Welcome to Lewis: God’s providence is our inheritance

Last Sunday began, somewhat unusually, with me having my feet filmed as they walked up Francis Street to our Gaelic church, the Seminary. It is, of course, possible that the tv folk were trying to be arty and symbolic – you know, walking away from one of the town’s three Church of Scotland buildings, before cresting the hill towards the Free. Or, they wanted to show that Wee Free women can actually be frivolous (I was wearing pink shoes).

My main concern was that, given how infrequently I visit the Seminary, people there might assume I only ever travel with a full camera crew in tow. Fortunately, the visiting minister had been forewarned, so he didn’t think it was some elaborate, attention-seeking ploy on my part.

What is special about Sunday in Lewis, the journalist, Christina, asked me. Indeed – what?

The peace, the quiet, the fact that people who don’t offer services of necessity or mercy are guaranteed a day with their family. It has always been this way, as far back as any of us remember. Children were allowed to play outside quietly, not because they were being repressed, but because they were learning respect for other people. My late husband, whose father was an elder in their local church, was allowed to play football on Traigh Mhor with other boys, and remembered almost bursting his lungs running home to be in time for the evening service.

Balance, you see, is something we’ve always been good at here. The writer, James Shaw Grant wrote movingly of the scene on the Stornoway quayside on a Thursday evening towards the end of August in 1939. It was the Stornoway communion, and after the evening service, worshippers thronged the pier to wave the first draft of men off to the Royal Naval Reserve. Despite the great crowd, there was silence at first, and then, a lone voice on the quay took up Psalm 46 in Gaelic:

‘ ‘S e Dia as tearmann dhuinn gu beachd,
Ar spionnadh e ‘s ar treis’

Gradually, the men on board the ship, and the crowd of onlookers joined in, their voices linking across the widening strip of water. Wherever in the world these reservists would be sent, and whatever their fate, they and the loved ones at home were in the hollow of God’s hand. The world was teetering on the brink of a violent and protracted war. In what looked like an act of supreme faith, all concerned put their trust in the Lord to protect them and to strengthen them.

But a few days later, the second draft left to the sound of bagpipes, Gaelic song, and laughter. Balance, you see.

This island has always had a great sense of timing. It has responded to what comes its way appropriately and proportionately. Sometimes, this has been mistaken for fatalism, for cowardice, and even for laziness.

Not so. The burgh coat of arms, designed by the old Stornoway Town Council bore the text, ‘God’s providence is our inheritance’. There was a strong relationship between the people of the island and their God. It served them well in times of trouble, to remember that it is all in His providence, entirely dependent upon Him.

I think that if it was possible to go back in time and ask the people what was difficult and repressive about their life, they might say that it was the relentless hard work for little reward; they might mention the harshness of the weather; they might mention poor housing and unequal access to healthcare. Perhaps those from the outlying districts of Lewis would tell you that they missed their children, who had to stay in hostels all week.

Not everything about Lewis was perfect in the past, any more than it is now. But I believe that those Leodhasaich of times gone by would be puzzled by any suggestion that God was the problem.

Through the devastation of the Great War, compounded by the unspeakable tragedy of the Iolaire in the first few hours of 1919, to the decade of emigration that followed, and the heart-rending fear of the Second World War, the people turned to God.

The night that initial draft left, He was worshipped first. And then it was His strength that the departing sailors and their anxious community called upon. Amongst those who watched their sons board the ‘Lochness’ must have been men who had come through the horror of the trenches, and perhaps survived the breaking of the ‘Iolaire’ on the Beasts of Holm.

They had seen all the agonies of war, and come through it to stand, in Stornoway on the cusp of another conflict, and sing a psalm to God. He had taken them safely through, and He would watch over their sons in the heat of battle also.

Everyone who knows the history of this island will be aware that little Lewis contributed a disproportionate amount of its lifeblood in the last war. We remember that sacrifice each November.

There is always a time for remembrance. We remember the fallen of both World Wars; we remember loved ones that have gone; we remember the Lord’s death until He comes, by drinking wine and eating bread.

That communion in 1939 must have been remarkable. On a day of preparation, these islanders had a vivid reminder of why they needed God’s strength and protection.

Timing is everything. And as I look at the world around me, I think this is far from being the right moment to cast off our Christian heritage. We need to gather on that pier once more, and sing across the darkening water:

Be still, and know that I am God;
among the heathen I
Will be exalted; I on earth
will be exalted high.

Our God, who is the Lord of hosts,
is still upon our side;
The God of Jacob our refuge
for ever will abide.

