The Minister and the Otherworld

‘Our minister’s away with the fairies’, might very well have been the intimation from the Rev Robert Kirk’s pulpit following his disappearance in 1692. You see, his congregation did not believe that he had died, but rather, that he had been kidnapped off to fairyland. His interest in the creatures of the Otherworld had finally – they thought – been his undoing.

What was his interest? Well, strange as it sounds now, fairy belief was so prevalent at the time that Kirk felt it necessary to write a treatise on their nature. Two common ideas – that they were the spirits of infants who had died without baptism, or that they were fallen angels – could not be countenanced by him, or by the church. Instead, he sought to displace these heretical theories by investigating for himself and laying out his findings in a book, ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies’.

His conclusion was that they were ‘of a middle nature, twixt man and the angels’. It’s an unusual statement for more than one reason. Firstly, well, a minister who believed in fairies. . . If that was nowadays, the very least he could expect would be some odd looks at Session meetings. Secondly, anyone with the most rudimentary grasp of scripture will know that God made man a little lower than the angels, so Kirk was essentially placing fairies above mankind. Above us, yet not perfect like the angels. The fairies required appeasement, and careful handling. Without warning, they might mete out punishment, or simply take from mankind what they coveted.

The writer, Ronald Black, described the function performed by fairyland for our ancestors as similar to modern soap opera. It was a medium for exploring and working out social dilemmas and concerns. To put it another way, it was humankind trying to sort itself out in a way that excluded God. Poor Kirk was somehow trying to accommodate fairy belief into his theology, but it was always going to end badly.

If we humans are proof of anything, we are proof of our own lostness. No matter how bad we make things for ourselves, we still think it’s somehow up to us to fix it, and that we’re capable of fixing it. And, in the absence of God, we have constructed our own doctrine. Just be nice, do no wilful harm, be kind to the poor. Tolerate everything as long as it hurts no one. It will all be fine in the end.

Not like that, it won’t.

Kirk was making the kind of mistake you would hope no modern minister would make. Sometimes, what secular culture thinks is fine, is really not. There are times when what the world wants has to be opposed by Christ’s church. You can’t always accommodate it and you shouldn’t always try. It falls to His followers to hold up a hand and gently say, ‘no further’. And it’s a challenge. No one wants to be called a killjoy, or a bigot, but then, they called our Saviour worse.

I see our local Christian Party candidate being soundly mocked and derided by the usual social media suspects. He has had the temerity to subscribe to Biblical teaching and not conform to the right-on views of the secular lobby. As far as I can make out, his approach is informed by God; their view is shaped by no authority superior to their own. By that logic, if they say his beliefs, or my beliefs are stupid/bigoted/immature, well, then they are. They probably think I’ve been told by my church to vote for him as well. (Obviously I haven’t – the elders don’t know that women have the vote now, and I’m not going to be the one to break it to them.)

Christians have to live in this world for a time, but they should never belong to it. Kirk’s mistake was to think he could walk too closely with worldly ignorance and still be safe. There were two things which might have released him from the enchantment which held him: iron and salt.

We must pray for a good measure of both in our walk through this world.

Make hay on the day of small things

It used to be a practice in some parts of Lewis, when you were constructing the haystack, to place a pat of butter inside the centre of it. Then, partway through the winter, when household stocks began, inevitably, to dwindle, it would emerge from the diminishing goc as a welcome addition to the table.

Our ancestors were inventive when it came to putting things by. Young women gradually built up a ‘bottom drawer’ with all the things they might need to set up a home of their own, should the joyful day ever arrive. Personal and household linens were stored away, in a custom that combined sentiment with practicality. It would have been impossible for them to purchase all they needed at once and so, it was achieved gradually. Happy anticipation salted their frugality and made it a good thing.

When I was a child, I heard the phrase, ‘na dèan tàir air latha nan nithean beaga’ so often that I thought it was a proverb. I think, actually, the older people used it as a sort of mantra for themselves, a wee memo about keeping things in perspective. It is, of course, from the minor prophet, Zechariah – ‘for who hath despised the day of small things?’ – and serves as a reminder that we should not expect dramatic manifestations of God’s work in our lives, but rather that we should be grateful for his constancy, and his faithfulness. These are not, in fact, small things, but great and wonderful things.

