The Loneliness of the Socially-distanced Worshipper

We are now in that post-lockdown wilderness I dreaded, where no one seems very sure of what is safe, or what is lawful, to do. As so often happens with we humans, it has caused discussion of our plight to degenerate to levels rarely witnessed outside of the playground: ‘but they’re doing it, why can’t we?’ or ‘it’s not fair’, and, of course, ‘because I want to’.

Pubs, shops, hairdressing salons, and even restaurants are beginning to open up – just not places of worship. Children are scheduled to return to the classroom here in mid-August, but there will be no Stornoway communion at the month’s end. You may visit the zoo to stare at rare breeds, but the Leòdhasach èildear cannot be seen in his natural habitat (the suidheachan mòr) until late phase four, whenever that will be.

And, you know, I’m fine with that.

I will undoubtedly be called ‘selfish’ for saying so, but this is a personal blog, so it’s only to be expected that what you get is MY opinion. Here’s  my thinking.

The government did not wait until the virus had been eradicated, nor till effective treatment or vaccine was found; they opened up shops and businesses because this country, this world, is driven by money. It isn’t a Tory thing, or an SNP thing: it’s a people thing. Sadly, it’s all we know. Money is our security blanket. Without it, we are at the mercy of charity, and the mercy of our fellow men. Ask the 29,000 Scottish homeless how that’s working out for them, and you can begin to understand why we were all afraid for ‘the economy’.

So afraid were we that, suddenly, it was safe for businesses to reopen. And then it became okay for folk to stand one metre apart instead of two. Ask yourself why it is now we’re being told we must wear masks while shopping – could it possibly be that the government knows it has done something unsafe in permitting us to mix in such numbers?

So, yes, it’s the economy, stupid. That’s why pubs are open, but not places of worship. It’s why kids are going back to school in August, but I’ll probably be teaching my classes from home. The students I teach don’t need their mammies to stay at home with them, like the school kids would.

Churches are not businesses. Furthermore, they can do their thing perfectly well at a distance. We have been able to be out both ends on a Sunday whilst staying in, we have had our midweek prayer meetings and – I believe, ged nach e mo ghnòthach e – the Session meetings have also carried on. There has been Sunday school and youth groups. I don’t know about others, but my elder has conducted virtual visits, ensuring that his charges receive the usual high standard of pastoral care.

Besides all that, or, indeed, above all that, we have been open in ways that we have never been before. People are coming under the word who previously felt unable to attend church. That has to be a challenge for us, and the uncomfortable part surely is to ask ourselves why. What does online church have that physical church lacks? Or is it the other way around? Maybe it’s us, the visible church, that puts people off. And perhaps God is keeping us in this holding-pattern for that reason. Amidst all the cries of ‘I miss church’ and ‘I just want to get back’, could it be that God is reminding us that it isn’t all about the comfort of the saved. Is it just possible that he wants us in the wilderness, drawing others to him, instead of back in our time-honoured malaise of Sunday best and ‘fellowship’?

Besides, what would the benefits be to opening up? People like to cite the importance of gathering together. We are doing that. Online church is a gathering together in the spirit. It is possible to see and hear one another, using certain platforms. No, we cannot hug, kiss, or shake hands, but we won’t be allowed to do that anyway. And, I have a massive, personal objection to returning now. This, I guarantee you, will be a reservation shared by many.

Social distancing dictates that family groups and couples may sit together. Individuals – single, divorced, widowed – will have to sit alone in church. It can be a lonely enough experience going to church by yourself, but to have your singleness, your aloneness underlined in this way strikes me not only as uncomfortable, but unnecessarily cruel. I won’t be subjecting myself to it because it will not add a single thing to my relationship with the Lord. He is with me, here in my home, every minute of every day.

He has been in many homes these last three months. I cannot see online church as inferior because, in many ways, it has accomplished part of the great commission in which we were failing. The Gospel has been taken to the people where they are. God’s servants have stepped up to the plate and learned new ways of transmitting his message of hope.

Let’s not lose sight of that in the clamour to get back to ‘normal’. Normal is overrated.

Erase your Ebenezer?

If you are ever tempted to believe that the Free Church in Lewis has become less hardline of late, consider this: one of our ministers waved a bayonet at the children during a recent Sunday morning service.

Context is everything, however. He was using an ancient (and very blunt, health and safety fans) family relic to illustrate a spiritual truth. This wasn’t learn your catechism with menaces. He wasn’t threatening, or intimidating – and he was safely on the far-end of a camera anyway.

But, if I merely told you that he had wielded a bayonet at the children of the congregation, and left it there, might you not get the wrong impression? We human beings are terrifically adept at picking the erroneous end of any given stick, anyway. Sometimes, of course, we do it wilfully. It suits us to think the worst of those we don’t like, or those of whom we are envious. In such situations, it is all too easy to cherry-pick our facts and dwell on those that paint the blackest picture of all.

When I stood for the Stornoway Trust, I was accused of being ‘ashamed of my Saviour’ because I had not mentioned in my election address that I was a Christian. Now, my reason for omitting this information was simple: while I don’t deny that many people voted for me because of my profession of faith, I would never ask for anyone’s vote on that basis. Being a Christian doesn’t automatically qualify you for (or disqualify you from) public service.