 

 

 

 

Tweed, gin and . . . psalms?

‘Just yourself, or the whole Session?’ I nervously asked the minister recently, when he mentioned that he would like a word after the service. I frequently worry that I might unwittingly commit heresy and find myself summoned to where the dark-suited ones are most awfully assembled. On this occasion, however, it was not chastisement that awaited me, but a request that I might stand in for the minister while he took a holiday.

Not in the pulpit, you understand, but speaking to some journalists about our Gaelic and Christian heritage.

For, you see, they are two sides of the same coin.Even the lovely French-Canadian journalist grasped this during her brief stay in Lewis. We met for coffee the day before the interview and I told her of the difficulty that newcomers to the island have with understanding the culture.
‘But you must preserve it’, she said earnestly. Already she could see.

Of course we must. The sad thing is that we even have to talk about it. Our observance of the Lord’s day in this island has given Sunday its special, relaxed quality. We mustn’t say that it’s good for mental health, though. I made that mistake recently on Twitter and the howls of derision from our secular neighbours were quite shrill. How, they asked, could I suggest that having a choice of how to spend the day was bad for anyone’s mental health?

Their question, designed to make me look silly actually reveals something about their own selfish agenda. I was, in fact, thinking of all the people who presently have the peace of mind of knowing that they will not be asked to work on a Sunday. They were, as ever, thinking only of themselves.

Coffee does not pour itself, films do not project themselves onto screens. Behind every person expected to turn out to work on a Sunday so that the secularists have that much lauded luxury – ‘choice’ – is a family. You see, they talk about ‘a family day’ and ‘family time’, and ‘family activities’, but what they actually mean is their family; not yours.

And it wouldn’t be so ironic if it wasn’t for the fact that they try so hard to position Christians as selfish, and themselves as tolerant.

We can’t expect people who were not brought up in this unique, precious and sadly precarious culture to understand it as native islanders do. They simply cannot, any more than I could become a Weegie by moving to Glasgow, or a Cockney by making my home in earshot of Bow Bells. So we should certainly cut them a little slack.

However, we can expect them to try. Lewis is not Glasgow, nor is it London: it is, as James Shaw Grant said, ‘a loveable, irrational island’. Come and live in it by all means, but learn a little about it first. It is open for business six days only. But who really comes to Lewis for commerce? Perhaps you can’t buy a latte or swim in the pool on Sunday, but you can leave your back door unlocked. Maybe your child can’t see the latest Pixar on the Lord’s Day, but then you can let them play outside by themselves without obsessively watching.

When I take a holiday, I do a fair bit of research into my destination beforehand; who makes their home in an island like Lewis without knowing how things are here? Sunday is special to more than just the Bible-bashers and Wee Frees.

Oh, and speaking of Wee Frees, a wee read of the history of the Gaels might help some understand the church they’re so fond of knocking. It holds disproportionate power, they say, over the people; improper influence in a secular world.

No, it has a special place in our affection, because of its history. Our forebears were treated as though their culture was nothing – their way of life, their language, their very selves – and their communities were broken apart in the pursuit of capitalism.

Leadership came from the newly-formed Free Church, established on the foundation of complete sovereignty under the headship of Christ. They saw food to the destitute and spiritual nourishment to hungry souls. This church preached in the language of the people, and helped to lead a generation out of the worst kind of bondage: the one that says the world and its tinsel-show is all there is.

The Wee Frees still march under that banner. And here in Lewis, it’s just as it was in the time of the clearances: the pursuit of commercialism, the desire to be identical to everywhere else, and the blind destruction of something so far beyond price.

It has happened this way in many other minority cultures too. ‘Oh’, they will say, ‘Christianity and culture are not the same’. It is in the imperialist mindset to tell the native what he is and isn’t. Harris gin, HebCeltFest and tweed are in; orduighean and Gaelic psalms are out. And God? Very last century, so they tell us.

This week, the local presbytery of the Free Church is holding days of prayer in its various congregations. Many petitions will be made for the Christian heritage of Lewis. It is not so much about asking to preserve it, but earnestly praying to preserve from themselves those who are bent on destroying it.

My heart goes out to them, for they have no idea what they’re doing.

 

 

 

Secularists in the last stronghold

This week has not been great for my self-esteem. It began, last Sunday, when an elder introduced me to the congregational fellowship in terms of who my dog is. It’s probably because the dog is male and, therefore, the closest thing to a reliable head that this household has. Then, there was the class on Martin Martin which evidently wasn’t as exciting for the students as it was for me. And, of course, there was the realisation that there are people out there who think I’m a selfish, narrow-minded, entrenched bigot.

