and as a society. We may rail against the remedy He offers, but when the greatest of all physicians chooses, He will cure all our maladies. 

The poison always has to be drawn up before healing can begin.

 

Somewhere Under the Rainbow

All eyes are on Stornoway this weekend. It is hosting its first ever ‘Pride’ march, and the usual suspects are waiting, with baited breath, to see what ‘the church’ will say. Here and there we have seen the anticipatory wee asides – ‘what will a certain institution say?’, or ‘time tolerance came to Lewis’. And that, far more than the march itself, makes me sad.

If we are to retain community – not ‘religious community’, or ‘gay community’, or any other subsection, but the really integrated kind – we have to stop defining ourselves in opposition to what we are not. 

I have to hold my hand up here and admit I don’t understand what ‘Pride’ is meant to achieve. Modern society in the west can hardly be accused of not knowing such lifestyles exist. It surely is not about raising awareness, then. Neither can it be about rights because people who fall in under the LGBT banner have all the legal rights they’ve ever campaigned for. So what is it for? 

The only thing I can think of is that they’re marching for acceptance, to be normalised by people like you and me. But you cannot demand that people approve of you – you cannot foist a change of heart on total strangers.

As a Christian in the modern world, I know this very well. I am not entitled to liberally share my opinions wherever I please, nor to demand that others ‘tolerate’ my beliefs. In fact, where my faith comes into conflict with contemporary society, it is always I who must moderate my behaviour. If I was being honest about my opinion on this march, then, I’d have to say that human beings, marching under the banner of ‘Pride’ – for anything they are or have done – is utter anathema. An encounter with Jesus is enough to tell the haughtiest, most self-satisfied of us that pride is the last emotion we’re entitled to feel in regard to ourselves.

But, as I said, the march itself is far less of an issue than the opinions it has brought to the fore.

Some Christians in our midst have chosen to speak out against the lifestyles ‘Pride’ celebrates. I don’t think that’s particularly helpful. The condemnation of the world never brought one lost soul to Christ; but His love can reach anyone. Showing forth that love, and its influence in our lives, that’s what we can do for those who feel they live life on the periphery. It was the condemnation and judgement of her neighbours that kept the Samaritan woman from the well. But it was meeting Christ there that brought her true liberation, and made her free indeed.

She couldn’t have known that following Christ also makes you an outsider in this world. I don’t call myself persecuted, because I am still allowed to carry a Bible in public, to worship openly, and to speak to others about my Saviour. However, being a Christian does make me an object of some people’s hatred, and many people’s misunderstanding.

Just last night, I received an email from someone, via this blog. They were responding to my most recent post, and suggested that no Christian should have any involvement in public life here in Lewis. Every time they used the word, ‘Christian’, it had inverted commas around it – the inference being that those communicants holding any kind of elected office cannot genuinely belong to Christ. 

As a believer, I am repeatedly judged by unbelievers. They will pronounce on the falseness of my faith, the impropriety of my conduct, the tone of my debate, my lack of grace, my lack of love, my ignorance, my unfitness to hold public office, my unkindness and my intolerance. I do not meet their standard of what a Christian ought to be, because I am not perfect; and also because sometimes, I have to disagree with the things that they do.

Mercifully, for them and for me, God is not so unreasonable. He doesn’t expect perfection from sinners like myself; He only asks that I follow Him, and tell others to do the same.

So, for the marchers today, I pray for a removal of groundless pride. Not to be replaced by shame, though, as they might expect; only God’s love and grace, which cover a multitude of sins. The rainbow of His promise belongs to everyone who claims it as their own.

Lies, Daft Lies and Social Media

Say what you like about the coves of the Free Church, but at least they’ve never placed an exclusion zone around me. Despite all the very many reasons I’ve given them, they will manfully shake hands, and ask how I am every time we meet. Not so the gentlemen at the Stornoway Trust, where news had preceded me to Monday evening’s meeting that I might be harbouring a few germs. As I took my accustomed seat, they all cowered around the far end of the table, and I sat, marooned, in a sea of empty chairs.

