When I was eight years old, my much-loved granny died. The funeral was held in the sitting room of our house, as was still customary then. When the service was over, my immediate family disappeared – the men assembling into an orderly procession for the cemetery, as was usual on such occasions, and the women gathering to witness the beginning of this final journey. I was tearful, disoriented and upset. And then, an elderly neighbour bent down beside me and, pressing 50 pence into my hand, whispered, ‘you pray to God every day and you’ll see your granny again’.
A year or so later, my mother and I were visiting a lady that she worked with. When we got up to leave, she fetched a book for me to take home and keep. It was a nightly devotional for children and it made a big impression on me. So much so, in fact, that, persuaded by its exhortations, I finally knelt in prayer and asked Jesus into my heart. This was not my conversion and I would never pretend that it was, but I do believe that it was significant on my faith journey. I often drifted away from thoughts of God over the years that followed, but every time He pulled me back, this remembrance was never far from my mind.
Why am I sharing this? Well, because I’m dismayed by the way that, in Lewis right now, this kind of formative experience is being criticised by people who just don’t get it. Being secular, or humanist, or atheist, seems to mean saying that you are tolerant or inclusive, when all you actually want to do is erase any trace of Christianity from our midst. Grown men and women have been protesting that their children are ‘exposed’ to the Bible in school, that their little ones have come home in tears because someone was talking to them about Hell. They want to opt their children out of religious studies and worship, but don’t understand why this means no involvement in the school nativity play either. It’s not enough to take Christ out of schools, but He ought also to be removed from Christmas, in case He spoils it for the kids.
Reading their indignant diatribes on social media, it is hard to figure out how they can reconcile this total eradication with their claims that little Tommy or Emily will ‘make up their own minds when they’re older’. Will they? Based on what – you’ve removed any information about the Christian faith from their environment. All you are doing is creating people who are much more dogmatic than any Calvinist minister ever was; children who will be just as narrow-minded as their parents are proving themselves to be, but with no real idea why. And still, there will be that God-shaped hole at the core of their being because no matter how loudly you sing, ‘la-la-la, He’s not real’ . . . He is real.
It makes me sad. These two gentle, Christian ladies of my childhood acted out of love, of warmth and of community. I am so grateful that I belonged to a time when these things were understood. Old women and old men could show true concern for your soul without accusations of brain-washing being flung at them. As a child, I was taught to respect my elders and what they had to say, and this created true, strong inter-generational bonds. You could take or leave what they had said, but you listened politely to them and you respected them for it. In Jane Austen’s novel, ‘Emma’, the eponymous heroine is chided for speaking rudely to an older woman and reminded that, when Emma was a child, the other woman’s notice of her would have been an honour. I remember that feeling and I think we need to get it back.
After graduating, I worked as a community development officer in Ness, the northern part of the island. The building where I was based was also a community hall, which sometimes played host to a small church. I often worked very late there and it was an eerie building in a fairly lonely and somewhat creepy setting. One morning, an elder from the church had come in to set out the chairs for their service, and we got chatting. In the course of the conversation, he casually remarked, ‘we often pray for you, here on your own in the dark’. It was one of the loveliest, most humbling moments of my time there. When I left that job, they gifted me a Bible and 12 years later, were among the first to send condolences on the death of my husband. Prayer, after all, creates bonds which cannot be broken.
My late father was a Christian and one of the loveliest people I’ve ever known. He was a gentleman, though possessed of a wicked sense of humour, with a particular gift for giving nicknames. Our relationship was always good – we were close, and I often think back fondly to our many conversations on all kinds of topics. But, if this was therapy, I’d break down now and sob that he never told me he loved me. Nor did he; at least, not using those words. Nonetheless, I never doubted it. I know that he prayed for me and I heard ‘God bless’ from his lips many times. In Lewis, when I was growing up, that WAS love.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost that understanding of one another’s best motives. Now, it seems that children must be told not just about ‘stranger danger’, but also counselled in the risks inherent in allowing a teacher to read them the words of Psalm 23. The message seems to be, ‘watch out, because if someone tells you about Jesus, you may just believe what you hear’. If the churches in Lewis were as good at brainwashing as the secularists seem to believe, I can’t help feeling that the pews might be a bit less empty. But it’s obvious to anyone that they are, of course, lashing out like frightened children, afraid of what they don’t comprehend. Maybe if they shut their eyes tightly enough, they won’t have to see it and it won’t see them.
I think it’s time for someone to pat them on the shoulder, and simply say, ‘it’s alright, we’re praying for you, here on your own in the dark’.