Common grace – God’s mercy enjoyed by all, regardless of whether they believe – is probably not talked about enough. Those who reject Christ would certainly argue that they are who they are, and have what they have, through their own efforts and that of other human beings. Many of us have been fooled into that kind of thinking.

Since becoming a Christian, I look back at the years before and see Him acting on my behalf in so many ways to which I must have been blind at the time. It’s like opening up an old, familiar photograph album and seeing a person that you had never previously noticed in every single picture. What did I feel on realising this? Many things. Sadness that I had carried burdens of worry, guilt and sin needlessly; grief, that I had not listened sooner to His voice; shame at my own pride and arrogance. Yet, overriding all of those feelings was joy – joy that now I am His, but also a sort of retrospective comfort. Past trials and celebrations are past, but I see them differently now, knowing that He was always there in their midst.

We are always looking for something significant. I think that I had been a Christian for quite a time before receiving assurance. Perhaps I expected some sort of fireworks display to show that Christ had saved me. No word that all the drama had already taken place 2000 years ago.
And even those who are already Christians sigh and long for the days gone by when churches were full on a Sunday. That’s natural, and we are all praying daily for an increase of God’s Kingdom. Yet, while we are fixing our eyes and our hearts upon the hope of a great and glorious revival, like the kind we read about in books, what is it we are not seeing and hearing now?

The work goes on. God is present. You pray for family and friends who are without Christ, but you remember that they are not completely alone even now. They have not noticed Him at their shoulder, they have not yet turned into His embrace, but He is there. And people are hearing the Word and being changed, sometimes like water wearing away the stone, but being changed all the same. These are the days of small things. We mustn’t give so much of our hearts to longing for a great and glorious miracle that we forget the daily miracle of God’s grace.

Sometimes, He speaks not in wind, nor earthquake, nor fire, but in the still, small voice of everyday. That is something we can put by for later, until the winter passes and the days of plenty come.

Fake Feminism & the Wee Free Women

I don’t suppose you could really call Cailleach an Deacoin a feminist. Mind you, ‘she’ certainly harboured political ambition. For the uninitiated, the Cailleach was the persona assumed by Murdo Matheson of South Lochs, a female impersonator well before the time of Eddie Izzard, or Lily Savage. It was before my time too, but I have heard the recordings from his gigs in the ‘town haal’, where Cailleach an Deacoin roundly mocks the men in parliament and the church, to uproarious laughter from the audience.

Cailleach an Deacoin would certainly have something to say about the hubbub over an all-male Comhairle nan Eilean, following the recent local election. Of course, her intent was always firmly fixed on Westminster, but I’m quite sure that she would have encouraged less ambitious ladies to try for Sandwick Road first.

Feminism is the new secularism here in Lewis. That is to say, it is being hoisted as the latest flag of convenience over the leakiest vessel in the harbour: the good ship, ‘blame the church’. According to some local pundits, the failure to elect any female councillors can be laid squarely at the door of the Kirk session. Over the years, they have subjugated women, kept them in the kitchen, and out of any really important decision-making. Presbyterian women are submissive, pliable, dumb. I know, because I am one. If I had a brain in my be-hatted ceann, I might object to the picture that these feminists paint of me, but I leave all that confrontational stuff to the men. They’re much better at it than me.

Funnily enough, it was suggested by three different people that I should consider standing for the Comhairle. All three were men: two of them church elders, the other a communicant. I was about to use this as proof that the coves in the Free Church don’t see politics as a male preserve, but I’ve just had an epiphany (don’t tell, though, because I haven’t asked permission from the Presbytery). They probably only wanted me to stand in the first place because I’d be easy to manipulate, plus there would be someone to pour the tea at the members’ meetings. Luckily, I have no desire whatsoever to run for elected office anyway. That is the real reason why I – and probably many other women – did not stand for council.