As secret societies go, I have to question now whether it was really worth all that effort from the Kirk Session to get me in.

But, no, I can’t do it. I can’t go on letting the Session take all the blame for putting a dim-witted blone in against the people’s will. Besides, the people aren’t fooled, as at least . . . oh, I’d say three or four of them tell us almost daily. They know, you see, they know where the connections are.

I am compelled, therefore, to admit that I lied to the electorate. Someone – a stranger to me – has used the hashtag, ‘lies for votes’, and she’s right. It was, you might say, a sin of omission. You see, I failed to declare that I’m related to another trustee.

Now, don’t despair. I’m not a Soval. Surely you’d know – the moon would have turned blood red at the merest hint of that about my person. Nor am I connected to any of the Rudhaich, not even the one with whom I share a surname.

The surname is the clue, you see. But I’m devious and, back in 2003, concealed my true identity by getting married. I have hidden from the electorate that I am a MacLean, just like Calum. Well, not exactly like Calum – he spent many years of his working life in Point, and I’m simply not that strong – but vaguely related.

So, yes, I concealed our connection. It is just another fib in the tissue of duplicity that I have apparently woven about myself. Actually, while I’m at it, I should say that it’s also possible that my granny once gave up her seat on the Achmore bus to a third cousin of the Factor.

That’s full disclosure now, honestly.

Oh, wait, no, there’s more. I was once married to the Convener of the Comhairle. He won’t remember; he wasn’t really involved – it was very brief and, I suppose you’d call it a marriage of convenience. Actually, it was a lie I told a persistent fellow in the Ness Social Club to get him off my case. When I told him I was married, he asked who to, so I simply pointed out a nearby Mr MacDonald. A convenient untruth.

People used to accept this about Lewis, though: it used to go without saying that folk would be related to one another, and it certainly didn’t used to be a problem.

However, if people want to throw hissy fits about people being related to other people, so be it. They will find that there’s really very little they can ultimately do about it. We’ve all heard the adage, ‘you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your relations’. It being so much a matter of providence, then, are we supposed to live our lives around those with whom we happen to share a bit of DNA, or a big nose, or a tendency to be a bit rag? Must I avoid any and all walks of life where relatives might have preceded me?

That’s plainly ridiculous, and ought to be treated with the contempt it deserves. In mediaeval times, certain families were recognised as having particular skills and they became the hereditary pipers, physicians, bards and so on, to the Lordship of the Isles. Not nepotism: dùthchas. But people weren’t so paranoid then, because they knew their community better.

Social media will turn a mountain into a super quarry, though, given even half a chance. And that, my friends, is where we do need to pay a bit of attention. There are reckless individuals who think that it’s acceptable – even as they talk community – to defame others with vocabulary like ‘corrupt’, ‘liars’, ‘brown envelopes’ and ‘lining their own pockets’. Not one shred of evidence is offered for any of this, and the lie is gleefully shared by others for whom it’s expedient.

The danger in all of this is that we lose sight of what’s actually important. For my own part, I support projects for our island that I believe have the best chance of being delivered and actually benefitting the greatest number of people.  Does my mere belief in a particular way of doing things make me a liar, or corrupt? Is anyone entitled to throw those kinds of accusations around about a fellow member of the community, without a jot of proof? And is defamation now an acceptable substitute for reasoned debate?

What has gone wrong in our midst that neighbours can dehumanise one another to the extent that feelings and reputation don’t matter? Or, indeed, that the truth doesn’t get in the way of a good story? If your case is sound, you don’t need to defame other people to make it.

I’m afraid that saying ‘community’ over and over does not necessarily mean you have its best interests at heart. Not when you’re prepared to tear it to pieces in pursuit of what you want. The word itself originated not as a noun, but as a verb – we would all do well to remember that before we speak, or write, a single syllable.

 

 

 

Were there no men?

