Lewis Culture: An Uncivil War of Words

The letters page of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ was always something of a curiosity to me. I remember thinking many times that it was pointless to air debates about religious matters as both sides traded Biblical texts in an entrenched war of words. It managed, somehow, to be strongly-worded without – often, anyway – becoming offensive. People could have a debate about the things which separated them, and then change the subject back to the things which unified them.

Now, however, people get offended so easily. Which would be fine, if they didn’t then act as though being offended is a terminal illness. My advice if something offends you, is this: ride it out, bottle it up and wait; because as parents up and down the land used to say before the thought police put an end to such child cruelty, you’ll soon be given something to really cry about.

Using much the same logic as I once did, the editor of the ‘Gazette’ has decided not to allow any further letters on matters of faith.  I have some sympathy with her motives because, I’m guessing, she has given up hope of moving the debate on. It has probably become tedious, repetitive and circular, to her way of thinking, and liable to scunner the readership.

Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, though, the correspondence page of that newspaper used to have a great deal more religious content. I am tempted to say that the letters provided the only really lively content in the whole publication. People would read them and roll their eyes, or read them and have a healthy discussion over the dinner table, or just skip past them to the obituaries; but they didn’t cause the ripples any kind of faith-based debate seems to be causing in Lewis at the moment.

While the ‘Gazette’ circulation is nothing like it used to be, with the paper now being local in name only, it was at least available as a forum for sharing and debating anything which islanders cared about enough. Once an editor starts censoring the permitted topics for correspondence, however, I think we have to accept that the tide of intolerance is indeed lapping at our feet.

We have sleepwalked towards this state of affairs. What was once a mild and usually polite disagreement has become something unpleasant. Anything that has the merest hint of Christianity about it is sneered at as ‘Wee Free’ bigotry. The critics of ‘What The Church Has Done To Lewis’ (no, I don’t know either) are so well-informed that they don’t know what any of us believes, nor what it means to be a Christian, though they are quick to flag any  apparent lapses in ‘true Christian’ behaviour.

They pride themselves on their commitment to truth and are rigorous in applying their own belief system to everything they do. And, yes, they do have a belief system. It even appears as though they are following a pseudo-presbyterian leadership structure, with their agenda driven by anyone who has internet access.

However, if they would permit me one wee piece of advice, I’d say: don’t let your leaders in Glasgow and Edinburgh dictate how you interact with your local community. Like it or not, they are patronising the secularists from the sticks, and assuming that you can’t handle things on your own patch without them. Say what you like about us Wee Frees, but at least we do our own oppressing, and rarely get the Moderator involved.

It is from this kind of outside interference that we get the sort of poorly researched nonsense which insists that Lewis is in thrall to the Calvinist patriarchy. What I don’t understand is why none of the local chapter of secularists is offended by suggestions that this is a community without the capability of original thought or, indeed, sincere belief. Where, in the midst of all their supposed care for the Western Isles, is the one dissenting voice that will oppose these kinds of slurs? Why is ‘brainwashing’ by the church so offensive, but the secular mantra of, ‘there is no such thing as Lewis culture’ goes unopposed from within their own ranks?

I’ll tell you why. The de-localising of culture in Lewis, the nay-saying and the outside interference from those who will not have to live with the consequences of their meddling is part of a wider stategy. You see, Christianity has informed and shaped these communities for so long that it is fused to the local way of life. And no, I am not claiming that every Lewis person is a Christian, nor even that every Lewis person is a churchgoer. Sadly, there are those in every generation who decide that the truth of the Gospel is not for them. But it has influenced them, because it has helped make this island what it is.

Generations of self-styled island atheists have talked of Christianity as a foreign creed and of the Bible as a hotchpotch of Middle Eastern fairytales. ‘Fragments of the philosophy of Geneva’ was how the poet, Derick Thomson derided the sort of Calvinism which his home island embraced. They despised what they saw as alien intrusion into Gaelic culture.