It has nothing to do with the churches’ influence on the lives of women. That kind of suggestion is insulting to the countless articulate, capable and even feisty women who are also churchgoers in this island. Like so many other popular myths regarding religion here, it springs from a complete ignorance of what the church is to her people. Yes, ‘her’ people. And it is also born of that other insidious misconception, that Christianity must ape and conform to contemporary culture.

God created man and He created woman. Each have their own unique attributes and characteristics. These are to be applied in God’s service. He does not love men over women; He does not single one gender out for special treatment. His Son died for both genders, and people of both genders have followed Him and served Him faithfully. Jesus first revealed His divine nature to a woman, and it was to women he first appeared following the resurrection. Christianity does not discriminate because Christ does not discriminate.

The church, of which Christ is the head, tries its best to imitate Him. Recently, I heard a lecture in which the speaker properly described God as genderless. We think of God, traditionally, as a man because – amongst other reasons – to us, He is God the Father. However, in His perfection, God combines attributes which we think of as male, and those we would consider female. No single human being can hope to emulate that on their own.This being the case, the closest any church will get to imitation of God is one in which men and women work together, bringing their best gifts into the service of the church, and of the Lord.

Church isn’t a gender-based competition. Biblically-speaking, there are roles for both. Yet again, the world fails to understand that the church of Christ does not follow society’s norms and obsessions. Contemporary thinking tells you one minute that gender is a social construct, that it doesn’t matter; and then it tells women that they mustn’t let men push them around, and that they must assert themselves. If we follow every prevailing wind, we will be buffeted to and fro like fallen leaves.

There are indeed places in the world where it is considered normal for women to be subjugated and maltreated by men. The Isle of Lewis is not one of them. When my father died, one of the first things my sister said to me was, ‘he was a great father for girls’. And she was right – never once did he make either of us feel that we were less in his eyes than our brothers, or less capable of . . . well, anything. He loved Christ, he was a member of the Free Church, and he treated women as equals. I am offended on his behalf, and on behalf of the many gentlemen I am privileged to call my brothers in Christ, when I hear it said that they are misogynistic bullies. Equally, I don’t appreciate the inference that my sisters in Christ are biddable simpletons with nary a brain-cell to call their own.

Actually, it’s quite straightforward: there are two genders, each with its own attributes and divine calling, each called on to submit to  the other out of reverence for Christ. This is the blueprint laid down for us in Ephesians 5; wouldn’t it be something if the world tried to emulate that instead

The Family Tree and the Well

If you want to change your identity in Lewis, forget fake passports – you had better be prepared to forge an entire family tree for yourself. Even if you do, though, someone is bound to recognise you on your auntie Effie, or your cousin Angus. We cannot escape our dualchas, it seems, and especially not in a place which has eyes everywhere and a memory as long as time. Whatever you do may very well be written-off as, ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’. If Effie had one Babycham too many at her sister’s wedding in 1973, well, chances are you’ve got a weakness for the hard stuff too.

We have an interest in our genealogy here that is stronger, I think, than in many other places. People tend to be aware of relatives that are actually fairly distant. Recently, through the wonders of modern technology, I have been corresponding with just such a person about our shared Achmore ancestry. My maternal granny was from that village and it is nice to have names, dates and addresses to fill out the sketchy pictures in my head. It is good to know about my people, and to see Achmore as somewhere other than just the place my father threatened to move us to if we didn’t behave.

That interest can even transcend geography. Relatives long since emigrated to Canada will follow with interest the news from ‘home’. My great-uncle Henry, brother of my Achmore granny, went off to live in Australia as a young man of eighteen or so. He died, while reading the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ (me too, many times . . .) The point is that he died an old man, but was still keeping up with goings-on in Lewis, until the very end.

When I was a student, one of our lecturers mentioned that his brother, who had lived in New Zealand for the greater part of his life, would soon be coming back to Lewis for his first visit since emigrating. ‘I wonder’, he mused, ‘how many people who don’t even know him, will have heard that he’s coming home’. He made a valid point. That is how news is shared in Lewis: people frequently tell me things about people I have never met. I have felt heart-sore for men and women who I wouldn’t recognise if I tripped over them.