One hears that drugs are more readily available than ever, but to be offered them at a Free Church event was, frankly, rather shocking. I was speaking at the Women for Mission away day in Inverness last weekend and mentioned that I had a mild headache to the young woman sitting next to me at lunch. In a trice, she’d spoken to one of her contacts, and I was passed a foil strip, containing two ibuprofen. If we WILL encourage them among us, I suppose it’s inevitable that they will bring aspects of their youth culture into the church.

That headache notwithstanding, I had a glorious trip.

I flew out on Friday evening, and spent the night in a rather luxurious bedroom at the Drumossie. ‘It’ll be like a wee holiday’, my mother said, and she wasn’t wrong. Fluffy robe, fabulous shower, cheeky Laphroaig . . . A wee glance at my notes after dinner, and a deep sleep in the middle of a tennis-court-sized bed. It has been a pretty exhausting few months between one thing and another, and this was a gift from God: a brief oasis to recharge my mental and physical batteries.

But the spiritual battery, well, that got the best treatment of all. What an absolute privilege it was to be among two hundred of the Free Church’s finest oppressed, and to get a palpable sense of God’s love in these women.

Some particular encounters stand out for me. First of all, there was Megan Patterson, the other speaker. Aside from the fact that it is immediately obvious she is a very special person, her address left me completely humbled – something which did me absolutely no harm at all on that particular day. Whatever struggles I may think I have had, hearing someone with her missional experience always puts my own ministry in perspective as the small thing it is.

And then there were the three amazing women who spoke on behalf of Bear Necessities. What warmth, what humour, what simple goodness. They are the very essence of Christian service, and radiated the kind of love that makes me want to be a better person.

I met two women who are also widows, like myself – only, not at all like me. They are the kind of people whose faith shines out of them and you know, the minute you meet them, who guides their life. We discussed what it is to be a widow in a church setting, and whether there is something we could do collectively for those that are. Losing the person you had hoped to spend your whole life with has a particular effect, I have found, on your ability to cope with certain challenges. It may indeed be of benefit to find others who are on that same journey.

It was a particular gift to me, as well, to finally meet a lady from Tolsta who was able to speak to me about Donnie. In fact, she unexpectedly reduced me to tears – not in the usual way that Tolstonians have, but because she spoke so warmly of him that he actually became real again. She worried that perhaps she shouldn’t have mentioned him just prior to my second talk (yes, they had to endure me twice) but, actually, it gave me something in the day that was uniquely my own. Life has changed in the three years since his death, so that I sometimes feel I don’t know this woman who writes and speaks, and generally bombards innocent bystanders with her opinion. But, in that moment, I was anchored back to someone very special, someone who also used to make me want to be better than I am.

The outgoing chairperson, Rona Matheson is another of those people that you feel you’ve always known. She had, like myself, blown in from the Hebrides, after a whistle-stop tour, speaking about her work with Blythswood. And she shared something from one of her island experiences. She was interviewed for Isles FM’s ‘GLOW’ programme, by its . . . well, let’s call him ‘laid-back’ host, for I feel ‘cognitively-challenged’ would be going a little too far. In true depressive Leòdhasach style, he had asked whether the comparative emptiness of our churches made her downcast. Her answer is a reminder to us all about perspective, and how it can make or break a situation. Rona said that we are always better being thankful for what we do have, than bemoaning what we do not.

What good advice. But how inclined we are to sit down, weeping, as we remember our own particular Zion.

I had spoken about the attention we must pay to our own hearts, that they would be ever-prayerful, attuned always to God. Proverbs 4: 23 reminds us to guard our hearts, because it is from them that all we do will flow. In fact, I think that true prayer, like water, is purest at its source – and the wellspring of our truest prayer is always our heart, not our lips.

A day like last Saturday is so helpful. I was beginning to feel the weariness of a too-busy life. Repeatedly, I have promised myself – and others – that I would take a weekend to go and chill out somewhere. Of course, it hasn’t happened. So, God gave me this particular blessing. Every obstacle was smoothed over, and I arrived back in Stornoway into the darkness and rain, renewed and refreshed.