That’s never nice to hear. Not even, I imagine, if it’s actually true. I am certainly selfish and entrenched about some things, but definitely not narrow-minded. Some of my best friends are Church of Scotland (disclaimer: this is artistic licence and somewhat of a fib).

Calling me a ‘bigot’ is, to their minds, the most offensive insult the secularists could conjure up. I’m not bothered, though, because I realise that it’s a term they use for anyone who opposes their worldview.

Their worldview, incidentally, is something they’ve created for themselves. In their canon, they have no god but Richard Dawkins, no law but that of, ‘do what you like as long as it harms no one else’. The mantra that they claim for themselves is ‘tolerate everything’.

Except, not quite everything. They want a secular society – separation, they will tell you, of church and state. Some of them can get quite verbose on the subject.

‘Blimey’, you might very well think, ‘these people have real drive and enthusiasm. This message of theirs must be worth hearing’.

Lewis has been a six-day society as far back as any of us remember. Sundays are quiet, the pace is slower. It is altogether more . . . well, Hebridean, on the Lord’s Day. Is it selfish of me to want the island that I love to go on being itself for as long as possible? I don’t want to watch it being exploited, stripped of its charm and character, and robbed of its Christian heritage.

I used to be mildly amused by the epithet, ‘last stronghold of the Gospel’, applied to our island. Now, however, it feels true. Or, at the very least, it feels like one stronghold. It is under attack, rattled, battered, miscalled and degraded.

Christianity has given Lewis a lot of its character. Only this week, I attended the evening worship in connection with the death of a neighbour. The Gaelic singing was beautiful, rising and falling gently like a breeze across the machair. Our cadences, our vocabulary, even our unique island humour, have all been enriched by this Christian heritage. It is ours; it is ours as surely as the Gaelic language is ours, as surely as the sharp pain of cianalas for home and loved ones is ours when we are parted from them.

If you are acquainted with our history as Leodhsaich and as Gaidheil, you will also be aware that this is not the first time people who know the price but never the value have tried to take away our identity. It has been done elsewhere too – in the United States it has been called, ‘taking the Indian out of the Indian’.

They tell us we’re backward, ignorant, narrow, bigoted, stuck in the past. It’s what they said to stop us speaking our language. Then they used it to beguile people onto emigrant ships. And now it’s being used to try to remove Christianity from public life.

But, you say, this cannot be mere iconoclasm. These secularists must have a mission, a message, something bold and beautiful to replace te Son of God.

Sure they do, it’s: coffee; swimming; films.

We don’t do enough of those here in Lewis. The Lord is selfishly taking up the space where more cappuccinos and 12-certificates could go. Those who quite like Him being around are reminded constantly that this is a symptom of their native ignorance. Only a stupid, knuckle-dragging maw still believes in Christ. What kind of daft yokel wastes their Sundays on Him when they could be drinking a frothy coffee in a noisy restaurant?

I have said before that the secularists are anti-Christian, and so they are. But I think that may be letting them off the hook a little too easily. Let us go on in the spirit of telling it like it is. We know they don’t approve of fairy tales, preferring unvarnished truth, like the mature, 21st century people they are.

So, here it is. The truth. Secularists, I’m talking to you.

You are not simply attacking the beliefs of many Christians when you glibly call us the many names you have used; you are attacking Christ. When you try to disrupt the Lewis Sunday, you are not merely inconveniencing a few folk in the Free Church; you are offending Christ. And when you talk of Scripture as fantasy and folktales, you are not simply laughing at those who live their lives by it; you are mocking Christ.

Please don’t think that I’m trying to frighten you, or that this is about control – forget what you think you know about Christians. I was once as you are now, and I might still be that way but, quite literally, for the grace of God. No one scared me into putting my faith in Christ; no one could. And no one is trying to do that to you.

We know Him and we love Him. And because of Him and His perfection (certainly nothing in us), we want you to know the same peace, the same joy.

The apostle Paul once persecuted Christians, but came to love his Lord and exhorted others to be ambassadors for Christ. We make a poor show of it frequently, I know, but as long as we are looking on Him, just ignore us, and follow our gaze.

Lewis is not the stronghold; the Free Church is not the stronghold: Jesus Christ is. Make your home in Him and you will always be free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Father, Our Heritage

There is a school in Lewis, I’m told, where the day no longer begins with the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer, for anyone who doesn’t know, was given to us as a pattern for how we should communicate with the Lord.

But someone – and I don’t know who makes these kinds of decisions – has taken it upon themselves to decide that children don’t have to know how to pray. There is someone in the local educational establishment who is so certain that we no longer require God, that they are prepared to take this step.

This person needs our prayers.

They need our prayers, not just because they plainly doubt the central message of Christianity for themselves. Somehow, through their role in education, they have been entrusted with important decisions regarding the welfare of children. And they have chosen to apply that status to this grievous step. Having, presumably, had the opportunity to accept or reject Christ for themselves, they have chosen to turn their face from Him.

But they are so assured of His irrelevance that they have decided that the children for whom they have responsibility do not need Him either.

I stand in awe of such self-belief.

The well-rehearsed argument of the secularists is that Christian parents should teach their own children how to pray. Yes, they should and, I imagine, do. But what about non-Christian parents? Their children will not be taught at home how to call on the Lord, or even that such a path is open to them.

‘My child can decide for himself, when he’s older’, they tell you. Don’t be fooled by the decisive tone in which this is said, however – hear the vagueness of what they’re saying. Their child will decide at some future point. Not now, though. So, when?

 

Children learn about world religions as a matter of course. The same parents who wanted an end to the Lord’s Prayer are perfectly happy to see their wee ones coming home with books about Diwali and Hanukkah. It’s okay to talk about Mohammed and Buddha, but keep Jesus out of it. Let them have superficial knowledge about what others believe, but don’t give them anything practical that they can use; don’t, for any sake, allow them to understand that they belong to a Christian heritage.

Don’t give them the life skill that is prayer.

Whoever has chosen this path is sending a very damaging message to the children. In an education authority where 44% of the population attends church, acknowledges God as its Father, and communicates regularly with Him in prayer, the children are effectively being told: this is nothing to do with you. You may hear prayers, you may know praying people, but what is that to you?

A curriculum which fails to reflect the local community is letting its young people down. I thought that the Western Isles had learned that lesson with the Gaelic language. There was a day when it was the norm for children to hear and speak only Gaelic  in the community; and to hear and speak only English in school. With enlightenment and the lifting of anti-Gaelic prejudice came a desire to let the school be an extension of the culture in which it was situated.

Everyone realised that this was the right way to educate children – the function of a school should never be to wean the child away from his heritage.

Yet, here we stand in 2017. Children from Christian homes, from Bible-believing homes, go to a school where prayer is not uttered. They sit down to eat, and grace is not said. God – their God, and the God of their parents – is not acknowledged.

When I was a child, my parents sent me to school, secure in the knowledge that the values of our home would be extended into my  school day. We began each morning with the Lord’s Prayer; we commenced each meal with a blessing. Nobody tried to impose anything on us – it was simply how the day was framed. Some of my peers have grown up to be atheists, some to be Christians. The place given to prayer in the school day did not ‘brainwash’ any of us – but it did affirm the values of our island community.

Those who became atheists are not, I pray, a finished product, but a work in progress.

I can pray for them because my Lord showed me how. And they, when darkness threatens to overwhelm, can pray for themselves because our school allowed them to learn that skill.

Whoever has decided to end the use of prayer in a primary school in Lewis has made a mistake. But God is merciful, and He allows second chances. He forgives those that trespass against Him.

The Lord’s Prayer begins with an acknowledgement of our Father in Heaven. It ends by giving Him the glory.

I pray, with the entire Christian community of Lewis, that this story will finish that way too.

 

 

Ambushed by the Enemy Within

I have a friend who is an elder. He is also a relative of some description but this is Lewis, so isn’t everyone? We have a Henry or two in common ancestry, that’s all I know. This particular fellow has a weakness for loud ties and, despite the fact that he has zero rein over his tambourine-wielding wife, I have an awful lot of time for him. She may be out of control, but I’m quite fond of her too, and have high hopes of reforming her. Or, at least, of removing her tambourine to a place of safety (probably Martin’s Memorial).

He asked me an interesting question about this blog recently. In fact, he’s asked me twice whether I get a lot of negative comments about it. A valid enquiry. Apart from that one time the minister cautioned me that I was in danger of harming my mother’s mental health (‘you’re sending your mother droil and she’s going to have to leave the island’ were, I believe his exact words), no one has given me any hassle about what I write.

It surprises me in one way because I have certainly experienced spiritual attack. I expected to; I’m a member of a very level-headed and scripturally-grounded church, so I was warned to expect such things after coming out for Christ. They prepared me for it, and they equipped me to know how to deal with it.

