Immovable Object, Irresistible Force?

In his excellent, ‘Lewis: A History of the Island’, the late Donald MacDonald makes the following comment about the churchgoing people of his native land:

‘The religious communities in Lewis are extremely devout. In addition to the two two-hour services held on Sundays, there are midweek prayer meetings. There are also special meetings for communicants and, every year, two communion services are held by each congregation, one in the Spring, and one in the Autumn’.

I would question whether spending six or so hours per week in public worship is any great sign of devotion. It is, rather, indicative of the extent to which other things fill our time – work and family life being the principal distractions when the above was written.

And yet, my own description of church life would be little different today. In a typical week, I attend church twice on Sundays, each service going no more than ten or fifteen minutes over the hour. Mid-week, the prayer meeting lasts for about the same length of time. Our congregation marks the sacrament of communion four times a year, with special preparatory services each time.

We are, as a churchgoing people, more like the world than we used to be, in that we spend less time in community with one another than in years gone by. The spontaneous house gatherings have all but gone, just as the unannounced visitor who would enter your home without knocking is also a thing of the past. In both the Christian community, and the secular world of Lewis, opportunities for the young (in experience, perhaps, as well as years) to learn from their elders have diminished. They come together in neither the taigh-cèilidh nor the taigh-adhraidh.

Our young people are no longer growing up in a secure environment, where God is the acknowledged Creator of all things, in whose hand we rest. They are increasingly encouraged to figure things out for themselves, to look to science – in all things, essentially, to rest on their own wisdom, or the untested wisdom of self-declared wise men.

I am always suspicious of people who admit to there being no higher authority than their own, anyway. Frankly, I don’t know how they can suggest such a thing with a straight face.

But the lack of understanding cuts both ways. I don’t get where they are coming from and they, as is becoming all too apparent, really do not know what Christianity is either.

I don’t want to get into another controversy here. Recent experience has taught me that there is not a lot of secular tolerance of my Christian standpoint; reading and reflection has taught me that this is because the greatest opponents of my faith are people who think they understand it, but don’t.

So, I thought that I would try to lay out, as graciously as may be, what it is I believe, and why.

If there are still any secularists reading my blog after I so offended (and, apparently ‘intimidated’) them with my thoughts on the emptiness of their creed, I would like them to make a bit more effort to understand that my refusal to compromise is not personal; I am not saying, ‘I refuse’, I am saying ‘I cannot’.

A Christian is someone who is persuaded that Christ willingly died for them, and in being resurrected that He defeated death so that it could no longer claim any hold over His followers. The eternal life to which a believer is reborn is spiritual, and it begins the moment they accept Christ as their Saviour. Professing faith – in Lewis, usually ‘going forward’ or becoming a church member – simply means that you are outwardly declaring your oneness with Christ. Inwardly, the believer experiences a deepening spiritual relationship with God through Christ. The more you know Him, the more you want to know Him.

As a Christian, I am aware of God acting in my life – of His interventions on my behalf, of His protection, and of His rebuke. I communicate with Him through prayer; He communicates with me through the Bible and through His providence and, indeed, His people.

Without Christ’s willingness to be the sacrifice for my sin, I would be leading a bleak life in a world without hope. If I had not accepted that same Christ as my Saviour, I would be leading an ultimately meaningless existence with an end destination whose name is desperately unfashionable, but whose reality is undiminished: Hell. Because, despite my inherent unworthiness, He has redeemed me from that eventuality, and because of His gracious dealings with me more generally, I feel immense love towards Him.

I am fully aware that this sounds hilarious to the unbeliever; I was once pretty nonplussed by it all myself.

So, I maintain a position of obedience to Christ, not because I think myself perfect, but because I know that I am not, and never could be. I am obedient to Him because I love Him, and want to please Him. In that light, Sunday is a special day for me because, untramelled by working day cares, I can focus on that relationship with Him, and fellowship with His people. It is God’s gift to us – not a burden to be borne, but a privilege to be enjoyed in the fulfilment of our destiny as people.

That destiny is that we should glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Whether we accept this or not, it is fact. And it is such a relief when we finally accept it, giving up our pointless rebellion that leads nowhere good.

I don’t write what I write, ministers don’t preach what they preach, in order to upset anyone. It really isn’t about power, or control: it’s about love. We have something so wonderful that we want everyone else to share it too.

Not because we’re nice, or good but because He has shown us how to love others, simply by loving us first.