What my accuser failed to take into account was the fact that I patently was not hiding my allegiance; far from it. However, he looked narrowly at my conduct in this one area and judged me – harshly, I feel – based upon it. For him, because I had not explicitly declared myself a church member, I was ashamed and guilty of denying Christ.

We are, all of us, guilty of something. Not one living person can claim perfection in this world. I freely hold my hands up and admit that I do not always speak up for Christ when and as I should. Worse still, my conduct is often far from what it ought to be, so that I am not even a silent witness for him. People can rightly point to Catriona Murray and accuse her of saying and doing plenty that is at odds with her profession of faith. And how much more evidence they would have against me if they could read my black and venomous thoughts. Let me be frank: I am cynical, sardonic, frequently lax in my prayer life, slow to forgive, self-righteous and narrow-minded. If I witnessed in proportion to what I owe, I would be a paragon; but I am not. What I am is a sinner, saved by God’s grace, and a work in progress.

Mercifully, other people’s opinions of me are none of my business. I have no control over them or interest in them. People will try to remind you of what you are at your worst – how many converted Christians are still spoken of in terms of their youthful excesses. ‘There was a day and he was in the pub every weekend, not the church’, and that sort of thing. The world doesn’t permit us to be changing and improving. It freezes us at our very lowest point.

That is why memorialising the past has become such a vexed question. Do we retain the statue of a man who made his money on the back of slavery? Are we right to permit the Duke of Sutherland’s image – ‘erected by a grateful tenantry’ – to remain, looking down upon the broad lands decimated by his plans of improvement?  The boardroom of the Stornoway Trust, too, is dominated by a portrait of our benefactor, Lord Leverhulme, a man whose exploitation of forced labour in the Belgian Congo does not cover him with glory.

So, what do we say about such people? Can we use the rather odd defence someone made of Knox recently when they accused me of judging him by modern standards: he was of his time? Being ‘of your time’, though, is surely a euphemism for just following the herd, being of the world. Knox was not falling short of my standard by being a misogynist; he was falling short of Christ’s. If we let Knox off the hook so easily, then we must make a similar defence for the Duke of Sutherland and Lord Leverhulme.

And that just will not do. Otherwise, we have to look around us, at modern slavery, at child labour, at homelessness, at abortion, at eugenics, at sexual exploitation, at the wilful warping of the education system, at the censorship of free speech . . . and we must wink at it, saying, ‘ah, it’s just the modern way’.

That’s the world’s defence of sin.

I would not remove the memorials. Leave the mannie on top of Ben Bhraggie, and keep the portrait of Leverhulme above the boardroom table. Remember them, though, not as stainless paragons, but as people in whom there was the capacity for both darkness and light. Make sure generations to come see them as three-dimensional.

And, more importantly, let’s think about what this controversy teaches us regarding image. Not the stone, marble or canvas variety, but our own fractured selves – made in the likeness of God, and marred by sin. We too, even if we are being restored, bear the hallmarks of fallenness. Somewhere about our person is the Maker’s thumbprint; it is this, and this alone, which preserves us from destruction.

For, if we were dependent on one another’s mercy, or on our own perfection, who would raise a memorial to any of us?

Getting married?

Now admit it: you read the title and you thought, ‘once was unbelievable, but if Catriona has duped a second poor man, I’ll eat my hat’. Well, no, it’s not about me. I am hosting a guest blogger – the one, the only (thank goodness!) Ali Moley. However, I reckon Helena deserves a mention as being at least part of the inspiration for this too.

“It’ll never happen,” they said. “You aren’t being realistic,” they said. “It’s very naive of you,” . . . “Maybe you’re mistaken?” they said

We began to have doubts.

Our wedding date was booked for Friday 26th June 2020 and all the arrangements had been made.

Many couples find the process of organising a wedding stressful, but we were actually, really enjoying it. It felt very satisfying to look for and find the best deals, to arrange the smallest detail to make our day as perfect as it could be, to be working as a team, sharing the duties and helping each other according to our strengths and weaknesses. It is something we both very much enjoyed.

And then Covid-19 hit us square in the face like a manky, coughing bat from the blue, turning the world as we knew it upside down.

The tears filled our eyes, and our hands clasped in prayer as the shocking media coverage began of China,and then Italy – over crowded wards, doctors crying, patients on beds, ventilated and dying, unreal because of the distance but gradually all too real with the insistence that the Coronavirus was spreading from nation to nation, getting ever closer to our own.

Day after day, images of poor souls gasping on ventilators were repeatedly shown while the TV Presenter read the rising death toll figures………..and unsurprisingly, the terror took hold.

No-one could have guessed how restrictions would impact our lives in the UK. Before lockdown, we hoped it might have a small impact for a short period of time. ‘Ach, it won’t last long!’ we said to console ourselves.

But then lockdown came.

At first the restrictions were novel, and we faced the virus with Churchillian fortitude and steely eyed determination. But then after a few weeks it became unsettling, disorientating, mood-alteringly normal. The unknown played havoc with people’s minds: the myriad questions and doubts and the growing incredulity of a society that had for so long tried to sanitise or even erase the thought of death from their everyday lives but was now forced to hear the wailing siren of their own predicted impending doom!