When it came, though, it did not happen the way that I thought it would. The Devil is the master of the surprise attack, the spiritual ambush, and while I was busy crying and getting upset about what had happened to me, he was stealing my peace. And here’s how he did it:

He exploited my sinful weakness and my propensity to harbour a grudge. Deviously, he got me to inflict the real harm on myself.

On what would have been my husband’s birthday last year, with the knowledge that his headstone was being installed in the cemetery at that moment, I took the dog for a walk, already feeling emotionally fragile. Yards from my own gate I was subjected to an aggressive verbal assault from a neighbour that I had never spoken to in my life. About Donnie’s death, she spat these words I will never forget: ‘I don’t care. Sh*t happens’.

I shut down. Instead of reaching out to God, instead of running to be with His people, that Sunday, I stayed at home, feeling sorry for myself. And her poisonous words festered. She had physically threatened me, but her words about my loss were what really stung.

Earlier this year, before I even started the blog, I received a horrible tirade of anonymous messages. They were sinister, dark and vile. Amongst other things, I was accused of cynically portraying myself as a ‘perfect Christian’ and ‘the grieving widow who found God’. It was a time of great grief for our church, so I didn’t feel I could confide in people who were already over-burdened. This time, I didn’t stay away from worship, but felt strangely isolated.

And it was all my own fault.

You see, the power to harm me spiritually did not come from the words used by either of these poor souls. It lay entirely in my own difficulty with forgiveness, and an unfortunate tendency to self-pity.

The frontal attack from these people was not what my eye should have been on, but the enemy within. My heart is deceitful above all things, and it can even fool me.

But my church prepared me. Somewhere in the armoury I had what I needed. Prayer and the Word, as we are repeatedly told, make up the first line of defence. We have the weapons, we have the whole armour of God – but we forget to use them.

In this case, I eventually understood what He wanted me to do. I let go of my bitterness and the feelings of injustice that I am apt to nurse all too fondly. It is not
up to me to forgive, but it is so much better to pray that God will. Once you have prayed for someone, all the enmity goes. He has forgiven me much more than this; why should these two troubled souls not have the same? Perhaps because they don’t deserve His forgiveness?

But, then, neither do I. Yet, I have it.

When I let go of all the bitter thoughts, when I stopped rehashing their attacks in my mind, the miracle happened. God’s peace returned, and the Devil skulked away. He can’t abide the light.

Prayer is the most effective tool, the most powerful weapon, and the most enduring comfort that any Christian has. If you need to achieve something, to defend yourself, or to find peace, use prayer.

This blog has been a source of great blessing to me; it has brought so many wonderful people into my life. It is encompassed by a ring of prayer. I believe that is more impenetrable than a ring of steel.

And, know this, so does the enemy.

 

 

Lantern Beams & the Hebridean Cringe

‘Our distinctiveness lies in being ‘of the place’, rooted in who we are’. Does anyone want to guess who I’m quoting? The Free Church? Harris Tweed Hebrides? Comunn Eachdraidh Nis?

No, it’s ‘An Lanntair’ in Stornoway, the arts centre which serves the community hereabouts.

Even although I’m a Calvinist and, therefore, have to avert my eyes from anything remotely resembling an artistic representation, I am an occasional patron of the said Lanntair. I have watched films, seen plays, listened to talks, and drunk coffee there. Being a bit of a weirdo, I enjoyed their Faclan book festival a few years back, on the theme of the supernatural. Respectfully, I refrained from commenting on the fact that in amongst all the second sight and ghost stories, they had crowbarred Alistair Darling’s book-launch into the program too. Bernera connections and those eyebrows probably do qualify him for a space in the netherworld, after all.

So, because I have been a frequenter of the arts centre, I believe I’m allowed to comment on their latest foray into distinctiveness.

They have already this year devoted an entire calendar month to a celebration of LGBT culture (whatever that is). Apparently it’s important to celebrate diversity, and many of our resident secularists rushed to virtue-signal their support for the Lanntair, and their intention to attend at least one film, while also very carefully declaring their own heterosexuality, just in case. The same people also nearly got stuck in the door marked ‘Yes please’ when the plans for a small Islamic meeting place for Stornoway were unveiled.

They are for diversity. This doesn’t just mean simple respect – which I hope that all decent human beings are capable of – but actually celebrating difference. From what I can work out by observing their behaviour, it means that they are in favour of the LGBT community, and the Muslim community having a voice, and are swift to set down anyone who takes an opposing stance. Especially Christians.