Coming Out of the Wilderness

Among the many things we don’t do in the Free Church – joy, love, peace, freedom, feminism – apparently we are not much into marking Easter either. So I’m told.

We don’t festoon the church with fluffy chicks, or put bunny ears on the elders; and we don’t exit the church en masse to roll eggs down the staran after the Easter Sunday service. The Wee Frees, you would think, are the ideal denomination for an Easter bonnet competition but, well, they’d all look sort of the same, wouldn’t they – black and devoid of fol-de-rols?

Of course, we do mark Easter, in the sense that we have hung onto the heart of it. Next weekend, in Stornoway, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper – it is a sacrament, dispensed for remembrance of His death, and so that those who believe in Him will meditate upon the benefits they have derived from His sacrifice and, based on that, reaffirm their commitment to Him and the debt they owe.

When, at the beginning of the Supper, the presiding minister utters the words, ‘On the night that He was betrayed . . .’ I shiver. Nowhere else, in no other context could these words be both an accusation of guilt and a proclamation of freedom to the same person. But because Christ died and rose again for us, for the unworthy, we feel both the guilt of His crucifixion, and the freedom in His resurrection.

In other faith traditions, the period of Lent – beginning on February 14th this year, and ending on March 29th – will be observed. My first encounter with it was in school when a classmate from Barra was eating blocks of jelly during our morning interval. I asked her why and she told me that she had given up sweets for Lent. Being teenagers, none of us had much idea of what self-sacrifice was, and the jelly was a good substitute for her, while she technically kept her Lenten vow.

But I’m more than twenty years older now and I still have the same problem with dying to self that my jelly-eating school friend did. As a Christian, I should be working harder to subdue the inner voice that shouts, ‘what about me?’

Recently, I have been subject to some criticism for my beliefs. My last blog touched something of a nerve and the unbelieving community in Lewis, alongside a few professing adherents, were outraged by what I said. Well, no, sorry, let me rephrase that. They were outraged by what I am; no one actually critiqued the writing, unless you consider words like ‘disgusting’ and ‘rude’ a critique (I don’t).

The slurs are mainly inaccurate, but I am not going to bore you with that here. One very kind Christian lady whom I have not yet met, messaged me to point out that people who resort to personal attack when they have never met you, are merely highlighting the fact that they are spiritually bereft. Comments on my personality, lack of Christlikeness (how true), lack of manners . . . well, they are meaningless when they come from strangers.

Some of the arrows hit home, however, as they will do. This is a vulnerable time of year for me. I don’t say that to garner sympathy, nor to claim that I am a victim – I am not and never have been that. But I do make myself suffer. For a little while, I dwelt on the fact that there was no Donnie to make it better; I wallowed in self-pity and the memories of three years ago, when our time was running out. When the going gets tough, I often retreat into that kind of self-harm, picking at the wound, and making everything seem much blacker.

This is Lent. And Donnie’s last weeks were Lent. It is representative of forty days spent by Christ in the wilderness, preparing for ministry and resisting the Devil.

I decided last Saturday that I was going to stop blogging. Or, at least, that I was going to stop commenting on the activities of unbelievers in my own immediate vicinity. When you are alone, and feeling sorry for yourself, you can easily believe the liars. They themselves are speaking, of course, for the great liar. He seems to be fond of hanging about the wilderness.

But I don’t choose to linger there with him; and I am not alone. If the Lord doesn’t come Himself, He sends His people with encouragement and prayer. And His own Word, so full of peace and strengthening – Psalm 31, Isaiah 43 . . . and my own mantra, if a Wee Free can be allowed such a thing: ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid’?

Lent for many who observe it is a pilgrimage. It should bring us, finally, to the very foot of the cross. My journey, three years ago, brought me to rest there, in Him.

On Sunday night, I was powerfully reminded of that once more. Tempted though I had been to find a solution in myself to this latest problem, the preaching reminded me that challenging situations should not be met by doing, but by being.

Your identity, once found in Christ, remains there. He keeps you safe in His hand. Gradually, He takes you, leaning upon Himself, up out of the wilderness. If I am tempted again by the Devil to take refuge in the past, to dwell on my loss and my human frailty; or if I am slandered and inclined to be affronted, I should remember what follows Lent.

At the foot of the cross, and again at the empty tomb, we remember who He is, and who He has made us. No person, no words, no circumstance can ever undo the finished work of Christ.