Helena, my darling fiancé, caught the virus and began self-isolating in Airdrie, but thankfully after two weeks and a very persistent dry cough she was fine. Her brother Stephen also became infected and after some worrying tightness in his chest, he thankfully recovered too.

By the grace of God, miraculously even, our little island of Lewis was relatively untouched by the Virus – Covid-19 left the Coves alone – but we were on standby, vigilant, “It could come at any time!”

It was getting closer to our planned wedding date and I prayed, “Lord, what about the wedding? Will we need to reschedule it? Will it go ahead as we planned?”

And the Lord spoke – the next day, Sunday 22nd of March.

Both sermons we listened to that day had the following verses from Jeremiah 33:10-11 read –

“Thus says the LORD: In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste without man or beast,’ in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD:

‘Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’

For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the LORD.”

God had spoken and we rejoiced!

We took it to mean that the wedding would be going ahead at some point just as God had planned it – a day of thanksgiving, rejoicing and praise in the house of God with our family and friends, when the streets were full again and the lockdown had eased.

And God repeated either these verses from Jeremiah 33:10&11 or the lone verse ‘Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’, (which is the verse on our wedding invites) every Sunday in a sermon we listened to for the next three weeks in a row!

What an assurance from our beloved Father in Heaven!

We decided to reschedule the wedding to Thursday 27 August 2020, but after receiving those verses from the Lord we were assured that God is in control and that our wedding would go ahead according to His perfect plan, hopefully, possibly on that date.

We told others about the verses and some rejoiced and Praised the Lord and some out of politeness said, ‘I hope so.’

But many others said, ‘Maybe you’re reading into it?’, ‘no way is your wedding going ahead this year!’, ‘You are being naive’, ‘you are probably mistaken.’

Some days we listened to the doubting voices, lookingworryingly at the world around us, and we began to doubt.

Other days we looked upwards to heaven and clung to the promise of our God.

As our marriage date draws ever nearer, and restrictions begin to be eased, our hopes of everything going ahead as planned grow daily…….and you know what?

It makes us think of the OTHER marriage we are going to.

You know the one.

It has been arranged and ALL the Lord’s people are invited and will be going soon.

We are so excited that we tell others about the weddingand about the promises that God has made, in the hope that they might come too –

‘In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.’ John 14:2-3

or maybe we say to them,

‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride had made herself ready;….’ Revelation 19:6-7

or maybe we tell them,

‘….Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ Revelation 19:9

And some by God’s grace hear and rejoice and believe. And we rejoice and believe anew.

But others say, “It’ll never happen,” “You aren’t being realistic.” “It’s very naive of you,”….“Maybe your mistaken?”

And occasionally we listen to their doubting voices, and look around at this sinful, fallen world, and we begin to doubt as the virus of unbelief infects our hearts and minds.

But Jesus comes to us with His word of truth anew, the solid gold verses of assurance that we can rely on………and He whispers to us,

‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.’ John 14:1

and He calls to our Father in heaven so that we can hear,

‘Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you have loved me before the foundation of the world.’ John 17:24

And together we shout with joy,

‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Romans 8:38-39

And as the time draws nearer to that great and glorious day, we by faith rejoice, that the Marriage Supper of the Lamb will take place just as we have been told………..and not one of us will be missing

Will I see you there? I really, really hope so.

 

But if not . . .

I was set a challenge this week, by one of the overbearing blokes of Stornoway Free Church. ‘Shut up, woman’, he ordered, ‘your blog titles are too long-winded – and who permitted you to have ideas, anyway?’ Or words to that effect; no doubt I am paraphrasing somewhat. ‘Write about this, and stay out of trouble’, he said finally, firing a Biblical reference at me and departing.

He had quoted Daniel 3: 18 and, specifically, these seemingly negative, doubting words: ‘but if not’, uttered by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, when King Nebuchadnezzar is telling them of their imminent punishment in the fiery furnace. Their answer is along the lines that we always expect from believing people: do what you will, our God will protect us, and pluck us out of the flames.

‘ . . . but if not . . .’

So well-versed in Scripture was the wartime generation that a naval officer at Dunkirk telegraphed only these three words home and had the Allied plight immediately understood. The situation was desperate. Indeed, in the ordinary sense, the situation was hopeless.

Was that officer telling his loved ones to prepare themselves for German invasion, then, for the loss of all Allied hopes of success? Not any more than Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were preparing for the possibility that God might leave them to a fiery death. He was, in fact, telling the people at home that whatever happened, God would be with them.

We have our own ideas about how we would like the Lord to salvage a situation. It may be that we pray for a desperately ill loved one to be cured; it may be that we want him to stop our enemy’s mouths; it may be that we beg him to not send us into a particular situation. These are all prayers I have uttered, some of them many times. And in every significant example I can recall, God gently shook his head, ‘no’.

At this point, the unbeliever scoffs. The book of psalms brims over with examples of the enemy mocking and asking, ‘where is your God now?’ In the world, they see our relationship with the Lord as being similar to that between a small child and Santa Claus, or perhaps Aladdin’s genie. He is not, though, a capricious granter of wishes. God hears my prayers before they leave my heart, before I know them myself. But he is wiser than to let me direct him in how these should be answered.