A few months ago, at a church conference, I met a lady and we got talking. She began the process of ‘placing’ me. It didn’t take too long. Being a (fairly) young widow in a wee place like this makes me easy to identify. ‘We didn’t know who you were’, she said, ‘but we prayed for you’. I was moved beyond words. No wonder I had felt the Lord upholding me in my grief, no wonder He had seemed so near – even strangers were bringing me before Him.

God, of course, does not need to be told anything about me, or anyone else – that is why the gravestones of those who die unidentified frequently bear the legend, ‘known unto God’. Prayer is not intended to inform Him, but to involve Him; it is the greatest kindness one human being can do for another. Imagine, in the worst moments of your life, that unseen community of praying people, committing you into the care of the Almighty. Whether you cannot, or will not, do it for yourself, it is their privilege to pray on your behalf.

The woman of Samaria did not enjoy these benefits of community. Her lifestyle might have shocked and offended her neighbours, so she lived a solitary life, even purposely going to the well for water when she knew that none of the other women would be present. There, however, she met a man who told her everything she ever did. He met her where she was, and to her declaration that her people were waiting for the Messiah to come and reveal all, Christ responded with, ‘I Am’.

We islanders were not the first to place value upon family history, and upon names to embody enduring truths about us. In the Old Testament, a person’s name frequently tells of their character, or their greatest attribute. God often renamed them to fit their new life – Abram became Abraham and Sarai, Sarah, for example. Jesus, who had a human genealogy, just like you or I, chose instead to use ‘I Am’ when meeting this marginalised woman.

We are not told her name. Not even a family nickname to go on. Had she been from Shawbost, rather than Samaria, the lack of detail might be frustrating. But then, she’d had five husbands, so perhaps we could place her after all. Jesus didn’t concern Himself too much with her past, though. Yes, He mentioned it, to show that He knew her, but He didn’t cast it up against her. The woman’s inward transformation came through hearing His name and knowing – really believing- who He was.

Just as we need to ‘place’ people within their family trees in order to feel that we know them, this woman also had to hear who Jesus was. Even if she had been told his human name, however, it might have meant nothing to her. On the other hand, hearing, ‘I Am’ caused her to forget her outcast status and run headlong towards the very people who had shunned her.

That’s the change of identity we should all be striving for. Your DNA might say you’re descended from Vikings, and your family tree tell you that great-uncle Alasdair was a bit of a one for the boireannaich. But your Saviour says, ‘I Am’ –  and none of that other history matters anymore.

Samhain and the Power of Darkness

The veil between this world and the world of spirits was always at its thinnest on 31st October: Hallowe’en to the kids of today, but Samhain to our long-dead ancestors. Samhain was a fire festival, marking the end of harvest and the beginning of the dark months. It was also a sort of passage in time, no longer in the old year, nor yet quite into the new. The spirits of the Otherworld could insinuate themselves into such breaches in continuity; they could return to warm themselves at the hearths of the living, and even take possession of their bodies in order to remain in the earthly realm well beyond Samhain.

Don’t run away with the idea that our Celtic ancestors were morbid, with a fixation on death, though. No, no, that sort of glumness didn’t kick in until 1843, when the Free Church outlawed fun, laughing within a six-mile radius of the minister, and wearing your hat at jaunty angles. Think instead of Samhain as a jolly festival, with flames to light up the encroaching darkness and a whole lot of clamour to confuse the ghosts.

You see, Samhain wasn’t really about death at all – it was about keeping these very forces at bay. It was about marking the safe in-gathering of the harvest. And, while we look on winter as the end of life, the Celts saw it quite differently. Time, for them, was cyclical and Samhain was both an end and a new beginning. They realised that the budding and blooming we witness in the spring does not just happen spontaneously, but is the latter-end of a process which begins many months before.

In nature, regeneration first requires darkness. You plant a seed. Then you water it. And you watch. Nothing happens. Repeat the watering, the watching and – yes, probably – the despairing, many times. One day, though, your patience and your care are rewarded: a single, green shoot has made its appearance. Conceived and prepared in the dark, but flourishing in the light.