 

Building Bridges to Nowhere, Sheltering Trolls.

Not far from my home in Tolsta is the famous ‘bridge to nowhere’, an incongruous monument to Lord Leverhulme’s progressive plans to develop this island. The improbably elegant bridge sits between moor and machair, never having performed the function for which it was originally intended – linking two communities divided by miles of untamed wilderness.

Leverhulme thought that his ideas for Lewis were going to bring prosperity and ease of life for a people who had just come through the Great War and suffered the unimaginable tragedy of the ‘Iolaire’, only to be forgotten by the government which had promised homes fit for heroes. The new landlord was filled with philantrophic design, planning to give these hard-pressed people a shiny, modern island.

But they didn’t want his ideas. They didn’t agree with his vision of progress. All they wanted was what they were used to – crofting and the traditional life with which they had grown up. Eventually, Leverhulme understood that he was beaten and retired from the scene with good grace.

Scroll back a few centuries, to 1598, when King James VI high-handedly granted ownership of Lewis by Crown Charter to a group of gentlemen from Fife. The plan was that they would colonise and thereby civilize the island, and the islanders. They would bring in the culture of the outside world and the local barbarians would be forced to conform.

The local barbarians were not in favour of this plan. They razed the new settlement to the ground and forced the interlopers out. King James was outraged and denounced the people of Lewis as ignorant and barbaric.

Well, perhaps they were, but they knew that no one should be able to tell them what to do with their birthright. Centuries of doing things their own way, including the glory days of Tighearnas nan Eilean, the mediaeval Lordship of the Isles, had left them with no appetite to see their cultural heritage further dismantled by the Scottish king or anyone else so wholly ignorant of the Gaelic world and its ways.

Leverhulme gave up when he knew he was beaten; the Fife Adventurers had to be driven away, but both have something in common. They approached Lewis with a mind to ‘improve’ it, giving no thought to whether their idea of progress concurred with that of the people.

Cultural imperialism, they call it. When the representatives of the dominant culture tell those of the minority one that their views do not count, that they are imagining threat where it does not exist, that their interpretation of their own identity is mistaken . . . what else are we to call it?

And yes, I am talking about what is happening in Lewis right now. It needs saying again and again, because I just don’t think it has been taken seriously enough.

Some people in our community believe this is just a wee spat on the internet – the likes of me stupidly debating with trolling secularists who don’t even live in Lewis. There is a creeping, insidious – and let’s call a spade exactly what it is – lying narrative being used by people who call themselves ‘ secularists’ but are actually just negative and bitter enemies of Christ.

They tell us Lewis is centuries behind everywhere else, that we have been duped by a power-hungry church and, like the sheep we are, have followed blindly wherever the ministers have wanted to take us.

It offends me beyond words that anyone thinks that this is acceptable, or that it should go unchallenged.

Christianity does not consist of staying silent when God is maligned by ignorant people; it consists of offering them the truth, that they might have the same chance of being corrected that we were blessed to get. Oh, they will call you names for it. They will say that you too are ignorant, narrow-minded – closed-minded, even. Your intelligence and your integrity will be called into question.

One of them almost silenced me recently by calling me ‘publicly pious’. It would be a deliciously apt way for an unbeliever to shut my mouth, wouldn’t it? By making me believe that my witness is nothing more than Pharisaic.

My silence is what would make me a Pharisee, however. If I opted to remain quiet now, I would be caring more for what my reputation is before men; and I wouldn’t half seem like the ideal meek, quiet Christian – the kind the unbelievers want.

They would love us to be quiet and stand aside; they want us to be ashamed of who we are. Most ludicrous of all, they will have you to believe that they are reasonable, seeking ‘compromise’. You know, that thing where I want the door closed, you want it ajar, so we compromise and have it half-open.

I am not justifying myself to them. They have their opinion of me, which is neither here nor there. But I do have some concern for what other Christians make of everything that is going on. And them I do owe some kind of explanation as to why so much of my writing lately has been on this theme.

This is not a war of words only. Nor is it just happening online – it is having negative and divisive consequences for this community. Our Saviour and His church are being maligned. We, His followers, expect abuse for His sake. But that does not mean we allow lies about who we are in Him to go unchallenged, in case those lies should become a stumbling-block to any as yet outside.

The secularist manifesto in Lewis suggests that they are about unity and progress, while the church is about power and control of the 19th century kind. All I am saying is beware, because theirs is exactly the kind of bridge that leads to nowhere.

And, if I’m not mistaken, it shelters the very worst kind of troll.

Wee Free Frankenstein

This time last year, I was a sinner saved by grace, marvelling at the year of blessings I’d enjoyed since coming out for Christ. Today, I am writing my one hundredth blog, almost a year on from where it all began – aptly enough, at the Stornoway communion.

When I met the man who would somehow become my blogging mentor, I was minding my own business, enjoying tea and fellowship and – more than likely – one of the house special pancakes. We discussed other subjects, I think, before we got round to talk of blogging.
‘You should think consider getting your thoughts down in a blog of your own’, he said, casually and unwittingly creating a monster every bit as uncontrollable as the one cobbled together by Dr Frankenstein. I am one of those dim-witted and suggestible Wee Free women you’ve heard tell of and so, I duly trotted off home to dream of blogging.

Only when the communion weekend was over could I even begin to think of beginning. I didn’t want to do anything controversial which might bring the wrath of the Session down on my head, so I wrote an article about the Free Church and the fairies.

I had long been thinking it was high time we aired the positive influence of churches like the Wee Frees (other denominations are available) on our community. The church had not, historically, engaged in debate about its demeanour or influence, maintaining a dignified silence despite heavy and frequently unwarranted criticism.

Someone else less dignified was going to have to speak up for it. And I owed that much.

You see, this time last February, I was able to look back on almost two years without my husband, and see where the church had been his substitute. I was able to appreciate the anchorage it had provided, the purpose, the kindness. Its loving arms had held me up through those hard, hard months. Yes, it was a challenge to be there sometimes, but it was more of a challenge not to be.

And so the blog really began as a labour of love. Love for my community, for my heritage, for my church and, most of all, for my Lord.

I don’t think I appreciated just how much those loves would upset other people. You see, even although I have no power except the one vote that we all get on gaining the requisite age, my opinions seem revoltingly offensive to some. All I have is this blog, through which I continue to voice my loves. It offends me when people say of Lewis that there is no distinctive culture. Somehow, I feel like Scarlett O’ Hara slapping her petulant sister, and saying, ‘don’t say you hate Tara – it’s the same as hating ma and pa’.

It saddens me that in this supposedly enlightened age, I have to explain that loving my heritage – Gaelic, crofting, Free Church – does not make me a bigot. I do not despise people who are different; but I do question why my difference, the distinctiveness of Lewis has to be a problem to solve, not an attribute to celebrate.

I am sad that a narrative has crept in which is entirely critical of this island. It’s backward, it’s repressed, it’s secretive, it’s got a dark side. Well, maybe I’m just the delusional closed mind some say I am, but that is not my Lewis.

My Lewis is warm and welcoming. It is that particular brand of island humour which manages to be sharp and gentle all at once. Lewis people are polite, never ones to push themselves forward or demand a hearing. And they are unfailingly kind. This is an island of hands clasped in friendship, of ‘placing’ one another, of being interested. When you die in Lewis, there will always be someone to attend your funeral.

We respect the dead, but crucially, we don’t wait until then – we respect the living too.

Blogging has been a revelation, then. Like a poultice, it seems to have drawn an awful lot of poison to the surface. It is no surprise in one respect: Christians are prepared to be hated, after all, for the sake of who they follow. But He does not send us out into the field unprepared, or unarmed. Their slings and arrows may graze, but the wounds they leave, like their arguments, are always superficial.

Far and away the greatest revelation, though, has not been the hatred – the anonymous messages, the disrespectful language, the bullying; it has been the fullness of God’s love that I have experienced through writing the blog.

He has brought me into contact with so many of His people through it. These people have encircled me with prayer and upheld me in all manner of trouble – even, I suspect, though they sometimes didn’t know it. Messages of support will come when I am on the point of giving in; a portion of Scripture shared when my grief is too heavy a burden; links to music that will uplift my heart when it is struggling to find joy.

I learned something so important last year, which I know I have alluded to before. Why wouldn’t I – it was life-changing; I will share it every chance I get. And I must apologise to the troll who accused me recently of getting all my thinking from the pulpit, but this DID emanate from just that source.

In all of our trials, we are not to be worried how we will maintain our faith in God; we are to see them as a means to experience more of His love for us.

I have experienced His love so abundantly that one hundred blogs more would not do it justice. He has never left my side, and I will not leave His. Where His name is trodden on and where His church and His people, who are also my people, are spat at, I will also go to be spat at.

Love me, despise me, ignore me – I am not going away.

 

Fighting Fire With Love

After the morning service last Sunday, I drove past An Lanntair, where a small group of journalists had gathered. The arts centre is opening for three Sundays in the first quarter of the year, in an attempt to establish demand for the particular brand of entertainment it provides. This is newsworthy, I imagine, because people from outwith Lewis lap up news stories about how weird the island is, and how anachronistic. We get the same thing with Gaelic too; we’re used to it.

Sadly, there are local people who all too happily play up to the stereotypes, however, telling the media what they want to hear. They talk broadly of oppression and bullying by the church, of ministers apoplectic with rage because they are losing their death-grip on the local populace. One person even tried to tell me that the opening of leisure facilities on a Sunday would alleviate social exclusion.

Bear in mind that one of the main causes of social exclusion in Scotland is poverty. And bear in mind, also, that a film ticket for An Lanntair costs £7.

But, flawed logic notwithstanding, Sunday was an epiphany for me. I found myself driving home that afternoon, reflecting on the plight of young people in a community which offers them scant opportunities. Leisure facilities are few and far between, and access to these often prohibitively expensive. Political corruption further restricts their chances of personal development and fulfilment. And the church does not want to loosen its hold on them.

The Eastern Orthodox church, that is.

You see, I didn’t go straight home from church but, instead, listened to a presentation from two young Christians to our Sunday School kids, about their trip to Moldova last year. They spoke of a country which is difficult to live in, a society which hardens people because they have to put self-protection ahead of anything else. The teenagers they met at the church camp, funded by donations from Lewis, were getting a week out of a sometimes challenging home life.

The speaker laughed as he recalled seeing the campers arriving. He expected primary school age children, but instead was shocked to see tall, strapping lads with beards disembark from the bus. Later, one of them threw him bodily into the swimming pool, just because he could.

In my head, I knew how the rest of this talk would go. The leaders would tell how they were intimidated by these rough teenagers, but ultimately the week went fine and they themselves returned to Lewis with a renewed sense of thankfulness for having so much, not least a safe place to live and be themselves.
I was wrong.

‘By the end of it we felt quite envious’, the speaker continued. Despite the many challenges in their lives – the poverty, the political corruption, the brutality of society – they were accomplished musicians and sportspeople, each one seemingly full of aptitude in everything they tried. And the people were generous with the little they had. Our speaker mentioned visiting old ladies in the local church congregation and he paid them the highest compliment that anyone can:
‘It was like visiting a cailleach from Lewis, we were plied with so much food’.

Triumphing over adversity; being generous with what little they have; welcoming the stranger. For those of us who are conversant with the Gospel, this is familiar territory, at least in theory. How wonderful to have it illustrated in these teenagers and their wider community; and how wonderful to hear about the tough young man, the ‘trouble’ of the group and the change which was wrought in him through closer acquaintance with Jesus.

These tough exteriors, they are cultivated by the harshness of this world – layer upon layer of resistance builds up over time so that no one can get in.

No one, that is, except the Saviour.

We are all too easily fooled by a façade, but He never is. I see only your outward demeanour, the face you choose to present; and if you try to act tough, or unconcerned about something, I will accept that is who you are.

Jesus, though, He doesn’t even see your exterior. His relationship is directly with your heart. If you are lonely, or afraid; if you are hurt, or angry, He knows.

The folk who went to Moldova were shown something startling while they were there: a fire engine which had once served Stornoway. Emergency services in Lewis and elsewhere in the Gàidhealtachd donated equipment. Works of necessity and mercy, you see, go on wherever we are in the world. Hearts in one place go out to those in another, far away.

There actually is no far away in Christ, though. If we are in Him, then we are brothers and sisters. We do for one another, not because we are good, but because He is. We love because He first loved us.

That love gives the youngsters in Moldova a chance. It is not that their lives are hard, or that they live in dire poverty; though those things are certainly true. The camp is not merely a lovely week of just being young, free from responsibilities and cares, though it is all of that also.

It is actually a chance to see the Saviour’s work in the love of strangers from Scotland. These volunteers go to Moldova, not because they believe in children’s rights to leisure, but because they believe in the children’s need of the Saviour.

They believe because they have seen it in themselves. Charity like this truly means love; how good would it be if that kind of charity really could begin at home.