When I prayed for my husband to be cured, and was comforted by the verse, ‘this sickness is not unto death’, I was hearing only what I wanted. I was stopping short of the next clause  ‘but to the glory of God’. In my understandable human pain, I wanted God to make everything all right, to make it stop hurting there and then. In his infinite goodness and wisdom, though, he took my request and granted it more fully and completely than I would ever have the grace or courage to ask for myself.

In times of sore oppression – verbal, rather than physical, lest anyone feel the need to accuse me of exaggeration – and slander, I prayed that God would silence those who lifted their voices against me in hatred. The chorus only intensified and became nastier and more vitriolic. Far from stopping their mouths, God seemed only to lengthen the lead to give them more latitude. And, in the end, the freedom of that leash became the rope from which their unkindness swung, for all to see. He caused them to stop their own mouths.

There have been situations I wanted no part of and asked God to let me go around. These requests he has also denied. I have lived through confrontations, through spiritual and emotional difficulties that I would have just as soon avoided. More times than I like to admit, I would ask God, ‘why have you put me through this’, and concluding over and over that my soul seems to require an inordinate amount of honing! But hone me he does. Every trial, every mistake, every misunderstanding between me and my brethren, every word I say out of turn, every relationship that I enter into, every partiality I show, every decision I make for good or ill, God is there.

That is what those three little words mean: ‘but if not’. They are immediately followed by an affirmation that, even if God does not deal with them as they have proclaimed, still they won’t turn from him. It is the same submission to his will that caused Christ to ask for the cup to pass from him, and then to add ‘not my will but yours’.

‘But if not’, however it sounds in the mouth of an unbeliever, is the very opposite of doubt. It is faith, born of an intimate knowledge of this God, who does everything perfectly. It is the confident proclamation of the believer who knows that he may not always take them out of the fiery furnace, but neither will he leave them to suffer it alone.

I hope this blog encourages you to believe, or to remember that God is with us always – but, if not, he is, just the same.

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against More Rough Wooing

Were John Knox alive today, I don’t think the Protestant church in Scotland – if such a monolith existed – would be wise to choose him as a spokesperson. He had a somewhat unfortunate way with words, and a bit of an uncompromising manner, particularly when it came to ladies in government. It’s not that he was sexist, just that he believed female rulers were an abomination and ought to stay at home having babies.

And, like an awful lot of people – to be fair not all of them men – once Knox had said a thing, that was it. He was not a fan of taking back ill-chosen words, nor of admitting when he’d been a bit of an insensitive twit.

He even managed to contradict Calvin. Pause for dramatic effect. Yes, THAT Calvin – the one who gets the blame for the unfortunate personality traits of dour Wee Frees, Wee Wee Frees, and Wee Wee Frees to the Power of Three. Calvin had used biblical examples, such as Deborah, to demonstrate God’s willingness to raise up female leaders. Knox wasn’t having any of it, though and maintained that women ruling was a breach of the God-given order.

He inadvertently annoyed Queen Elizabeth I of England, and steadfastly refused to apologise. In typically winning fashion, he corresponded instead with her (male) adviser, Sir William Cecil . . . but, let’s just say, he didn’t win any prizes for diplomacy there either.

The worrying thing for me is that I’m not entirely persuaded that our church WOULD keep Knox away from the microphone. I can almost hear the arguments in his favour: ‘oh, but he’s so godly’; ‘oh, but his theology is sound’; ‘oh but he’s not afraid to speak the truth’. Knox would undoubtedly possess the courage and the drive to speak for the church in Scotland: but are those the only qualifications?

Let me circumvent any misunderstanding. I’m not referring to ‘the church’ in terms of an institution, or as a specific denomination. What I’m speaking about is Christianity, the cause of Christ. There are many in Scotland who love the Lord and who wish to see some restoration of truth to public life. But if we’re ever going to get there, we need a wee bit of the ‘s’-word: strategy. Strategy backed up by prayer and trusting to God, absolutely, but still, a strategy.

First up on my planner, therefore, is ‘silence all the would-be Knoxes’.

Knox was all kinds of things: courageous, straight-talking, and a champion of Christ. We have people like that, though obviously not of his stature, today. And sometimes, I’m afraid that when they speak, I cringe.

It isn’t that I usually disagree with the fundamentals of their message; how could l? Nor do I belong to that camp which feels that Christians need to water down the challenge of the Gospel. God IS love, indeed, but we also have to preach about sin and hell and judgment, and the danger of not accepting his free offer of salvation.

No, it’s about presentation. It’s about the fact that there is no use in battering unsaved sinners over the head with the fact of their sin. I cannot show them their sin and neither can you. Why? Because we’re sinners ourselves. They need the mirror of God’s perfection to see themselves in that light.

So, when Christians speak on moral issues, we do not need a John Knox to remonstrate with people for their sin. We need those who are gifted with diplomacy and, yes, the wisdom of serpents, tempered with the gentility of doves. Every man or woman who professes faith is not destined to champion it effectively in the public arena, and we have to find ways to channel gifts prudently.

I would like to see, for example, more female Christians being encouraged to speak on issues like abortion. It sits uneasily with me when the pro-life lobby is represented by men. Yes, they have as much concern and as much right to a view; but that’s not the point. Knox, no doubt, would be very willing to speak on ‘Reporting Scotland’ about protecting the unborn child – but that doesn’t mean that he would be the best person for the job. Whether we like it or not, perception is important, and we do nothing to win over the hearts of a hostile world by playing up to the stereotypes.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not actually talking about gender. This is not me saying, ‘shut up, men, and let the girls talk’. What I’m trying to say is that we need to get better at representing our cause, by equipping our people to speak. There has got to be love, grace, intelligence and common sense. And, yes, there has got to be strategy.