And even my mother didn’t ask ‘were there no men?’

 

 

 

Tilting at Windmills

Before my first meeting at the Stornoway Trust, I imagined a wood-panelled room, thick with pipe smoke and whisky fumes, where crotchety betweeded men would growl at me from behind broadsheet newspapers. Or, perhaps some kindly, avuncular figure might pour me a sherry and offer me the comfortable chair, while they and the other fellows got on with the important business of the day.

And, it seems that I’m not the only one who thought this was how it would be. I have actually lost count of the number of people who have asked me things like, ‘is it awkward being the only woman?’ The answer would really have to depend on what you mean by ‘awkward’. There was a meeting recently, which the Chairman rounded off with, ‘right, gents, I think that’s us’, whereupon they all left, while I sat politely, waiting to be dismissed. When the staff arrived the following morning to find me still sitting there, that was quite awkward . . . But it’s more than made up for by all the times we’re having sandwiches, and I get the only side-plate.

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It isn’t the awkwardness of my femininity that worries most onlookers, however, but the weakness of it. There are many, many people who tell me that I have quite obviously ‘had the injection’, ‘taken the pills’, or – most intriguingly hi-tech of all – ‘had the microchip implanted’. Clearly, I am incapable of reaching any sort of mature conclusion myself, without being somehow led by these overbearing fellows at the Trust.

While this is very insulting to the gentlemen in question, I know they are quite capable of defending themselves, given their years of practice at the faing. I take exception, however, to being painted as someone so weak-willed, so stupid, and so negligent of my responsibilities as to let others tell me what I believe.

But, the sad fact is that I do feel much more self-conscious about being a woman since joining the Trust. Its not just that I’m asked to leave the room whenever indelicate matters like drainage are discussed. Nor is it the fact that I’m the only one carrying a handbag to meetings. Indeed, it’s really nothing to do with what goes on in the boardroom at all.

No one around that table disagrees with my views simply because I’m a dame – they may disagree because I’m wrong, or because they’re wrong, or because our priorities differ. They may try to persuade me to change my mind, and they may bombard me with opposing views. But I have never felt bullied or dominated. And I’m not such a simpering half-wit that I feel the need to please them by sharing their every opinion. 

After all, I was married to a Tory for nearly twelve years, who stood quietly by, and watched while I campaigned for independence. It may have evaded Scotland, but I like to think something of it has rubbed off on me.

That’s why, if I thought larger-scale, developer-led windfarms were a bad idea for Lewis, I would bloomin’ well say so. I would say it to the other Trustees, I would say it in public, and – as my regular readers know – I would go on saying it until everyone took the complete buidheach. 

But, I’ve done that thing which some social media watchers seem to believe me incapable of: I’ve read, I’ve listened and I’ve learned- and come to my own  conclusion.

I would urge everyone else to do the same. Please don’t assume that, just because some voices are louder and more strident than others, that their confidence comes from being right. And don’t be fooled into thinking that repetition equates to truth.

The village I live in has a falling school roll. Our local shop has struggled for many years. We are home to an ageing population. For most of the eleven and a half years we were married, my late husband lived out of a suitcase – back and fore to his job at Dounreay because Lewis had no prospects to offer him.

Forgive me, then, if I am not overly moved by any argument which places environment above people. They are what makes a community – not bare moorland, not birds, not even tourists. 

I ran for election to the community landlord because I was tired of hearing this place being incessantly run into the ground. Of course, some people persist in the belief that I was pushed into it by those other overbearing men in my life: the Kirk Session. But the real truth is that I wanted to be part of something positive – something that would move us forward. 

And now, that’s exactly where I find myself.

We have a chance to create real economic and social opportunity in Lewis. I’m not talking about greed here either, or promises that Cromwell Street will be paved with gold. This is our first proper chance to create a sustainable future for our people, right here where they belong.

But don’t take my word for it. Do your own working out, and then decide: progress and a future here in Lewis; or more of the same – a suitcase that’s never unpacked.