And now, they are delighted that An Lanntair – which is ‘of the place’, remember – is going to trial Sunday film screenings. It is tediously posited by the usual suspects as the long-awaited provision of ‘something for families’.

When did family life consist of spending as much time as possible out of the home, and surrounded by other people? I remember Sundays which involved walks, reading, board games, talking to my parents . . . does that not happen any more? Am I being obtuse? If children are in school all week, and shepherded around various organised activities all weekend, where does the much talked-about ‘quality time’ come in?

This is all very well. People of a HASP+ (that’s Humanist , Atheist, Secular, Pagan and whatever else) tendency will say that they’re quite delighted. It is time that diversity had its moment in the Lewis sun. Anything that’s a bit new, a bit different is absolutely welcome. Everyone is just tired of those Christians, trying to spoil everything with their hackneyed old beliefs and their inconvenient lifestyle.

Do you know what this is? It’s a great, big, ugly extension of the Hebridean cringe.

Novelty wins every time over heritage. Tradition is an embarrassing affront to innovation. People are plastering the label ‘Hebridean’ on everything, while all the time disdaining what makes us distinctive.

When did this happen to the island? Why are we delighted to show tourists sites like Callanish, or Eaglais na h-Aoidh, or St Clement’s, but not the living, functioning reality of Christian worship? What makes us so proud of our Celtic music, but not our Celtic church?

What kind of revisionism is taking place when Lewis can be portrayed as some sort of microcosm of any of our larger cities, and no one bats an eyelid?

Well, I’m batting one now. This island in which I live, has far more cultural distinctiveness than to need to emulate London, or Glasgow. It is physically shaped by geology and by climatic forces, and by hundreds of years of crofting life. My ancestors scraped a living from the soil, and from the sea around our shores; they trooped off to war and some even trooped back again. They spoke Gaelic, and they worked their land in line with the seasons.

And on Sunday, they both rested and worshipped God.

Keeping Sunday as a day of rest is good for the body and for the mind. I’m not even going to mention the soul, because that’s a given. Our European neighbours know this to be true, and they’re not trying to scrap it in order to desperately ape what they do elsewhere.

That would be culturally insecure behaviour – and no one does that quite the way we do in Lewis. We’ve been embarrassed by our language, our accent, our faith, and now our very way of life.

I am of the place, and I am rooted in who I am. Gaelic-speaker, Calvinist member of the Free Church, reader of my people’s history. And I am not ashamed of any of these.

If An Lanntair wanted to live up to its name, to its mission statement and to the notion of art being a bit subversive, it could shine a light on what it is about Lewis culture that is so very precious.

‘Lantern’ actually, refers only to the outer casing, which encircles and protects the source of light.

It plays no part in trying to snuff it out.

 

Christianity and the Art of Motorcycle Accidents

Reading back over some of my blogs recently, I wanted to remind myself of what it is I’ve been rambling about. And then it occurred to me that I might be on the verge of creating a false impression. Mostly, when I write about faith, I talk about how it triumphs over adversity, how it has kept me, how it is sufficient for anything.

But I wouldn’t want to be accused of distorting the truth. Sometimes, my faith fails me.

The last time was right in the middle of the communion weekend. I had been to the Friday evening service, done a bit of shopping and was, finally, at half-past nine, making something to eat, having missed lunch and dinner. My home was quiet and my mood peaceful; but then the bad news came.

An accident, my nephew and his motorbike, hospital. In the few short minutes between hearing that the ambulance had picked him up out of the moor, and my sister calling to say that he was alright, I had imagined all sorts of things, but mostly that he was dead.

And, to my eternal shame, my first thought towards God was, ‘why have you done this to us now?’

The Devil can turn us into petulant children: why has God allowed this, haven’t we suffered enough? Surely He would not be so cruel, to inflict more loss on our family. In maybe three minutes, I had entertained despair, anguish, disbelief; that was all the time needed to make me forget who I am in Christ, and who I am to Christ.

Next day, discussing the accident with two people at my kitchen table – one a Christian, one not, as far as I know – we talked about God’s intervention in our lives. The lady, who is a Christian, agreed with me that His hand could be seen in the previous night’s events. Her husband shook his head at this and said that things will happen anyway, and we over-attribute them to God.

My defence was inadequate as ever. I am constantly aware of the words that were in my ear the evening I went to profess faith for the first time. The minister had preached from 1 Peter, ‘always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you’. And I am outstandingly useless at this. It troubles me how often I fail Him in this regard, even though I do try hard to find the right words.

But God did show me His hand in this. First of all, the news of the accident was broken to me by one of His people, which made all the difference. My sister, unusually, was not at home, but out with a friend when she heard, and so the friend drove her to hospital and stayed with her. Ordinarily, I would have been the person to do that, but I didn’t have to, which mattered to me because my last memories of that building are not good ones.

And, of course, Andy is alive and in one piece, apart from a broken and dislocated thumb.

During the not knowing, though, I thought of my nephew and, instead of the strapping twenty five year old who is 6’2″ tall (he doesn’t have the hobbit genes I inherited ), I was picturing the toddler whose hand I used to hold crossing the road. Your own mind can turn against you, which helps you turn against God. Is he dead, I wondered, or maimed; is he scared, is he alone? And all the while, thinking of the vulnerable wee boy, not the man.

Well, no, he was not alone. The people who caused the accident may have callously left him there, but the Lord put other people on the road that night – kind people who waited with him, reassured him and, crucially in Lewis in August,  tried to keep the midgies at bay until the paramedics came.

All of this tells me that, for every clever move the Devil makes, God is several steps ahead.

He protected my nephew, He  protected my sister; and He protected the rest of the family in that, by the time I called to tell them of the accident, we already knew that Andy was not badly injured.

And He certainly surrounded me. I suffered agonies for only a few minutes – He did not permit my anxiety for long. In all my human frailty, though, it was sufficient time to question God. That is certainly something for me to pray over and work upon. If Satan finds a way to drive a wedge so easily, I know he will use it at every opportunity .

Surely, if ever there was a case for the whole armour of God, my fragile heart is it. I am so thankful that my safety comes from the Lord and does not rely upon me.

And, despite my failure of nerve, I can still say, like Hudson Taylor, that though my faith may only be a little thing, it is in a great God. However I falter in my belief, His trustworthiness remains the same.

Bibles, Burials and way-out Wee Frees

I was in Ness again recently, and visited the spot in the old cemetery where the community buried 400 worn-out Bibles in 2006. They had been donated to the local charity shop but were unsalable because of their condition. Yet, people could not quite bring themselves to place the books in a bin. And so, just as the Hebrews used to do with their tattered, sacred scrolls, the Nisich held a funeral for the Bibles.

It seems to me like rank superstition. The Bible – by which I mean the tangible, paper object – is not in itself Holy. God’s word is holy, but the physical form which contains it is nothing more than a shell. And crucially, the Bible gives us no instruction on its own disposal.

Our unenlightened ancestors also treated the Bible in this talismanic way, using it as an amulet to protect them from fairies, witches and visions of death. Not the Word, you understand, but the book itself – carrying it in their pocket, or placing it under a pillow to ward off evil.

At the beginning of my day in Ness, our guide explained to the 45 Americans with whom I was sharing a spiritual pilgrimage, that my denomination did not believe in sacred places. He somewhat took me aback by adding, ‘because everywhere is sacred to them’.

I remember sipping my tea and wondering if I’d fundamentally misunderstood the Free Church, or if this was something adopted at the most recent General Assembly and not fully understood by anyone who doesn’t regularly use words like ‘anent’ or ‘crave’, or indeed realise that stamping one’s feet might still signify agreement in polite society.

Or, did this lovely, gentle Quaker simply not have the heart to tell our guests that I was an unreconstructed Calvinist of the type that burns fiddles and catechises innocent passers-by? Was it just nicer to say everywhere is sacred to us, rather than explain that we don’t have any of the . . . well, the soft window-dressing that people expect of the ‘Celtic’ church?

Sometimes, it’s kinder to chuck the violin on the bonfire than let someone keep trying to torture music out of it. But island restraint dictates that I didn’t contradict this description of my theology. It is not so much that I disapprove: just that I do not understand the need for places to be deemed holy. They are the work of a Divine hand, yes, but any holiness originates with Him and may be imputed to people. Just not places.

It would have been more honest of me to share this with them. Instead, my innate politeness (yes) forced me to nod and smile benignly as folk shared their perceptions of the spirituality of place. Perhaps it doesn’t matter though. After all, when some of my fellow Wee Frees say after a service, ‘there was a lovely spirit in the church tonight’, I tend to think that it accompanies them wherever they go, that they have – unwittingly – brought it with them. Might the same not be true of others, who mistake it as belonging to the place in which they find themselves?

I had hoped they would be able to come to church with me in Stornoway the following Sunday, but they were all leaving the island that day. It might have helped them to see the pared-back character of our building, which I think reflects the pared-back character of our people.
What would they have made, I wonder, of the simplicity of our worship style? To preserve this picture I would, of course, have had to steer them well clear of any tambourine action that might or might not be happening in the church creche. But anyone who keeps to the church will see something quite  lovely in its truthfulness.

The Bible is foundational to our worship. It seems to me that when you fix your eyes on Jesus, through the Word, there is absolutely no need for any other ornament. Read, sung, exegeted: it is all that we require.

You could say that the Bible is, as an object, quite similar to the Christian. In and of itself, it has no spiritual value; but used by God, and transformed by the Spirit, its effect is boundless. This book has crossed continents; it has transformed lives; gone into prisons and war zones; entered hospitals and schools; spoken to the bereaved, the lonely, the frightened, and brought them comfort.

In physical terms, the Bible is just a book. By the same token, we are just bodies. It is our lot to eventually be buried in the ground, just like those tattered Bibles in Ness. But there are two very important differences.

At the latter day, all the human graves will open, and give up their dead, while the Bibles will remain buried forever.

And the other difference?

God will require the presence of His people in Heaven; but there will be no further need of His book.  By then, the Bible can also rest in peace, for its work will be over and done.

Ready for the light

Sometimes in this world, I think we receive tiny glimpses into heaven. Just like the briefest ray of sun might touch you and warm you on an otherwise gloomy day, these are precious moments which can keep us going through many difficulties.

Today, I heard news that confuses me, because I hardly know how to feel about it. One of the loveliest ladies I have ever met died last night. She has gone to be with her Lord, she is free of pain and worry, free of missing her husband, free even of old age. For all those reasons, I rejoice on her behalf. Her burden has been laid down and she can rest in the arms of her Saviour.

But heaven’s gain is most decidedly our loss. We are only human, and we will miss her from our midst. Her family who loved her so much and cared for her so well have now to find their way from here onwards without her wisdom, her kindness and her strength. The particular beauty of this situation, however, is that she herself equipped them very well to deal with the temporary separation that must be theirs.

She had helped all her children come to know her Saviour as their own and to know Him better still at times through her own lovely witness. Lately, knowing that her time with them was growing short, she could rest on the knowledge that the same Comforter who had been with her would also be with her loved ones.

Much as they cared for her, they are in infinitely better hands. He has entered into their grief and, better still, He knows its purpose. It is the ultimate comfort for every Christian at times like these. I can testify to His steadfastness myself, and it never wavers or dims.

The last time I spoke to Rachel, the lady in question, was a week ago. I had a feeling, as I drove home, that I would not see her again in this world. She always seemed to me to be a little too good for it anyway. Not, I must add, in any kind of lofty, impossibly pious way. Let’s not forget that the lady was from Ness and way too authentic to be a plaster saint. It was just impossible – even for me – to be a bad person in her company, or to believe that there was much badness in anyone else.

She was a very wise and seasoned Christian, and I regret not talking more with her. I could have learned such a lot. But we shared many lovely moments and even the last time I saw her, we had such a laugh over . . . well, that will have to remain a secret for now.

Near the start of her battle with cancer, I spent a couple of hours in her company, though. It was an enriching experience just to be with her. She did not wallow in self-pity, nor speak much about the illness at all. It was typical of her that her main concern was for everyone else, and that she maintained an interest in others right up until the end. I have never known anyone to be so much in love with people. But that was because she walked so closely with her Lord.

We have been aware for some time that this moment of parting was swiftly approaching.  Visitors came to, and went from, her home just as they always have, but there was something extra, something different this time.

On the Sunday night before the Stornoway communion, I was privileged to share a time of worship with her and a small group of others in her home. She looked serenely beautiful as she bravely pointed out the verses of psalm that she wished us to sing. And the singing was . . . well, out of this world. There were only six of us in that room, but the sound produced was immense in every sense. It seemed as though we were accompanying her down to the water’s edge, and were afforded a glimpse of what awaits in that haven we all desire to see.

Ever since I heard that she had taken her leave of us for now, I have been thinking of these words, penned by Calum and Rory MacDonald:

Long ago she knew someone who told her
All the things she’d done in life
Now she’s waiting in the morning fields
Ready for the light

We grieve, not as those who have no hope, but as those who have watched a loved one go on home without us. As natural human beings, we miss them from our lives; as believers, our grief is more like cianalas for that better country that awaits us all.