The church needs people who walk with God, who pursue a holy life, and who are chiefly concerned with glorifying him. However, the world needs a church that can speak comfortably to it, in ways and words it will understand.

We are not going to win Scotland’s soul back with another rough wooing.

Crofting, cùram and the black, black Comhairle

‘The minister and the factor are the cause of all the misery and ruination’, I said last week on live radio. I wasn’t, of course, talking about anyone I know personally, perish the thought. No, I was, in fact, paraphrasing a view held by many of my fellow countrymen, and especially in that context, various writers over the years about the havoc wrought by these two archetypes. 

The Highlands, explored in literary form, invariably appear to have been torn asunder by these two men: the greed of the factor and the creed of the minister. Between them, many people believe, the landlords and the church pulled down the ancient edifice of Gaelic culture and left it in ruins.

Even to this day, nothing is more guaranteed to get a social media debate going than religion or land. The latter blew up into a Facebook squall last week, with the news that Comhairle nan Eilean has taken legal advice on whether it can include crofts in the valuation of assets, when recouping the cost of providing care.

It was always going to be a turbulent discussion. You have a heady mix of poorly-understood legislation, a local authority which is damned either way, and the rampant emotionalism that seems to accompany every invocation of the word, ‘croft’. Crofters are felt by many to have a moral right to the land, and to be automatically justified whenever pitted against authority. There is a sense in which Comhairle nan Eilean cannot win this debate. Like any organisation which finds its views at variance with those of the crofting community, or even one section of it, the council will inevitably be portrayed as a latter-day Dòmhnall Munro.

Crofts and/or houses which are owner-occupied are straightforward enough. The real controversy centres around tenanted crofts. If you are merely paying rent to a landlord . . . how can the croft’s value be calculated as belonging to you?

Unfortunately, the legal opinion sought by the Comhairle states that one possible way is to file for bankruptcy against the crofter, or his estate after he has passed away. This unpalatable course of action would be time-consuming, potentially costly and by no means certain to produce the desired result for the local authority. Insolvent crofters breach the 1993 Crofting Act. Nonetheless, only the landlord can apply for an order to have them removed, and even if they do so, the events that follow are firmly outwith the council’s control.

So, this is clearly an extremely vexed question and, like everything else of the kind, may well be slogged out on Facebook, but it certainly won’t be settled there.

What the discussion does throw up, however, is an interesting attitude around the perceived intrinsic worthiness of crofting. Evidently, from the comments I have read, many of us feel that it is part of island heritage and deserving of protection. Some even accuse Comhairle nan Eilean of instigating a modern version of the clearances.

The conceit there is that crofts and crofting ought to be the province of the indigenous population. That is an argument which, in the context of language and cultural preservation (where, by ‘culture’ I mean way of life and not some tweed nailed to driftwood, calling itself ‘art’) might have some merit.

We suffer, because of our remoteness, a tension between maintaining a viable population in these islands, and protecting our increasingly fragile heritage. How do you reconcile the need for people to keep services running, and shops and schools open, with the desire to shore up these things which are unique and precious about our islands?

For too long, there has been a concentration on Gaelic as a language, and little heed paid to the fact that it has – and requires – an underpinning culture. Crofting is undoubtedly part of that. Unfortunately, the moral argument posited by many against the Comhairle’s position falls down slightly on the fact that tenancies change hands for sometimes eye-watering sums of money.

You simply cannot have it both ways. If tenancies can be sold to the highest bidder, where is the mechanism for favouring – say – young islanders? It doesn’t exist.

Crofting, like Gaelic, has been subject to a tiùrr of legislation, but there has been the same mistake made in both cases: a failure to recognise the plant in its native soil, or to take measures that might have nurtured it there. With language, experts talk about intergenerational transmission – the passing of the language from parent to child, far and away the most natural learning process. The richness of vocabulary and idiom is then preserved in a wider Gaelic community, not least because communities have an inbuilt code that is mutually intelligible to its members.

In fact, now that the language campaign is waking up to the fact that it has neglected community in its working-out, I wonder whether there isn’t greater scope for an integrated approach to the promotion of Gaelic and crofting. Not, I hasten to add, in some twee, ‘living museum’ way, but an acknowledgement that there are vestiges of both traditions still extant here, into which new life could be breathed. And that they have a close relationship with one another in the communities where they grow wild.

It would take vision to realise, of course. Some years ago, the Crofting Commission published a paper which explored the possibility of designating Scottish crofters as an indigenous people. I wonder whether, under the new Islands Act, and with an eye to further crofting legislation in the next parliament, it may not be time to rekindle that spark of an idea.

Imagine: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Highland Council, the Crofting Commission, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, all working together on policy for the Gàidhealtachd from the inside.

We have much still to learn from the old slogans: the language, the land, the people; and strength through unity.