I recall an evening last summer, planting flowers in the long bed at the front of the house. It is surrounded and shaded by trees planted and lovingly tended by my late husband. With the warmth of the sun causing sweet fragrance from the fresh-cut grass to perfume the air, and the sound of birdsong beginning to drowse above me, I listened to a sermon on Genesis 1. Never has it been brought home to me more powerfully that we were meant to live in a garden.

Listening to those familiar words, ‘In the beginning, God . . .’ being described as a prelude to the whole Bible, I found myself wondering what it would have been like had we lived only in a Genesis 1 world.

For an idea of how it might have been, play Haydn’s oratorio, ‘The Creation’: all is the glory of God and the perfection of His handiwork. Indeed, the Catholic Church took great exception to it and banned its performance in places of worship precisely because of its portrayal of a perfectly-ordered world. Its emphasis is, undoubtedly, positive because it largely dwells on God’s perfect work. Nonetheless, the Fall does intrude towards the end, however minimised it is by the composer.

In a work entitled ‘The Creation’, Haydn might well have been excused for excluding sin altogether. But for one thing. He had been inspired to compose his great work after hearing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ performed for the first time. It made a powerful impression on him. No one who has once encountered the Messiah can then look upon Creation in the same way again, nor be unaware of the need sin has created for salvation.

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It is just as well that we humans do not know what lies ahead, because with our small minds, and limited life-spans, we frequently reach the least optimistic conclusions.  Adam and Eve must have been so weighed down with sorrow on leaving the garden; they couldn’t see the Saviour who would come to make reparations on their behalf. Perhaps, for them, the story ended like Haydn’s, with the Fall.  But God, omnipresent and omniscient, is also wholly trustworthy.

Nature witnesses to its Creator. It has an inherent wisdom, and a completeness to it. Where we see darkness and decay, nature is actually resting and regenerating. Last year’s roses shrivel and fall, the shrub a desiccated stick. Yet, beneath the ground, the roots are gathering strength, ready to produce new shoots.

As it is in Creation, so it is with the Creator: He nurtures that growth, hidden from our view until He is ready to reveal it to our sight, and to His own glory.

A Highland River of Life

If I had to pick just one day out of my life to relive, I might choose the first time I walked the Dunbeath strath with the man who was, the following summer, to become my husband. It was May holiday, 2002: warm, sunny, just one of those perfect days that stands out in my memory for reasons too insubstantial to put into words: you had to be there; and of the two who were, I am the only one left.

Part of the magic was that this was Neil Gunn’s strath. He has been my favourite writer for many years now and I can still recall the delight I felt as I recognised places mentioned in his novels – the meal mill, the House of Peace, the Prisoner’s Leap. Most of all, it brought to mind his 1937 novel, winner of the James Tait Memorial Prize – ‘Highland River’. Ever since reading that unique book, I found it impossible to walk beside any river without thinking of Kenn, the central character, making his journey towards the source: the source of the river, the source of his own identity.

Gunn believed that the Gaels were united by more than a mere language, that they were bound together by common experience, and by landscape. He was a great believer in the collective unconscious: Jung’s idea that people may share a second-level consciousness which cannot be related to their own direct experience. It describes what we might otherwise call ‘instinct’.

Calvin was a proponent of instinct in a way too. He argued that the light of nature – natural man’s awareness of God’s existence – is in each one of us, however distorted by sin. This was, and is, not to be confused with the light of the world in the person of Jesus Christ. In no way was Calvin suggesting that the sensus divinitatis, this awareness of God, was sufficient in itself; without the Spirit’s illumination, we cannot know God savingly. As the Westminster Confession of Faith has it:

‘Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.

As Kenn nears his final destination, the source of the river, he feels a strong sense of his own abiding solitude:

‘That was his destiny. He saw its meaning in his people, even in their religion, for what was the Calvinist but one who would have no mediating figure between himself and the ultimate, no one to take responsibility from him, to suffer for him.’

Well, true in part: Calvinists do not place their trust in priests, or bishops, in confessionals or man-made absolution. Calvinists, however, do believe in the great and only mediating figure. He has already suffered and taken responsibility for our sins. If, knowing this, we choose solitude and suffering for ourselves, we are not Calvinists, but fools.

Far be it from me to disagree with Calvin – that’s not how I was brought up. There is, I believe, an instinctive awareness of God in us, which the Creation further demonstrates. That, however, is surely as far as one can go with that. You can be aware of the existence of the Creator by witnessing the work of His hand, yes – but you cannot know Him apart from the Son and the Spirit. To truly know Him, you must know how He has dealt with mankind, how He has dealt with you. You must know the sacrifice He has made.

When I go back now, in my mind, to that strath, and to that day, I see Him there. Yes, in the beauty of the river, in the brightness of the sun and in the fragrance of nature. All of that, but this too: He planned that day, we two, and all that would become of us. Not just planned, but ordained, brought into being: authored and finished.

The mere, dim light of nature is not enough. It will leave us like those poor Greeks at the Areopagus, with an altar ‘to the unknown god’. If He is unknown to us, that is not because He is unknowable, but because we have not yet traced the river of our life back to its source.

‘For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light do we see light.’

Glamorous witches and grammar lessons

Words are very powerful – written, or spoken, they have the capacity to build up, or to tear down; to encourage, or to dissuade. I have often spoken unwisely, wished my last sentence unsaid, or regretted the line I failed to add at the end of a note, or email, or the word of encouragement I could have dropped into a waiting ear. So many people have been kind to me, have reassured me, have taken an interest in whatever nonsense I had to say. . . but did I do the same for them? Too often, I know I fall short, despite being full of love and admiration for so many of my fellow humans: even some of those I know personally.

We are reticent people here in Lewis. Not long ago, I complimented an elder on his precenting that evening in church. He actually reeled backwards, as though I’d physically struck him. Perhaps, on reflection, that says more about my habitually sarcastic tone than it does about his ability to graciously accept praise. Nonetheless, it taught me a valuable lesson. It is wise to reflect on how infrequently I offer the kind observations that are in my mind, and how readily I manage to unleash the other variety.

Compliments were, historically, frowned upon in these parts, though. Remarks such as, ‘your cruach looks beautiful in the moonlight’ were viewed less as a prelude to romance, and more as a prelude to some serious peat thieving. To point out the beauty of a person’s cow would, today, merely be regarded as a bit weird. People would assume that you didn’t get out much, and that small-talk wasn’t really your forte. In your great-granny’s day, however, it would be seen as a possible precursor to witchcraft of the sort that left your cow producing skimmed milk. Fine, you might think, have a skinny latte and get on with it. Not your great-granny, though: she would have recourse to her own, or someone else’s eolas.

Eolas was what you might call a spell, or a charm. It usually combined ritual with verses of some sort, which were to be uttered in order to relieve the ill-effects of the evil eye. Witches were known to keep such valuable words in a book known as a ‘grimoire’, which comes from the same root as ‘grammar’.

Yet, despite these dark associations, the two most abiding grammar lessons I ever received were when I was sitting in church.

Just recently, a visiting preacher reawakened a precious memory for me. He read from 1 Corinthians 1:18 and I remembered the first time, nearly twenty years ago, that I heard a minister use the phrase ‘being saved’. I still recall that feeling, like a small spring bubbling up in my heart, joyous that salvation could be described as a process. Even now, I don’t fully understand why it made me so glad.

But it IS real cause for joy. Something that is called ‘the present progressive tense’, when applied to God’s work, has two great qualities: it is NOW and it is GROWING. ‘Being saved’ is better, even than simply ‘saved’, I think, because it reminds us of the Lord’s activity on our behalf, and in our lives all the time. Because He is present, we are progressing.

And the other grammar lesson? Some weeks – possibly months – ago now, our minister preached on Jesus’ command to us, if we do not yet know Him, simply to ‘come’. You can see in your mind’s eye, His hand stretched out towards you, imploring you not to delay. There are so many reasons not to put it off, but the main one relates to a straightforward question of grammar too; as the preacher reminded us: ‘the imperative has no future’. His command for us to come means, ‘come now’.

From the same source as  ‘grammar’, and ‘grimoire’, we also get ‘glamour’. Oh, not the kind we associate with supermodels and sirens of stage and screen. No, this was the indefinable magnetism witches used in order to draw you to themselves. It is the same glamour that the world uses to attract us, and ensnare us. Ultimately, we will discover that it’s empty, just a pale ghost of a thing, without form or substance. But, ultimately is too late.

Jesus wants us to come now, so that we may be among those who are being saved. He wants us to pick His grammar over the glamour of the world, and it is imperative that we listen – now.

No Denominations in Heaven

The Wee Frees are famously not big on symbolism. Step inside one of the denomination’s churches and your nostrils will not be assailed by the aroma of incense, nor your eyes by art and effigies. There may be coloured glass in the windows, or there may not, but there is no gilding on display, no costly baubles adorning the walls.

Yet, it is not without its idiosyncrasies. It is like every other community in the sense that it has its own unwritten codes and customs which only those who belong to it ‘get’. Those who belong to it feel great affection for it; those who do not belong to it may be a little nonplussed. I’m speaking here of the Lewis incarnation of the Free Church, of course.

Communities frequently have their own language. Elsewhere, I have spoken of the inelegant description of regular churchgoers as being ‘out both ends’. At a conference some months ago, one of the speakers mentioned the confusion that might be experienced by those not ‘in the know’ when their Free Church friends declare with delight that, ‘Margaret came out on Wednesday night’. And, recently, I confused a friend who is still new to worship in our congregation by casually alluding to a ‘retiring collection’.

All of this just witnesses to the fact that our denomination has a long history; that we function as a community with a rich culture all its own. Our roots go deep in this corner of the world. Yet, somehow, the Free Church remains a mystery to those who only view it from outside. They see their friends, neighbours and even relatives trot off to church each week and still have an incredibly warped notion of what goes on inside these edifices.

In recent months, the non-church (honestly, it’s the only label I feel safe to use) section of our community has displayed a woeful ignorance of, and sometimes incredibly imaginative take on, Free Church practice. From what I can gather, they think that women of this denomination are weak, biddable, suggestible automatons, who allow their menfolk to tell them what to do,read, think, and even how to vote. The men are bullies with a very 17th century take on marriage. Kirk sessions instruct their congregations in political matters and hold secret, sinister power over the local council (though not, apparently, the Licensing Board). And, let me say again, those who take this view are people who know us personally: our friends and our neighbours. They know us in our villages, our schools, our workplaces, our clubs and our committees. Their children and ours play together. Yet, despite all those real connections, they seem to believe this utter nonsense about people who have  given their lives to Christ.

I have something I’d like to say to such people:

When you live next door to someone who is a Christian, regardless of denomination, don’t you take them at face value? If they seem nice, reasonable, ordinary . . . isn’t it just possible that they are? And, if they are, what is your hostility about? Might it be something in you? Couldn’t it be that you have created a foe to despise because, to see things as they really are might be dangerous? What if something in their lifestyle appealed to you?

There is absolutely no point in attacking a denomination, for the same reason that there is no point in me defending one. They are all made up of people – individuals whom you know. Turning your attention onto some outdated Iain Crichton Smith meets Lars Von Trier meets the Wicker Man parody of the Free Church is a painfully obvious, nay, childish tactic. Don’t do that to yourself. You are worth more than that. Instead, get to know someone who lives for Christ, and ask them why. Ask them why they follow Him, and why He rules their lives, instead of why they won’t compromise over Sunday openings. Once you understand their faith, I guarantee that their obedience will make more sense.

I heard a story of a man who had a dream, in which he saw buses arriving at the gates of Heaven. The first, marked, ‘Church of Scotland’, was waved away. Then, the second, labelled, ‘Free Church’, was similarly dismissed. Being a Free Presbyterian, he was surprised when their bus met with the same response. Then, though, one arrived, bearing the legend, ‘Church of Christ’, and the gates opened wide to admit it.

Do not, in your fear, try to make Christ small. He isn’t interested in denominations; and He isn’t in one more than another. Come to ours, come to any – but do come. Please, in the words of the hymn, ‘turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of this world will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.’

Follow Christ, not Christians. We will let you down; but He never will.

The Seer and the Promise of Rain

There was a time when every village in the Highlands and Islands would have had a taibhsear, a person gifted with the ability to see into the otherworld of ghosts and death. These people operated at a different level to the seer, whose concerns were less domestic and frequently strayed into national issues. No, the taibhsear was mainly plagued by visions of phantom funerals, of shrouds on his neighbours, and of the visitation of death to the locality.

In discussing these aspects of our heritage with students, I am frequently asked why the gift of second sight seems to be in retreat. Of course, I am not qualified to give a definitive answer to that – no one is – but I do have my own thoughts on it.

Firstly, why do we use the word, ‘community’ so frequently nowadays? It derives from the Latin, communitas and was originally a noun of quality, meant to name, not a physical place, but a feeling of fellowship, of unity, of oneness. In Lewis, my parents’ generation and all of those preceding would never have dreamt of using the word: in Gaelic, they talked about ‘baile’ and in English, ‘village’. The rest was implied. ‘Anns a’ bhaile againne’, meaning, ‘in our village’, was a frequently used phrase which took as read all of those attributes with which we now associate the word, ‘community’. People lived in close proximity to one another, shared a similar worldview and an almost identical experience of life.

Also, if you go back far enough, they feared the same things. The threat of illness, and of death hovered near them and manifested itself in belief relating to the fairies, to the evil eye and to witches. Many of life’s events can seem random and unexpected. If, however, you can anticipate them to some degree, you may regain a little power. To a certain extent, you can even take the sting from death if you see it coming.

And secondly, isn’t it possible that such closeness bred something else – an instinct, an intuition for your neighbours, as much as for your own family? Look at Derick Thomson’s description of a Lewis sky:

Probably there’s no other sky in the world
That makes it so easy for people
To look in on eternity

Did they get some deep sense of their own smallness against the vastness of Creation? Perhaps it caused them to cling more closely to one another in ways that we simply cannot understand. We have lost something more than just the gift of second sight along this way; we have lost the care for one another that used to operate at such a natural level. And, dare I say, we have lost our own innate sense of eternity?

This is how it is possible for division to emerge in our midst where none previously existed. It is sadly inevitable that atheists and Christians will not be able to agree on certain matters. This rift cannot be healed by arguing round in ever more ill-tempered circles.

It can, however, be healed by prayer and by the constancy of God’s people. In the past, many of those who were reputedly gifted with the second sight were ministers and ‘Men’. No less a person than Dr John Kennedy of Dingwall thought of second sight as hierophany – the Lord manifesting Himself to those lacking regular access to the Word. His own father was thought to be thus gifted and foresaw, amongst other things, the Disruption of 1843, though he did not live to see his prophecy fulfilled.

The Disruption, which formed the Free Church of Scotland, was much more than a mere political movement. It was preceded by a widespread spiritual revival in the Highlands and Islands. Otherwise, the people could not have taken such a radical, faith-fuelled step. And such revivals are always precipitated by prayer. Real, heart-felt, expecting prayer.

Recently, in a study on the life of Elijah, our congregation heard of his earnest petitions to God for rain in the midst of drought, with his head bowed between his knees. Though he entreated desperately, he did so in faith. And when his servant reported the appearance in the sky of a tiny cloud, Elijah knew this was the emerging fulfilment of God’s promise.

We are – right now – in the midst of what can sometimes feels like spiritual drought. It would be easy to forget that God does not wish us to sit back in despair, but expects us to pray in earnest. Notice, Elijah was so serious about prayer that he employed someone else to check the sky while he got on with the real business in hand.

Our problem might be that we just keep on checking the sky, shaking our heads sadly before once again fixing our eyes on the parched ground. We need to pray, and we need to be ready to spot the little cloud when it appears – because if we pray in faith, it IS coming. First the cloud, then the deluge and then, up from the barren earth, fruit.

God isn’t silent – He’s simply waiting for our prayers. These have to include the wilfully blind in our midst – for who is to say that one of them is not that very cloud?