My mind is made up. And yes, I did it all by myself.

(Was that alright? Okay, switch me to standby, boys).

 

 

Carried Away by Passion

If you leave the windows on the west side of your house open, there is a risk that the sluagh – fairy host – will come and carry you off to their own country, a land of enchantment and confusion. It was a little like that for me on Friday evening when some folk from the west (well, Barvas) persuaded me to a place where nothing much was as I expected.

Even although it was our communion weekend in Stornoway, I had agreed to go with these enchantresses to view a production of Bach’s St John Passion at An Lanntair. We were intrigued by the idea that a venue which has cultivated such a reputation for hostility to the Christian faith should be hosting an evening of sacred music. Of course, I do not yet begin to hope that this is any kind of a softening of their position: evidently, many people consider this work by Bach to be great music and nothing more.

How very wrong they are.

It struck me quite powerfully, as I sat in church the following night, listening to the visiting minister preach about the two thieves on the cross. Both were in the presence of God, both heard and experienced the same thing; but one went, blaspheming, to a lost eternity, and the other to glory with his Saviour. And in every place where the gospel is preached, that is potentially true. Some will hear and believe; some will go on rejecting the salvation message.

I would imagine that there were some listening to, and perhaps also performing in, the St John Passion who would fall into the unbelieving category. They may have the highest appreciation for Bach’s undeniable talent as a composer, and they may very well think the libretto attractive, but that will be as far as it goes.

Except, of course, that is never as far as it goes. In fact, their decision to utter, or even just listen to the words of John’s gospel places them in a position of responsibility. Every time you have the truth placed before you, there are only two possible responses: acceptance or rejection. There is no third box marked ‘appreciation’.

This glorious – and beautifully performed – work is still, at heart, a proclamation of the gospel message. It carries the audience through the harrowing final hours of Christ’s life on earth. Each time I read that account, I feel a potent mixture of things: guilt, shame, empathy, gratitude. But, of course, when I read the Bible for myself, I do so in faith; and when I hear the gospel message preached, it is from men who have been called to proclaim it.

If you do not believe John’s account, then it cannot touch your conscience, nor move your heart. But neither does it leave you as you were before you heard it. Every instance of the good news being broadcast provokes a reaction.

Many years ago, I said to my parents, ‘I’m off to Martin’s Memorial to see the Messiah’. Ignoring my father’s wry rejoinder – ‘I doubt it’ – I set off in the company of some equally unbelieving friends to enjoy an evening of sublime music. Despite the fact that it draws significantly on Isaiah, some of the minor prophets, the Psalms and the Gospels, it didn’t bring me, there and then, to Christ.

I was, however, sufficiently impressed to buy a CD of ‘The Messiah’, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, which I listened to many, many times. Even when I wasn’t reading my Bible, I listened, and even when I didn’t see any beauty in the feet that brought good tidings, I thought this the most glorious noise I’d ever heard.

Music of this kind, though, is more than just sound: it’s ministry. Closing our eyes so that we can appreciate the beauty is fine; closing our ears so that we do not hear the still, small voice is not.

Although I was not converted the evening I first heard Handel’s beautiful composition, its message resonated with me throughout the years. Sometimes, in church, a verse would leap out at me and I would recognise it from his oratorio – crooked paths being made straight; comfort ye, my people; by his stripes we are healed.

The reason for that is to be found, not in me, not in the beautiful music, but in the book of Isaiah.

God’s word will not return to Him void, but will accomplish what He has sent it out to do. I need have no anxiety for those hearing the gospel message in whatever form it reveals itself to them, because He has a plan – for every note, every recitative, every rest in the great and glorious composition of which He is the author and conductor.

Whether An Lanntair knows it or not, last Friday, it was beaming out the word of God into its own auditorium. And from there, none of us knows where it might go. Pilate asked ‘what is truth?’ while standing before its living embodiment; but God opens eyes and hearts where He will.

Yes, even in an arts centre in Stornoway.

 

Now the Precious Years are Gone

I was not part of the exodus from the Gàidhealtachd last weekend. The crowds making their way over land and sea were a mildly interesting sideshow – a filler at the end of the Gaelic news, a spectacle from which I tried hard to avert my eyes. It is certainly not that I don’t care for the music of Runrig, because they have been the soundtrack to my life since I can remember. These guys made a song of my outlook and experience over four decades and, all things being equal, I should have been there for the last dance.

Some things are just too much, though. Apart from that long-ago concert in the hangar at Stornoway airport, I shared every other Runrig experience with my husband. If I had gone to listen to them once more, I would only have spent my time looking for him in the crowd.

And so, I spent Saturday and Sunday in an island that seemed emptied of half its population. Sometimes, I would hear a snippet of their music on the radio, or catch a glimpse of them on television, and I would remember . . .

My mind goes back to the year that I turned fifteen, when they came to play in Stornoway, and I was just so excited at the prospect. And then, horror of horrors, a controversy broke out: their gig was going to clash with the preparatory services for the Stornoway communion. With any other band of their reputation, that would have been brushed aside. Runrig, though, were different. The date was changed, plans remade, and the Free Church minister in Stornoway received an apologetic phone call from Donnie Munro.

You are never too big, or too important to be respectful. This, after all, was the band that sang, ‘cum ur n’ aire air an Iar is air an àite a dh’ fhàg sibh/keep remembering the west, and the place you left’.

When I say that I grew up with them, I don’t merely mean that they were there as the years went by. I have already alluded to their part in forming my political consciousness, and for articulating the dumb love that I felt – feel – for home. Every year, when I speak to students about our history as a Gaelic people, I can do no better than quote Runrig’s ‘Fichead Bliadhna’. It expresses far better than I ever could the disgrace of successive generations kept in ignorance of their own past:

I learned many things
The English language, the poetry of England
The music of Germany
The history of Spain
And even that was a false history

Twenty years for the truth
I had to wait
I had to search
Twenty years of lies
They denied me knowledge of myself.

It was because of Runrig I took an interest in the Highland clearances, because of Runrig I cared about politics, because of Runrig I first read Carmina Gadelica, because of Runrig I discovered the land wars, because of Runrig I understood that Gaelic was more than just a dying language.

They sang more than merely big songs of hope and cheer: they were the singers in my bloodstream who have stayed mainline all my life.

Everything that matters to me about being a Gael, about being an islander – I can find it somewhere in the canon of this band’s work. Their polite and deferential approach to the Rev Murdo Alex Macleod in 1991 was indicative of something that owes much to the soil in which they were nurtured. Every word I ever heard them sing was shot through with love of place, love of nature, love of people and that matchless Gaelic spirituality that shaped our best lyricists. So many of their melodies recall congregational worship, with the psalms at its centre:

Song, sacred, eternal
Lift on high the voice of the people
Song, I am reconciled
Let it rise up from the moorlands

One of the most memorable evenings I spent in their company was at the now infamous gig on the banks of the Ness, when the deluge threatened to sweep us all away. We were, Donnie and I, soaked to the skin, shivering and muddy. It took hours to get back to the hotel, to get showered and warm, but we agreed that it was the finest of all our Runrig experiences. Until, that is, they came back to the HebCelt and we watched the sun set over Stornoway to their unmistakeable sound. Home, Runrig, and the man I was sharing my own last dance with, though neither of us knew it then.

Many have paid their own tributes to Runrig; most had the courage to be there with them as they said that aching goodbye. Mine, however, happened that night, out on the castle green. But Runrig’s own words, as always, speak for me more eloquently than I could ever do for myself:

But now I know and I don’t want to believe it
Where does it leave you now
That the precious years are gone

I know you well, you’ll be nothing but grateful
Never let it be said they were spent in thoughtless ways
Warm winds blow ‘cross the ties that bind forever
For a place in the sun and for the hearts of love a home

(Photo credit: Marie MacDonald)

 

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.