And the prisoners heard

Sunday afternoon sunshine lured me outside to sit on my recently-painted decking to read, write and contemplate. There were birds singing in the trees and lambs bleating in the croft beyond, but not a sound other than that to pierce the stillness. I had recently risen from morning worship with my congregation, and was in exactly the right frame of mind for a bit of contemplation.

I was also filled with an enormous sense of wellbeing. These are days filled with uncertainty, trepidation and, for many, grief. None of us knows when it may be our turn to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet, we know that God is with us, and that ,while a shadow may well encroach, it can never devour.

So, while the world’s media is talking in terms of a global crisis, of catastrophe and lockdown, God is enabling me – and many more besides, I think – to experience this as the day of small things which we are warned not to despise.  As I sat in the warmth of this early spring day, I thought about the week just gone by, and the ways in which I have met with Christ in the long hours of solitude.

There is his word, of course, and prayer. These are constants. Normally, though, they are the launchpad for what Lady Bracknell disparagingly referred to as ‘a life crowded with incident’.

I am rediscovering my inner introvert, however. This week, I have  delivered a number of lectures and tutorials, spoken on the radio about my favourite Scottish novels, attended a meeting of the Stornoway Trust, and participated in a whisky tasting – all without budging from my dining table. In between, I walk, cook, clean, read and write. In the evenings, I chat to friends and family, listen to music, and catch up on television programmes, films and podcasts that I’ve missed.

Friday was glorious. I finished classes, and took the dog for a long ramble on the machair. Confusedly dressed in wellies, linen trousers and a cashmere hoody (I like to acknowledge all seasons in one outfit), I got spectacularly rained on. Showered and pyjama-clad, I lit the wood burner and laid out my various samples of Jura whisky and wild water from the Stornoway Trust Estate in time for the Instagram tasting event.

It was not, I am quite certain, the 46.7% ABV 21-year-old malt that gave me the feeling of complete serenity, but the sense that this was a day of privileges, dispensed by the hand of a gracious God. He has enabled me to continue doing my job, and fulfill other obligations while remaining safe and not feeling isolated in the least.

Discussing this with a Christian friend on Sunday evening, she said that she was concerned by the number of people – believing people – who are not doing so well. She hears from folk who say that lockdown is beginning to pall on them, who say they miss the human interaction of church. These are by no means all people who live alone either.

All of which set me wondering what’s wrong with me that, six weekends in, I am still only able to see the positives.

I have come to a number of conclusions. Ultimately, I don’t go to church for the social aspect. In fact, quietly and without anyone else noticing, I ceased attending organised fellowships of any kind more than a year ago. Church has been a place of worship for me, and that continues to be possible by God’s grace through the technology which it is our privilege to access and enjoy. Yes, there are people whose society I miss, and I will be glad to see them when we are once more able to share a pew. Until then, however, I am getting the essential parts of the church experience at home.

Like many others, I am gratified by the way in which being a church quite literally without walls has enabled new people to join us for worship. An open door may theoretically be welcoming, but there is still a threshold to cross which can seem like a journey of a thousand miles to the stranger. Online worship presents no such barrier.

A lot of Christians are invoking the image of Israel’s captivity to describe where we are at. I don’t disparage other people’s feelings or experiences, however, when I say that this is not my view of things at all.

Christ has freed his people, and we do him no justice if we consider ourselves captive still. We ought to be like Paul and Silas who sang and prayed in their cell at midnight. The walls could not contain them because their hearts were fixed upon worshipping God. He was there with them, he is here in my house too; and he is with all his people wherever they are. Ask the suffering and persecuted church if you can’t believe a Wee Free woman.

My favourite part of that account, though, is the following four words: ‘and the prisoners heard’.

Those who are still enslaved, not by government lockdown, but the bonds of sin – what is our witness to them? Perhaps he has brought us out of our comfortable churches into the information super-highway so that they will hear us, not weeping and complaining, but lifting up our voices in praise of the Christ who will never leave nor forsake us.

Empty pews & the fellowship of the Spirit

I feel like a child in a fairytale. It feels as though, just by wishing hard enough, I have made the thing happen. ‘Which thing?’ you ask, fearing that I’m going to say I’ve met a handsome prince, and that you’ll have to send someone to show me that really it IS only a frog. No, not that thing. The thing I needed, the thing I secretly longed for has happened.

The world has stopped. And I have been able to stop with it.

For the few (I’ve lost track of how many) weeks of lockdown, I have been harbouring a secret. It has made me feel out of step with everybody else, but at the same time absolutely wonderful. And, if this really is just an enchantment from which we will all soon wake up, it’s safe to tell my secret, however it may shock.

In fact, I know it WILL shock, because right from the beginning of this, the Christian church has been chided for its readiness to embrace online worship. ‘You should be weeping for what you have lost’, we were told, the very first week, ‘you should grieve the loss of fellowship and count electronic services a poor substitute’.

It has been said before, of course. In the book of Numbers:

‘And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat!

We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”’

Am I being harsh? No, I don’t think I am. We are shown repeatedly in Scripture the danger and folly of looking back to halcyon days that were less than the perfection in our minds. God took the Israelites out of Egypt for a good reason: it was not their home, of course, and it was a corrupting influence, teaching the cults of paganism and idolatry. Their longing for the varied diet of the oppressor as opposed to the wholesome manna provided by God needs no interpretation.

It is this which makes us all repeat the mantra, ‘when we get back to normal’. We are human and we want what is easy and familiar. That’s hardly surprising.