Which of them, now, will call for the tone of debate to change? Who among them is truthful enough to say that this is a conversation that can continue in a civil manner between believers and unbelievers in Lewis, just as it always has – robust, but never strident.

I think that the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ has made a mistake. If this debate is going to be played out only on social media, directed by the scions of the National Secular Society, what, then, of local culture? Who will speak up for it against malign and alien influence now?

The Sofa & the Ghost of Christmas Past

Sometimes, you know, church can be uncomfortable. Oh, I don’t mean the pews: Calvinists are genetically adapted to fit those. If anything, the addition of those pesky cushions has interfered with nature. No, I mean more of a spiritual discomfort – the kind of thing that starts like a niggling little itch, but finally develops into a full-blown ache.

We like being uplifted by the preaching. Then, we can sing the psalms with gusto and pray fervently along with whoever is leading. And we go home feeling good and optimistic. When everything comes together and reaffirms that Jesus is everything and you are His, yes, of course, who wouldn’t be happy? Sometimes, you can actually see on people’s faces – their eyes shine – that this has worked on their hearts.

Other times, though, the sermon can prick your conscience. I had one of those moments this week when the minister accused me of worldliness, right in front of everyone.

Now, in case you’re imagining this is some archaic Wee Free thing where the black clad and be-collared minister fixes you with a fiery glare, and shouts, ‘woman, ye are a worldly sinner’, think again. That isn’t how it works in the real church, only in films and newspaper articles by people who have never actually been inside one.

In fact, when a minister is preaching, we are not really hearing the man. Yes, it is his physical voice, and words that he has chosen, but we are to believe that this is God speaking through them. Faith comes by hearing the Word preached and, as the Bible itself tells us repeatedly, faith is not of ourselves.

For me, a warning against worldliness was very timely. I cannot do the whole sermon justice here, but the counsel was not to become too attached to the things of this world, as John warned in his first letter. These things are, as we know, transient, and it’s a very bad idea to tether your life and soul to them.

Now, don’t laugh, but the reason I squirmed at this was because of my sofa. It’s a chestnut brown, soft leather chesterfield. I have had it two years and I have been very careful of it, gently vacuuming it each week, and wincing at the mere sight of people actually sitting in it.

Well, I don’t know who would want to sit in it now. Last Saturday, I trustingly and naively, left Mr Roy in his basket in the sitting room while I went to church. I came home, made a big fuss of how good he’d been, fed him a steak bake and then actually went into the room. There was a large puddle on the seat. Oh, he’d very thoughtfully chucked the cushions onto the floor (presumably so as not to ruin them), before urinating on the one seat in the room least able to cope with such an assault.

And I was livid. You know, in that unreasonable way that disregards the fact you’re addressing a dog and not a person who has done this to annoy you. I told him it was no wonder he’d had so many different homes, that he was unloveable, ungrateful, smelly, thoughtless (!) and even, with unwarranted hyperbole, that he was a ‘menace to society’.

It was several days before I could bear to look at him. I forced myself to pat him and speak civilly, because deep down I knew he had no idea what was wrong, but I was still very upset.

About a sofa. Yes, I do realise how shallow that makes me sound. By Wednesday, I had actually got over it, more or less, having started enquiries about getting it professionally cleaned. I knew that once it was clean again, I could forgive Mr Roy.

That’s why, on Wednesday evening, God accused me of worldliness. Well, not just because of the sofa, but it serves to represent everything else that gets too much place in my life. I recalled what Thomas a Kempis said in a book that has been a favourite since my teenage years, ‘The Imitation of Christ’:

‘To triumph over self is the perfect victory. For whoever so controls himself that his passions are subject to his reason, and his reason wholly subject to Me, is master both of himself and of the world’.

There is no one harder to conquer than yourself because there is no one more likely to allow you moral latitude. But I have begun an important lesson. Perhaps I need to see Mr Roy’s intervention like the visit of Scrooge’s first ghost who, frustrated with the old miser’s lifestyle, called him, ‘man of the worldly mind’.