Surely, though, the church cannot want to go back to what it was before. I cringe at the repeated requests that we not get too comfortable with live-streaming our worship. Why? What is ‘too comfortable’? It’s the provision God has made and there is no better application for man’s creative ingenuity than tribute to the Creator himself, who made it possible. Of course, I’m being deliberately obtuse; I know very well the point that’s being made.

What about fellowship?

Well, I’m here to tell you that occupying the same physical space does not add up to that. Fellowship is spiritual, not geographical. It is literally ‘of the Spirit’: we are united in him, wherever we are, and have the concern and care of one another, regardless of proximity or distance. How else can we have brotherhood with the global church or a heart for mission?

Is there not a very real danger that, when life is too easy and the pews too – figuratively speaking, obviously- comfortable, we mistake merely being in the same place twice-weekly for the deeper spiritual bonds of Christian fellowship?

Perhaps, then, God has removed that privilege for a season, so that we would understand its illusory effects.

As for the exhortation to weep, I don’t have much time for that either. Grief can paralyse in ways that do nothing to aid spiritual growth. Witness psalm 137:

‘By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” ‘

They sat down. They hung up their lyres. Grief and looking back rooted them to the spot and dried up their praise.

WE are in a strange land and never more so than now. This, though, is all in God’s providence and we must – surely – be called on to be like Paul and to worship him in all circumstances.

Which brings me to my secret. I know it is fated to be misunderstood, but still I think it’s worth airing.

I am glad the churches are closed.

On a personal level, it’s a relief. Life for me was so out of hand busy that, frankly, Sunday had ceased to be a day of rest. It was frequently one more day on which I had to drag myself out of the house and follow a timetable. More often than not in recent months I went to save face and to avoid answering awkward questions.

I was exhausted and verging on burnout.

Please don’t misunderstand me: this was never about coldness towards the Lord, his word, or his people. It was the cumulative effect of too much everything.

Now, I have the joy of worshiping without the tiredness. I can pare it all back to essentials and focus on the word and the praise.

This is not about one person’s convenience, of course, though I do wonder how many others feel as I do right now. It is about what the Lord is saying to his own people. We still have the privilege of corporate worship; he has not taken that from us.

I take two things from the current situation. First, he has demonstrated that fellowship is not a closed shop. We have been forced to go public and it is a real joy to know that the unchurched are finding comfort in acts of online worship. It is, as far as I am concerned, the ‘go’ of the Great Commission being partly fulfilled.

Second, he is chipping away at our complacency. To be together means much more than haphazardly sitting under one roof. It is love, care, gladness to be a people, concern for one another, sharing one another’s joys and woes.

If I survive to see the end of this pandemic, I will be glad to go to church. I pray that I will be doing it – that we will all be doing it – with a new heart and a new vigour. This is not a make-do and mend situation; God is giving us a blessing by keeping us apart, so that we might better learn what it really means to be together.

Roll the Stone Away

Last night, someone introducing himself as ‘your friendly, local elder’ telephoned. I was briefly distraught, thinking something had happened to the usual grumpy (but ultimately loveable) fellow. And then, I realised, no, it IS him, he was just trying to confuse me. He was doing a pastoral visit by phone, checking that I was surviving the lockdown, and not going off my head at the full moon.

Slightly shame-facedly, I admitted to him the thing that I have hardly dared admit to myself: this situation has brought me armfuls of blessing. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I don’t for one minute forget the gravity of what we face, or the tragedy it has visited upon our world. Yet, while I am mindful of all that, I have to confess to feeling the lightest and easiest in my mind that I have for years. There is nowhere to go, no one asking this or that of me. I am in my own home for most of every day. I am growing to love that again.

Because of technology, I can speak to my family and friends – and our conversations are more meaningful because they are our only means of contact. Last Wednesday, it was a revelation to Zoom into the prayer meeting. I felt genuine joy at seeing the familiar faces on-screen, faces I used to take for granted, faces I barely noticed when we shared the same space. And on Sundays, I can sit exactly where I usually go to read and pray at home, but also hear God’s word preached by our own minister.

We are scattered, but still able to be together in all the ways that matter.

It has afforded me that too rare commodity: time. I have not rushed my devotions, nor had to skip them in order to dash off somewhere else. My life and my mind are both uncluttered and I see something very clearly now that I was afraid to even look at before.

God truly has healed me.

See, five years ago just now, I was on leave from work, coming to terms with my new and unwanted status as a widow. From there, I hurtled into this commitment and that, afraid to have any unoccupied minutes. I have been utterly unfair to myself, because all that bustle prevented me from truly experiencing God’s care.

Now, it’s true that most of what fills my time I do because of him. That’s how I have been able to tell myself it’s not inconsequential busyness. Nor is it. But it has left me little scope to just breathe, to look around my new landscape and thank God for bringing me up out of the valley. I have been darting from one place, one thought, one commitment to the next, never once taking in the view from where he has brought me to.

It might seem strange that it took a lockdown for me to realise that there is nothing to fear from solitude, nor from having time to contemplate. Then again, not really so odd – because it was actually another lockdown that set me free to begin with.

On that first Good Friday, when they rolled the stone to the mouth of Jesus’ tomb, his followers must have been in despair. His persecutors surely thought there was no more harm he could do them. He was dead, and his body locked in for good measure. They placed a guard on him just to be sure. The risk, they thought, was that the disciples would steal his body and fake the prophesied resurrection.

What is it about lockdowns and conspiracy theories?

Three days passed during which his own people would have felt all kinds of despair and grief, the death of hope leaving a bitter tang. Meanwhile, those who hated Christ revealed something of the nature of their enmity. It was born of fear: fear of his power, fear of his true status – why else surround a dead man with soldiers?

And at last, on the third day of nothing much happening, the angel came and the stone was rolled away.

We know very well what was found there. The grave clothes for which he had no further need, were placed where he had lain. And our Saviour was no longer there.

He had risen.

Sometimes, it’s only when everything seems to be over that real hope springs forth. I know it for myself and I count it as blessing.

No one who stood, guarding over that tomb could have suspected the work being accomplished within. It was the end, it was the ultimate lockdown.

When God brings all to a standstill, he is doing more than reminding us who is in control. He is giving us the gift of time – perhaps more than those three days, perhaps much less – in which to stop, and regard him in all his glory.

After the stone was rolled away, a story was put about by religious leaders that Christ’s body had been stolen during the night by his followers.

But they lied. They lied because they were afraid. Yet, they chose fear and denial over acceptance of one great and simple truth:

He IS risen.

If we are spared to see this stone rolled away, I pray that fear will not have won. I pray that we will all use the lockdown to bow our hearts in submission.

Who would believe an ugly lie in place of the beautiful, wonderful truth – that he rose again, and in him, we are free indeed.

Love hearts, captivity and freedom

I’m a bit concerned for our minister’s ego since this live-streaming business started. He stands, uninterrupted, and preaches with nary a cough nor an infant howl to hamper his flow. At intervals of two or three seconds, the screen in front of him is filled with floating hearts, bestowed by his remote audience. The worry is that he may expect us to replicate this experience when ‘normality’ is restored. Will I have to stand on the balcony and shower confetti and balloons down? Will ushers be placed at strategic points throughout the church, ready to silence any sound from the congregation?

It is only one of many questions we have about ‘afterwards’. We are trying, I think, in that very human way, to be stalwart and optimistic, yet not think too much about that great, unnamed date when we can breathe easily and move freely once more. Indeed, the truth is that we have only just begun to experience restrictions designed to preserve life, and it is too sad to think how far off freedom might be.

We are – all of us – trying to make sense of this situation. What is God speaking to us in the midst of lockdown? To me, anyway, he is reinforcing one of the great truths of the Christian life: you are captive if you do not have Christ.

In the privileged West, we have an illusion of freedom. Until this happened, we could go anywhere on a UK passport. We could move freely within our own country, shopping for unlimited food and supplies; twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week in many cases. No one would challenge you, as long as you kept the laws of the land. Parks were teeming with people, roads and retail outlets chock-a-block.

Sundays ceased to be a day of rest quite some time ago for most of the unfortunate populace of Britain. One wee pocket remained, and everything possible has been done to bring us into line with the frenetic activity of the exalted ‘everywhere else’. People here in Lewis – the Western Isles ‘Secular’ Society, FiSH, certain elements in the Golf Club, for example – have repeatedly demanded the same ‘freedom’ as Everywhere Else.

Well, we all have the same freedoms now. The entire UK is under one blanket regime. I don’t say this out of any kind of schadenfreude, but in hope that it finally reveals the illusion we were under.

Freedom of movement, freedom to work and travel and live and love and purchase . . . these are not the real freedoms we should be seeking after. Look how easily they are taken from us; watch how readily we sacrifice them when life is at stake.

When life is at stake. Think about what that means to you. Are we really just intent on keeping well so that we can return to a life of work and travel and retail, and going out with our friends for coffee? Or are we interested now in having life more abundantly? Christ promises us a rich life in him – not, as the atheists would tell you, a vague promise of something better when you die, but a full life beginning the moment you accept him as Lord.

What does that mean in this situation? I can’t speak for other Christians, but I can tell you what it means for me. This pandemic doesn’t remove my freedom in the least because what I value most is my life in Jesus.

I live completely alone, but I can truthfully say that I am not lonely. He is my constant companion, and the channel between us is always open. Unlike our other loved ones, he will never be too busy, too weary or too preoccupied with himself to hear our concerns.

This is an unprecedented time that he has already blessed to me. All those many things and people which normally fill my hours, they have been laid aside. It reminds me powerfully of that time, exactly five years ago, after Donnie died. I was signed off work and had a lot of time alone in the house then too. My relationship with the Lord grew in strength, because nothing else could intrude: not work, not worry, not wrong priorities.

Once again, he has imposed complete rest upon me so that I might rest in him.

And he has taken away our false freedom, so that we might all see the chains that hold us, as well as the glorious means to break them forever.

What a wonderful outcome, then, if this time of exile from the world would be the means to open our eyes. Already, I know that online church services are attracting the unchurched, that many whose Sunday habit does not include God, are coming to worship. No one constrains them to do this; they attend of their own free will.

What if, even as our bodies are imprisoned, countless souls are set at liberty to float freely like those love hearts for the Word of God? Truly then we could say that our bondage was worth it, for the preservation of life.