It is fine to have nice things. And, it is good to take care of those things, being grateful to God for providing them. I do thank him for my comfortable home, and more so when I read of the destitution often faced by widows in the past. But, there is a disconnect between my thanksgiving and my attitude. My house, my furniture, my possessions . . . none of those should come before obedience to God, and trying sincerely to imitate Christ in a life of holiness.

Besides, I love Mr Roy for himself, as much as for the fact that he was Donnie’s faithful companion till the end. He is irreplaceable. And his little misdemeanour reminds me of something I must never lose sight of:

God loved me, even before the stain had been cleansed. If His forgiveness had been predicated on my being clean, I would have been beyond hope forever.

 

Wee Frees and Wise Men – Not Mutually Exclusive

When the Calvinists of the Free Church in Stornoway are not busy oppressing the people who want to exercise their free will by swinging a golf club on Sundays, we like to sit around, oppressing one another. Old Christians try to prevent young Christians from enjoying themselves, men keep women in their place (the kitchen), and, I suppose, the ministers whack the other elders on the knuckles with a wooden ruler if they overstep the mark. Our times of fellowship are an endurance test, with the first person to laugh put outside by the bins.

It is remotely possible, though, that we are just harsh and humourless by nature. I mean, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame everything about us on Calvin. The atheist intelligentsia has been doing that for a long time – they blame him for destroying Gaelic culture, for taking art and music from people’s lives and they blame him for stealing Christmas.

John Calvin, a.k.a. The Grinch.

There was, it is true, a tendency among the Reformers to distance themselves from these holy days which had been so much a feature of the Roman Catholic church. Nonetheless, Luther permitted its observance and Calvin . . . well, Calvin’s position was not exactly as it has been portrayed.

The celebration of Christmas had already been abolished in Geneva before he went there, and it was later reinstated during his temporary expulsion from the city. By the time he returned, Calvin had either mellowed somewhat, or had not been strongly opposed to it in the first place, but he stated his intention to allow Christ’s birthday to be marked as the people had become accustomed to doing.

Knox shared Calvin’s reservations about the celebration of a day not explicitly prescribed in scripture. Christmas was eventually banned in Scotland by an Act of Parliament in 1640. Despite its repeal 48 years later, it continued as a very low-key festival, not becoming a public holiday until 1958.

Now, however, more and more Presbyterian churches in Scotland are tentatively marking the religious significance of Christmas. In what looks like a binning of the rule-book, the dour men in black are decking the halls. Or something similar.

Well, what does the rule book say about the matter?  The Westminster Confession of Faith says that, in addition to the Lord’s Day, there is room for. ‘solemn fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner’.

It is the manner of the celebration that matters: the spirit in which it is done and the intention behind it. If the primary objective is to point to Christ, to glorify God, then the marking of Christmas is entirely compatible with the ethos of every Calvinist church.

Of course, the Westminster Confession of Faith is itself based on Scripture, and it is back there we must go if there is any doubt about the rightness of such a move. One of the objections levelled by people like Knox himself was that the Bible does not offer any authority that December 25th is the birth-date of our Saviour. Far be it from me to call poor Mr Knox a pedant, but . . . Surely the material point here is not when the Son of God was born, but that He was born. Only last weekend, we reflected in church upon the startling fact that, in the storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee, it was God who slept, in the person of His Son. That was the real miracle – that God, as John Betjeman wrote, was man in Palestine.

He was born, then, and we have several accounts of how this came about. In John 6:38, He Himself addresses the why, ‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me’.

From that incarnation stems everything that we have as believers, starting with hope. Hope was born the day He came into the world, and gathered in strength towards the cross and finally the triumph of the empty tomb. It is because of God incarnate that we have been redeemed from the bondage of our own sin and the certainty of death.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I cannot think of anything more worthy of celebration.

Not celebrating as the world celebrates. The bloated excess of Christmas as it is marked and commercialized these days would turn the least sensitive of stomachs. In that feast of self-indulgence, all that remains of Christ is the name – and there are those who would expunge even His name from the proceedings.

Last year, Christmas Day coincided with the Lord’s Day and we concentrated in church upon Mary’s Song, and upon the importance of unwrapping and making our own the gift which God has given us in His only begotten Son.

This is the message of Christmas when told properly. The world took Christ, it beat Him and abused Him, and it finally crucified Him.

Now, it is doing the same with His very name.

It was appropriated, and all the meaning with which Christmas is redolent has been leached out, to be replaced by a consumerist frenzy.

Advent is all about waiting. It is about silence. And it is about anticipation of the greatest event our world has ever known. This year, I am grateful that I will be able to draw aside with God’s people, singing His praise for what He did all those Christmases ago:

Sacred Infant, all divine

What a tender love was thine

Thus to come from highest bliss

Down to such a world as this.

Advent, òrduighean and the return of the King

This Sunday, I hope to be doing two things at once. In Stornoway Free Church, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will be dispensed. Those who sit at the table – and, I think, many who don’t – will remember the death of Christ. They will think back to Calvary, and they will begin to measure His love towards them.

But the service does not last long enough for anyone to finish that calculation. His love is the very definition of immeasurable.

Sunday also marks the beginning of Advent. It is the beginning of the waiting, the anticipation. There are four Sundays between now and Christmas Day, counting forward to the date which marks the birth of Jesus Christ.

Was He actually born on December 25th? Does it matter? Like the Creation, it is the same miracle, however and whenever it took place. Those who try to punch holes in the details of timescale and location are guilty of a very human smallness. They try to shrink God to fit their limited vision also, but He will not be contained. It’s the Devil who lurks in the detail, after all.

God is in the greatness, the unparalleled truth, the soaring wonder. He became one of us in order to show how we should live. And to die so that we would not.

We eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of Him. It is not a forlorn ritual, but a meaningful act which brings before us the always remarkable fact that He was perfect, and sacrificed Himself for sinners because He was perfect. Everything about Him is eternal, an unbroken circle without end or beginning .

So, because that is true, we have to look at communion as more than just an act of remembrance . He did not stop at dying, so we should not stop at commemorating His death. We are to mark His death only until He comes again.

It is fitting, then, is it not, that we should partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of Advent? We are remembering, but we are also waiting. This is not a counting down to the lowly birth in a stable which ends in the horror and ignominy of crucifixion: no,it is something far more wonderful.

Christmas is not something we have traditionally marked in the Free Church. At home, yes, but not in church, not the way other denominations might. Historically, there were no hymns sung, and so no carols either. We do not light candles, nor bring greenery in from outdoors, nor set up nativity scenes in front of the suidheachan mòr.

These, though, are only the outward trappings of Advent. They make a pretty enough show, but are not in themselves Christmas. It may be a festival of tinsel and lights and ‘tissued fripperies’ as John Betjeman put it, but if it is to have any meaning for us, it is not to be found in any of those details.

Bring together, though, the remembering of the Lord’s Supper and the waiting of Advent; then you have something.

Remember Jesus, the baby born into a world already unwilling to accommodate Him. Think of the danger this tiny, helpless child was in. Imagine the hope vested in that infant Jesus, and the wonder of those wise men from the East.

It is lovely to dwell on that Christmas long ago because the people who were walking in darkness suddenly saw a great light. There were angels, hosannas and everything was suffused with hope.

We love that, as human beings – a happy, hopeful story. No one wants to see the dark figure lurking, just in the edge of the frame. Our world has captured the baby Jesus and placed Him in amber, forever a golden hope for mankind.

Remember, though, that He came to die. Remember that first Christmas as something which was always destined to culminate in crucifixion thirty-three years later.

But remember also, that was not the end. In fact, for believers, that was the real beginning in many ways.

So, we should certainly look forward to Jesus. When He comes again, it will not be as a powerless infant. All of that, pretty though it is, is done with. This time, we await our King.

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine